Unison witch-hunt/employment tribunal: The truth is coming out

Brian Debus (centre) with supporters outside the latest Unison disciplinary hearing, photo Alison Hill

Brian Debus (centre) with supporters outside the latest Unison disciplinary hearing, photo Alison Hill   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

As we reported in the last issue, four Socialist Party members have been banned from holding office in Unison for three to five years by a Unison disciplinary committee. This follows the production of a leaflet at the 2007 Unison conference which was said to cause “racist offence” because it displayed the well-known cartoon of the ‘three wise monkeys’. One of the four, Brian Debus, has now been found guilty of misappropriation of branch funds due to his role in arranging the production of the leaflet.

He is already banned for five years and he now awaits the decision of the disciplinary panel about further penalties. Brian continues to receive full support from Unison members in his own Hackney branch and others. He also has much support from trade unionists and other campaigners in the Hackney area.

This report from a Socialist Party member attending the recent Employment Tribunal shows some of the details of the witch-hunt being waged by the Unison leadership.

While as socialists we place our faith in action by the working class, when necessary we will take action in the courts. The four Unison activists being witch-hunted by the union leadership were in court at an employment tribunal for five days from 10 August.

The claim was that the four have been discriminated against on the basis of their philosophical Marxist/Trotskyist beliefs which are manifested through membership of the Socialist Party.

Brian Debus (centre) with supporters outside the latest Unison disciplinary hearing, photo Alison Hill

Brian Debus (centre) with supporters outside the latest Unison disciplinary hearing, photo Alison Hill   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The campaign to defend the four calls for a mass response from workers and left trade union leaders to protest against this attack. The response so far has been fantastic, especially from members of the Unison branches affected. Initial shock has turned to great anger as is clear from the sentiment expressed in the letters sent to Unison.

One Unison member wrote the following: “The actions of the union are undemocratic, threatening both personal and civil liberty. In a child’s playground environment, the union would be identified as a bully.”

These words turned out to be prophetic as shown in the tribunal. There is a long list of “comparator” evidence. Those who have followed the campaign will be aware that originally it was “defend the five”, until the union dropped the charges against Matthew Waterfall, the Hackney Unison branch secretary. Matthew is not a Socialist Party member.

Other comparators have now been provided to the tribunal. These include examples of where the union itself has used the image of the three wise monkeys, a conference delegate who repeatedly referred to black people as “coloureds” and a leaflet that was sanctioned by the union and distributed at the 2007 conference which denied that people of Eastern European origin had any history of facing racial oppression.

In addition to the charge relating to the three wise monkeys cartoon, the four are charged with questioning the integrity of the union’s standing orders committee (SOC), which is responsible for deciding what is debated at conference.

The offending line in the text of the leaflet, which relates to motions ruled out of order, states: “Is this because they were controversial?”

The tribunal heard evidence of far sharper challenges that are made to this committee each year at conference. One report from the eastern region women’s committee says that the SOC are inconsistent, questions their accountability, says they make rulings based on personal views and do not follow the wishes of women members. None of those responsible for these comparators faced any action, yet four Socialist Party members now face being barred from office.

The union’s defence at the tribunal was incredible. One comparator relates to Heather Wakefield, a union full-time official who handed out peanuts and bananas to delegates at an employers’ conference, presumably to illustrate that if they “pay peanuts, they will get monkeys”, although no one could explain why bananas were being given out.

Heather did not take care to ensure that nobody was caused any offence. Despite a complaint, no action was taken. The union are saying that this cannot be used as a comparator because Heather Wakefield, via the union barrister, has now declared herself as a Marxist! This will be news to the thousands of Unison members in local government who have seen their pay attacked on her watch.

But the union member’s words quoted near the start of this article were really shown as prophetic when Tom Snow, a former regional organiser for the union, appeared as a witness. He stated that he attended a two-day course where union officers Linda Perks and Chris Remington confirmed that “dealing with the problem of Trotskyite activists was indeed part of the course and what was expected of us”. Tom quoted Linda as saying it was what Unison general secretary Dave Prentis wanted. Other comments included: “Some branches are off the wall”.

Tom produced evidence that the Bromley branch had been removed from his remit because in the words of the union “he failed to deal with Glenn Kelly”. Course participants were also told that the union was “unhealthy”, in a reference to Socialist Party members.

Most tellingly Chris Remington was quoted as saying that the “trots” had to be “castigated”. This is evidence of Unison not only giving a clear line to full-time officials to witch-hunt union activists but it also calls them onto courses designed for this purpose.

As if this needed further confirmation, the union had clearly instructed its barrister to take the line that those who held the views of Socialist Party members had no place in the union. In fact he accused socialists of “infiltrating” the union.

The hearing has now been adjourned and will begin again on 15 December, when the union will begin presenting its evidence. There is no doubt amongst Unison activists that the union has misused the very serious issue of race in order to meet its own political objectives via a witch-hunt. This has clearly been exposed in the tribunal.

It is more urgent than ever that action is taken to halt the witch-hunt. All union members need to be aware that this will not stop at the four, nor is it limited to defending four union activists. It is about democracy in the trade union movement. It is about the leadership preparing for sell-outs by trying to clear out those who will fight for Unison members and show a lead in taking on the employers.

The leadership have no answers of their own. So much so that general secretary Dave Prentis was forced to use the words of Glenn Kelly at conference this year when describing the union’s relationship with the Labour Party. The truth is now out. Unison members need to respond loudly that witch-hunts have no place in the union.

How you can help the campaign

  • Hundreds of protest letters have been sent but the Defend the Four Campaign requests that more are sent where possible. Send protests to: Dave Prentis, Unison HQ, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ or e-mail: [email protected] Send copies to: Defend the Four Campaign, PO Box 858, London E11 1YG or e-mail: [email protected]
  • Defend the Four public meeting, Wednesday 23 September 7.30 ULU, Malet Street, London (near Euston station).
  • Please send donations so that Defend the Four can produce more leaflets, book rooms for meetings and keep in touch with supporters. Cheques payable to: Stop the witch-hunt. Send to: Defend the Four Campaign, PO Box 858, London, E11 1YG.
  • If you would like to receive e-mail updates on the campaign please send your e-mail address to: info@ stopthewitchhunt.org.uk. Check out the website: www.stopthewitchhunt.org.uk