A Socialist Party statement

Last June, the left won a majority on the Unison public service union’s national executive, for the first time since Unison’s creation in 1993. This was, and still is, a potentially very positive step towards transforming the union into a more effective fighter for members’ interests. However, the approach of the largest left grouping on the NEC, ‘Time for Real Change’ (TFRC), is threatening to endanger that. In particular, they have made missteps in their handling of the accusations of bullying and intimidating behaviour made against Paul Holmes – Unison President, secretary of Kirklees Unison branch, and TFRC supporter – which urgently need to be corrected.

On 2 February 2022 Kirklees council announced the dismissal from employment of Paul Holmes following an investigation into his alleged behaviour. Paul Holmes responded the same day by issuing a statement that he was “determined to clear his name and let everyone know the real reasons behind his dismissal” and would be “making a more detailed statement in the next few days.

No such statement has come to date, however. Instead TFRC issued a press release on 4 February 2022 which stated “there is no substance to the allegations against Paul and he entirely refutes them”, referred to “a number of libellous allegations” and concluded that “Paul is unable to make any public statement due to ongoing legal process”.

Meanwhile Paul Holmes and TFRC have continued to assert – without giving any information to refute the charges against him – that he is a victim of a witch-hunt, sacked as a result of victimisation by Kirklees Labour council, in collusion with the right wing of Unison.

Given Paul’s long record as a left Unison activist, and the even longer record of employers wanting to remove effective activists, sometimes with the collusion of right-wing trade union leaders, many on the left understandably initially accepted this claim. However, it is a serious mistake to demand that accusations against any left activist be dismissed on trust alone. It cannot be automatically assumed that because someone is on the left, or has a good record as a trade unionist, they can never be guilty of misbehaviour.  Instead, all accusations of bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour should be taken seriously, and investigated promptly via a democratic trade union process.

That is why when, in 2007, four Unison activists and Socialist Party members were falsely accused of racism by the then right-wing Unison leadership, they explained in detail what they had been accused of and why the accusations were unfounded. This enabled them to mobilise Unison members, and the wider workers’ movement, in their support, but it did not also prevent them fighting in the courts, eventually winning an Employment Tribunal.

If Paul Holmes has evidence that shows that the charges against him are false he should make as much as possible public. If he has such evidence, it is stretching credulity to believe that he can’t reveal anything without endangering his legal fight. When trade unionists are fighting victimisation they don’t acquiesce to the employers’ demand of confidentiality.

Union investigation overdue

Regardless of what Paul Holmes chooses to do as an individual, it is long overdue that Unison’s NEC establishes a process that looks at, and forms a judgement on, the accusations that have been made against him. Holmes was first suspended pending a union investigation by Unison’s NEC, then with a right-wing majority, in December 2019. That suspension was lifted by the left-led NEC in time for him to attend the February 2022 NEC meeting. Unison supported his case to apply for ‘Interim Relief’ to an Employment Tribunal which meant the union was backing his case against victimisation for trade union duties. The NEC voted for his reinstatement as Unison’s president and as Kirklees Unison branch secretary even though he was now an unemployed member.

These facts are only one side of the story, however. Holmes’ application for Interim Relief was rejected by the courts on 7 March 2022. While the trade union movement cannot take the decision of a capitalist court alone as proof of guilt or innocence, this decision nonetheless indicates that Holmes could have difficulty winning his Employment Tribunal. Much more importantly, a Unison disciplinary panel hearing on the substantive charges against Paul Holmes has not so far taken place. This does not mean the charges against him have been dismissed within the union; on the contrary they remain pending.

The left won a majority on the NEC in June 2021. Up until the NEC meeting on 15 March 2022, TFRC NEC members had accepted that the convening of a disciplinary panel to hear the case against Paul Holmes was necessary, and would take decisions based on the existing union investigation,  but it had not yet taken place. We understand that NEC members were told it was just a question of waiting until there was agreement over who would be on the panel.

It has been reported that then, at the meeting on 15 March, TFRC supporters suddenly announced that a new investigation was necessary, without any prior warning to others on the left or explanation given in the meeting. Unsurprisingly, as a result, some TFRC-supporting NEC members appear to have abstained. The four Socialist Party members on Unison’s NEC voted against the proposal, which we understand was narrowly passed, despite TFRC having a significant majority.

If it had been shown that the reason for establishing a new investigation was serious flaws in the original process, making it impossible for a disciplinary panel to form a judgement, Socialist Party members on the NEC, whilst still being critical of the inordinate delays, would have been sympathetic, provided that steps were taken to ensure that the complainants were reassured about necessary safeguarding measures while the new investigation took place. However, no such explanations or assurances were given.

Unfortunately, this raises the suspicion that a new investigation was a device to further delay dealing with the question. Whatever the cause, a group of fifteen – mainly women – Unison activists and low paid branch staff, who made complaints in December 2019 against their branch secretary Paul Holmes, will now have to wait even longer before their complaints are dealt with by the union.

In their statement of 2 February 2022, the ‘Kirklees 15’ make clear that they always wanted the union rather than the employer to deal with the situation:

We would have preferred that the Unison Branch had dealt with the complaints, some going back years. However, time and time again we were turned away by the Branch Chair, who refused to act, and were told to resolve our issues directly with Holmes himself. Where in society do you turn to your abuser for help?

