Maurice Sheehan, Ex-staff member, Unison
I recently read Unison Bureaucracy Unmasked: The Defend the Four Story, a restrained account of a shameful episode in the history of Unison. Congratulations to Glenn Kelly, Onay “Kaz” Kasab, Suzanne Muna and Brian Debus (the four) for successfully challenging the decision to ban them from office for periods of three to five years.
The four were banned for producing a leaflet that challenged, in good faith, decisions made by the union’s Standing Orders Committee (SOC) to the 2007 Annual Delegate Conference.
It is remarkable how some senior Unison officers, with access to the best labour lawyers and anti-racist education programmes, could formulate an allegation of “giving racist offence” against the four. The four used a cartoon of the famous ‘three monkeys’ on the leaflet to depict the SOC’s attitude towards controversial conference motions.
On this allegation the Employment Tribunal (ET) stated: “it cannot be said that any reasonable person would or should have realised that the cartoon would cause racial offence, and that not to do so was somehow ‘careless'”.
This case cost Unison far more than the compensation awarded and the legal costs. From 2007 to 2013, members and activists in London left the union in protest at the treatment of the four. Precious resources were diverted to place the three branches that the four belonged to into administration. The ET said the decision to do this “was done in a way to cause humiliation” to the four.
The ET also awarded aggravated damages against Unison for its treatment of Glenn Kelly, which was deemed “high-handed, malicious and oppressive”.
I am told that following the final resolution of the ET case the union commissioned an internal report. The finalised report remains confidential. In the current climate of austerity we need more union activists, not less. Let’s hope lessons were learned and that everyone is treated with dignity and respect when participating in the union’s democratic structures.