Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/528/3986
Defend the 4
Four members of the trade union, Unison, all members of the Socialist Party, are facing disciplinary charges from their union with disciplinary hearings taking place from 22 to 24 April.
These charges relate to a leaflet given out at last year's Unison conference which criticised the standing orders committee (SOC) for ruling out a third of motions, many of which were controversial.
This case is one of the worst examples of how undemocratic the leadership of Unison is becoming and what lengths they are prepared to go to silence any opposition or challenge to their rule.
However, they will not succeed once ordinary Unison members hear the details and see that it is clear that this is an attack on union democracy.
The four members are Glenn Kelly, NEC member and Bromley branch secretary; Onay Kasab, Greenwich branch secretary; Suzanne Muna, Housing Corporation branch secretary and Brian Debus, Hackney branch chair.
A fifth branch officer, Mathew Waterfall, Hackney branch secretary was investigated but will not face any charges. This means that it will only be Socialist Party members facing disciplinary charges.
All four have outstanding records as trade unionists who vigorously defend their members and have always opposed and campaigned against racism.
For example Onay Kasab (known as Kas) has led a magnificent struggle, alongside other stewards in Greenwich, against the single status job evaluation and regrading scheme. This campaign overturned huge cuts and won equal pay without any member suffering reductions in pay or conditions. This branch has grown from 1,500 to 3,000 members and shows what can be achieved with a bold leadership.
Yet Kas was criticised last June for his article on single status which appeared in The Socialist. The Unison regional head of local government quoted from Kas's article that he would "reject any proposals that lead to the loss of a single penny from a single Unison member".
She stressed that this wording "needs to be qualified by an explanation that, in achieving equality, it may be necessary for some members to take a drop in pay to achieve this." The victory in Greenwich proves that it is possible to stop wage reductions.
Suzanne Muna has also been attacked by her employers, the Housing Corporation, and has been given a final warning for representing one of her members. The Housing Corporation is a government agency that funds 'affordable housing' and regulates housing associations.
It is due to be replaced by two new agencies by April 2009 and the future conditions and pay of the 500 staff are under threat. Management are clearly attacking a dedicated, fighting union leader who is leading the opposition to their plans.
Brian, as Hackney Unison branch chair, has always stood by Unison members in that council for many years. He is seen as a fighter and has often been under threat by the management for his union activities.
Glenn Kelly consistently challenges the leadership in his capacity as an National Executive Council member and has a record of fighting for members' interests. In July 2007 London branches received instructions from the London regional secretary of Unison not to circulate material from Glenn urging members to reject the rotten pension deal in the ballot.
"Branches who actively campaign for a 'no' vote may be in breach of the democracy in Unison guidelines and, by implication, rule." It should be noted that the 2007 Unison conference did not discuss the pensions issue as these motions were ruled out of order.
In 2007, these four London branches of Unison put their names to a leaflet which highlighted the large number of motions which the SOC had ruled out of order and would therefore not be debated at the Unison conference in June 2007.
The leaflets were distributed outside the conference during the two-day local government sector conference but it was not until the start of the national delegate conference that a complaint was made to conference about the leaflet.
The accusation was that the leaflet was 'offensive and racist' because it contained a cartoon of the well known Buddhist proverb - 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil'.
The president of the conference announced an investigation and then allowed and supported an unsubstantiated and unjustified attack of alleged racism without giving the branches the right to respond. (The leaflet is re-printed on page 5.)
Following an investigation into the five Unison members which took place in September 2007, disciplinary charges have only been made against the four who are Socialist Party members.
The investigation report refers to the complaint that the cartoon "was offensive towards the standing orders committee in as much as it ascribed those characteristics associated with the cartoon to the standing orders committee, and by its use of monkeys was potentially racist".
However the investigation report believed that "the meaning and intention of the cartoon is ambiguous and misapplied in this case". The investigation concludes that "we are satisfied that there was no racial intent in the use of the cartoon" and that therefore this should be dealt with informally.
