Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/589/7583
Onay Kasab, Glenn Kelly and Brian Debus at Unison conference 2009, photo Paul Mattsson
Scandalously a Unison disciplinary committee has banned four Socialist Party members from holding office for periods from three to five years. This must be met by stepping up the Defend the Four campaign, starting with a lobby of Unison headquarters on 30 July at 12 noon.
Defend the Unison Four!
Four outstanding Unison activists - members of the Socialist Party - have been found guilty on trumped up disciplinary charges and banned from holding office in Unison. Onay Kasab and Glenn Kelly have been banned for three years, Suzanne Muna for four years and Brian Debus for five years. The bans will come into effect if an appeal hearing later this year upholds them.
Their alleged crimes? According to the union leadership, it's because they produced a leaflet (with the support of their branches) that attacked the integrity of the Unison conference standing orders committee (SOC) and "gave racist offence to members".
In fact, the leaflet, produced at the 2007 Unison annual conference, was protesting at the undemocratic decision of the SOC to rule off the agenda 50 resolutions on vital issues. These included calls for the election of Unison officials, the right of branches to initiate strike ballots, and an end to Unison's affiliation to the Labour Party.
This request for delegates to be allowed to democratically debate these issues was denounced as an attack on the integrity of SOC members. But there was no way they could say the wording of the leaflet was racist. Instead, the leadership seized on the cartoon used on the leaflet in an unscrupulous attempt to smear the four with an allegation of racism.
Suzanne Muna speaks to the lobby of Unison disciplinary hearings against four Socialist Party members, photo Alison Hill
Right at the start of the 2007 conference, the leaflet was condemned by friends of the leadership as "offensive and racist" because it used "monkey caricatures to poke fun at the SOC". They were desperate to swing delegates against the move to reject the SOC's report and allow debate of the banned resolutions. What better weapon than the concocted allegation of racism? The Four, on the other hand, were prevented from answering the smear or explaining that the leaflet called for a debate on the banned resolutions.
The leaflet did not use monkey caricatures in a racist manner. The cartoon used the well-known image of the 'three wise monkeys' who "see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil" to humorously satirise the SOC's refusal to listen to the views of branches whose resolutions they rejected.
According to the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, 'the three wise monkeys' are "frequently used or imitated as a motif in popular culture, sometimes presented as a visual gag with humorous connotations." The entry reviews the use of the motif in film, television, books, games and other media. There is no suggestion whatsoever of any racist connotation.
'No racist intent.'
Would reasonable Unison activists, if they saw the leaflet and knew the context in which it was produced, see the leaflet as "offensive" or "racist"? The leadership's investigators conveniently avoided this issue. In their report they said: "It is not within the remit of the investigation to identify whether that position [that the leaflet was offensive] was reasonable or not..."
But it was within their remit to determine "whether it was intended to be offensive by those responsible for the leaflet." And their report concludes: "Having questioned and listened to the submissions made by the five members under investigation, we are satisfied that there was no racial intention in the use of the cartoon." (No charges were brought against the fifth member - who was not a Socialist Party member!)
Incredibly, the investigators were not prepared to say whether they thought the allegations of racism were reasonable. They accepted there was no "racial intent". And yet the Four were charged with producing a leaflet that "gave racist offence" and have now been convicted by the leadership's kangaroo court.
The leadership claims that some black members were offended. Many black Unison activists, however, feel strongly that the allegation of racism is being used as a political weapon to discredit rank-and-file activists who are critical of the leadership. Black delegates were involved in the four branches' decision to produce the leaflet, as well as handing it out at the conference.
One black delegate said (in a Defend the Four meeting at Unison conference): "They will not be allowed to use the colour of my skin to hide behind their undemocratic attempts to control the conference or the delegates."
Another said: "The leadership's attack has nothing to do with taking the issue of racism seriously, but everything to do with attacking branch officers who all have a track record of challenging the leadership and of fighting racism." These comments sum up the views of many black Unison activists.
The real crimes?
After two years of tortuous, money-wasting investigation and hearings, the Four have been found guilty of attacking the "integrity" of the SOC and "causing racist" offence. But what is the real crime of the Four?
Undoubtedly, that they - together with other Socialist Party members and other activists - have consistently challenged a leadership that is incapable of defending members against attacks on their living standards and has tied Unison to an anti-working-class New Labour government.
The Four have been to the forefront of the battle for decent pay, equal pay for women without cuts for other workers, against cuts and privatisation. The Four are for a campaigning, fighting Unison that mobilises the members to defend jobs, pay and conditions.
They are in favour of actively linking up with other public-sector unions in a common struggle. They are for the election of officials and the strengthening of union democracy to achieve a real "member-led" union.
The Four are also in favour of breaking the link with the Labour Party. Why should Unison continue to pay millions of pounds to the party when the New Labour government is ruthlessly pursuing a policy of public-sector wage cuts (with a less-than-inflation pay policy), and cuts and privatisation for local government and the NHS?
The current Unison leadership are political allies of the New Labour government under Blair and Brown. They have completely failed to mobilise the union against its pro-big business, anti-working class policies. On the contrary, they have acted as a kind of Labour police force, doing everything they can to undermine and dampen struggle against New Labour's policies.
The campaign by the Unison leadership to purge the Four is not just a disciplinary case. It is part of a wider witch-hunt against activists and socialists who challenge the leadership and try to make them accountable. It is directly linked to members' pay, conditions and democratic rights.
The Four also have an outstanding record in fighting racism. Two are themselves from ethnic minorities. This makes it all the more shameful that the leadership has smeared them with the completely unjustified charge of "causing racist offence", which to most people simply means racism.
These bureaucrats will not get away with it. The campaign to defeat the purge against the Four and other activists will be stepped up. It is only a matter of time before the rank and file reclaim Unison and turn it into a democratic, fighting union that defends its members and champions the interests of the working class.
An outstanding record of fighting on behalf of Unison members
All of the four are long-standing Unison activists, with a proud record of defending their members. They are well-known in the union for negotiating and fighting for good deals for their members when the employers have tried to attack their branch members' pay and conditions.
Unison headquarters has already been inundated with messages of protest from members of their Unison branches, complaining about the way the Four have been treated and asking why such effective trade union activists are being attacked by the Unison leadership.
Unison conference 2009: Glenn Kelly addresses the Reclaim the Union fringe meeting, photo Paul Mattsson
Glenn Kelly (pictured above) is the branch secretary of Bromley Unison and has recently been re-elected to Unison's national executive council.
Onay Kasab (right) at a lobby of Unison against the charges from the union, photo Alison HIll
Onay Kasab is the branch secretary of Greenwich Unison.
Suzanne Muna is the branch secretary of Unison's Tenant Services Authority branch (formerly the Housing Corporation).
Brian Debus is the branch chair of Hackney Unison.
In The Socialist 29 July 2009:
War and occupation
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party review
Marxist analysis: history
Socialist Party news and analysis