How socialists fought off the witch-hunt

Defend the Four: protest against Unison witchhunt, 2009, photo Suzanne Beishon

Defend the Four: protest against Unison witchhunt, 2009, photo Suzanne Beishon   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

After six years, Unison’s national leadership has thrown in the towel over a vicious witch-hunt against four Unison activists, all Socialist Party members.

This represents a significant victory in the battle against the Unison leadership’s wider witch-hunt of left activists.

Six years ago four London branches sent motions to Unison conference. These called for a discussion on Labour Party funding, regular elections of senior paid officials of Unison and speeding up the process of balloting for strike action.

The Standing Orders Committee (SOC) ruled over 50 of all the union branches’ motions ‘out of order’, including these.

When the four branches protested, including producing a leaflet illustrated with a cartoon of the famous ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys, the leadership disgracefully sought to deflect criticism from its own undemocratic processes and attacked the four.

Outrageously the Unison leadership made false charges of unintentional racism and challenging the integrity of the SOC.

Banning orders

In 2010 the four branch officers – Suzanne Muna from the Tenant Services Authority branch, Glenn Kelly from Bromley, Onay Kasab from Greenwich, and Brian Debus from Hackney, were barred from holding any office in Unison for between two and three years.

On the same day in March 2010 as the banning orders were imposed, three of the branches were taken out of the control of their members and into regional administration.

It is estimated that the union leadership spent over £200,000 on legal fees alone and lost 1,000 members and many good activists.

The four were defended in court by Glenn Kelly and then by Nick De Marco, a barrister who agreed to do the high court work for free.

Every penny spent on lawyers was spent by Unison for themselves. Members are now rightly demanding to know who will be held to account for this illegal action and waste of union members’ money and resources.

In January 2011 an Employment Tribunal (ET) judgement forcefully rejected the allegations against the four, particularly the charge of racism.

Refusing to accept this decision, Unison then spent another £64,000 hiring a QC to appeal against the decision to an Employment Appeal Tribunal. Again they lost. They then lodged an appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Using the methods of a bullying employer, they tried to force the four to back out of defending the case they had already won twice by demanding the right to claim costs against the four if the union won. These were estimated at over £100,000 for Unison’s legal costs alone.

The four then won a significant victory when the Court of Appeal gave an order that Unison could not claim against the four even if they won. This set a legal precedent for workers with no money to fight their employers.

Lord Justice Elias described the Unison leadership’s actions as: “shabby” and asked them to: “imagine if an employer were doing this to one of your members”.

Leadership u-turn

On 20 November 2012 the union leadership did a complete u-turn. They wrote to the court to withdraw their appeal.

In doing so the union has accepted the previous courts’ decision that they acted illegally.

Despite the two court cases finding against Unison, they refused to lift the bans and reinstate the four to the positions they previously held in the union.

In fact they even tried to take another disciplinary case against Glenn Kelly for supposedly breaking a ban that the courts had already ruled to be illegal!

It was not until the Unison leadership eventually withdrew from the Court of Appeal case that they dropped the second case against Glenn and lifted the last few weeks of the ban left on Brian Debus.

Not a word of apology has been forthcoming from the union for action they now accept as illegal. Incredibly, even at the remedy hearing in May, the union hired a QC and tried to argue that, as the four were socialists and therefore used to the ‘rough and tumble of politics’, they didn’t really suffer during the last six years!

This shows the callous and arrogant approach of the union to some of the most dedicated and determined fighters in their ranks.

Their attitude to the democratic rights of members was demonstrated in the treatment of the branches.

The Bromley and Greenwich members were denied their rights to have an AGM for four years! These branches were run by unelected regional officials right up until March 2013. Consequently over 1,000 members left Unison and joined Unite.

But Glenn Kelly was recently elected branch secretary again in a branch ballot.

The two ET judgements and the costs hearing are a devastating indictment of the role of some of our union leaders and the undue influence of unelected and unaccountable paid officials.

It is a disgrace that in a time of cruel austerity that the same commitment and energy was not devoted to a fighting strategy to defend our pensions, prevent the pay freeze and stop hundreds of thousands of job losses.

Members must fight for a Unison leadership that will channel all its resources and power into action to stop all the cuts to our members’ jobs and pensions. And defend the NHS and the public services the Con-Dems are determined to destroy.

What we need is a fighting Unison leadership prepared to carry out the policy of the TUC Congress to coordinate with other unions for a 24-hour general strike.