But this does not stop the first allegation: "That your role in the production of the leaflet 'Whose conference?' that gave racist offence to members, showed disregard for the union's aims and objectives [and was in breach of rule]".
The second allegation asserts that "your attack on the integrity of the members of the standing orders committee [was in breach of rule]" while the third allegation states: "That your responsibility for the production and distribution of the leaflet to campaign against the decisions of a democratic body within Unison, instead of using the democratic processes defined in Unison rule and standing orders [were in breach of union rules]".
Branches that want to challenge the SOC reports to the conference on why their resolutions were ruled out of order are only allowed three minutes to do so. It is absolutely consistent with normal democratic practices that branches often put out a leaflet to the conference delegates explaining to them why they think their resolutions should be put back on the agenda and therefore forewarning the delegates that the branch will be challenging the standing orders report when the conference opens and asking that delegates vote down the report.
This is therefore a clear attack on the democratic right to give out leaflets to conference delegates urging them to vote for or against certain resolutions or in the case of this leaflet asking delegates to "Vote to return these motions to the agenda". In fact many organisations regularly give out leaflets at conference putting forward their positions, often contrary to that of the leadership.
In 2007 one third of motions (50 in all) were ruled out of order. Many of these were on issues such as union democracy, the election of union officials and the Labour link. One half of all motions submitted have been ruled out of order for the 2008 conference, on issues that the Unison leadership do not want to debate.
A further charge has been levelled against Brian Debus linked to the production of the leaflet. These charges are not just an attack on these four. Other activists and branches who stand up to the leadership and challenge decisions have also been disciplined including suspensions and expulsions from the union.
Need for struggle
Unison is seen more and more as a union that is blindly following the dictates of New Labour and whose leaders do not want to rock the boat for Gordon Brown by leading a bold fight against Labour's anti-working class policies.
Unions such as the PCS, the civil servants' union, and the RMT, the railway workers' union, get results by being prepared to take action. Prison officers in the POA across the country bravely went on strike for a day last year and are facing attacks on their right to strike.
Teachers in the NUT are gearing up for a one-day strike on 24 April over pay, with further education lecturers in UCU balloting to join them. Birmingham council workers (including Unison members) are preparing to take further strike action on 12 and 24 April against a rotten single status deal.
Unison is in danger of becoming a union whose leadership does not carry out the pre-eminent task of any union - to fight for its members. Unison members need a fight for a decent pay increase that reflects the real cost of living and a real campaign to stop the cuts and privatisation in the health service and local government.
No wonder that the leadership - in the name of democracy! - is attacking the democratic rights of members to challenge the leadership.
Anger is growing among many branches about the number of motions that will not be allowed to be debated at this year's conference as well as the undemocratic decision of the union to reduce branch funding and keep more funds centrally.
Last year over 100 delegates and visitors came to the Socialist Party meeting at the Unison conference to support the witch-hunted members and expressed their anger at the attacks. Where the witch hunt is raised at Unison meetings there is shock and outrage. Motions, petitions and letters are being sent to the union head office opposing these attacks.
These four witch-hunted members are not just fighting against their possible expulsion from the union. They are also fighting for the right to continue to represent their members and, alongside others in Unison, for a democratic fighting union that can truly reflect the demands of members.
Support the campaign to defend the 4
Tuesday 15 April 7.30pm
Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London WC1
Lobby of the disciplinary hearing
Show your opposition to these attacks and give support to the four as the hearings begin
Tuesday 22 April 8.30am
Holiday Inn, Regents Park, Carburton Street, London W1 5EE
Unison members are asked to:
1. Come along to the 'Defend the 4' meeting and lobby and bring other supporters.
2. Arrange for one of the '4' to speak at your next union meeting.
3. Sign up to the protest letter and help distribute 'Defend the 4' leaflets.
4. Check out the website 'stopthewitchhunt.org.uk' for more information.
In The Socialist 8 April 2008:
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party workplace news
Post Office closures
International socialist news and analysis