It is urgent that their claims are now properly investigated by Unison, giving Paul Holmes the opportunity to defend himself, of course, as part of a democratic trade union process. As we have previously made clear, the Socialist Party does not think that this issue should ever have been left to the employer to deal with. Inevitably, regardless of the truth of the specific case, Kirklees Labour council will have seen this as an opportunity to try to weaken trade union organisation among the council workforce.

However, in our view the main reason for the way the situation developed was the failure of the union to conduct an investigation, leaving some complainants to feel they had no choice but to make complaints to the employer. Others, including Socialist Party member Angela Waller, were then asked to be witnesses.

These are not straightforward issues for any principled trade unionist. Outrageously, Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal, accused Angela of being “a bosses’ nark”. Yet when fellow women trade union representatives feel they have been bullied over years, and you, as Angela had, have been witness to incidents about which they are complaining, it would be wrong to refuse to give evidence of what you have witnessed, and would lay you open to charges of covering up bullying behaviour. As all experienced trade unionists know, there can even be extreme cases – where trade union members have been guilty of serious racism in the workplace, for example – where it might be correct for a union branch to call on employers to take action, following a democratic process within the trade union.

That this situation has developed as it has is entirely the responsibility of the Unison right wing but also, unfortunately, those on the left in the union who did not take the complaints seriously when they were first presented to them in 2019.

Complainants are left activists

In this instance it is extremely clear that the complainants and witnesses are not ‘bosses’ narks’ or ‘stooges’ of the employer or the Unison right but as they say themselves, “left-wing reps and activists with a proud fighting history, who have led strikes locally against Kirklees Labour Council’s attacks on our members and we have fought for decades to transform Unison into a fighting union.”

They add that they “support the left winning more seats on the Unison NEC.” In the January 2022 Kirklees branch elections six of them stood on a joint slate “For a Fighting Democratic Leadership Team in Kirklees Unison”. There were no right-wing candidates in the election, but only two left slates, with the ‘Fighting Democratic Leadership team’ clearly to the left of Paul Holmes, not least in their criticism of their employer, Kirklees council.  For example they stated on their leaflet:  

If a Labour council won’t stand up for us then members will rightly ask why are we handing them £3m a year of union members’ money? We need councillors willing to fight the Tories not act like them and if they won’t fight, the union should change its rules to allow us to back anti-cuts candidates who will.”

While the initial delays in establishing a disciplinary panel can be put at the feet of the previous right-wing leadership of Unison, TFRC have now had a majority on the NEC for over eight months and are responsible for the continued delays in dealing with the case, which have been combined with declarations of Paul’s innocence, without even mentioning that there is still a pending disciplinary hearing.

Meanwhile, Paul Holmes’ re-election as Kirklees branch secretary – before the details of the allegations against him had become known to the majority of branch members – has left the activists who still have pending complaints against him being faced with working together with him in the branch with no safeguards. A group of five Kirklees branch reps have twice written to the two union vice-presidents, who together with Paul Holmes make up the NEC’s ‘presidential team’ and are both part of TFRC.

They wrote on 11 February 2022, stating:

We are writing as Unison Kirklees branch reps. As you know, we have put in a complaint about Paul Holmes over bullying and harassment, which has been upheld by the employer. We are writing to you on a number of related issues:-

1. We are aware that the NEC met on 9th February. Can you please let us know what has been decided with Paul Holmes’s position as Kirklees branch secretary? Also, what has the NEC decided to do with our complaint – has an internal union disciplinary process been started? We were previously informed that the union investigation had been completed in 2020.

2. If the NEC decided that Paul Holmes is the branch secretary, we request that we have the chance to discuss working arrangements with yourselves, taking into account the character of the complaints that we have made and the duty of care, protection and well-being owed to ourselves.

3. Given this as well as his appeal against the council’s decision and the prospect of an internal disciplinary process, we believe that it is reasonable to ask that Paul Holmes be stood aside from his branch secretary’s position and the branch positions he holds at this time, and that the allocation of his roles be agreed by the branch committee. This would be seen as normal practice.

We urgently await your reply.

Having received no reply they wrote again on 10 March 2022.  At the time of writing they have still not received a reply or even acknowledgement from the vice-presidential team. The NEC meeting on 15 March 2022 did not deal with this issue, despite Socialist Party members demanding it was addressed.

No competent Unison steward would accept a situation where management failed to deal with accusations of bullying for over two years, and ignored the repeated attempts by those who had made the accusations to ensure their protection. Yet this is what has happened here within Unison.

It is to the credit of those who have made the accusations that they remain campaigners for the left within the union, despite the left leadership of the union consistently failing to engage with their concerns.

First raised in 2019

This is even more the case given that their concerns were raised with TFRC supporters before they chose to stand Paul Holmes for Unison general secretary, never mind voting for him to be president. In December 2019 Socialist Party members circulated an internal statement within the left grouping Unison Action (which both TFRC and Socialist Party supporters participated in). Regarding Paul Holmes’ suspension our members stated that: “given the history of our union in using disciplinary action and regional supervision as a way of removing ‘left’ branches, many good activists will rightly be suspicious of what the union is up to”, but when “an activist from the branch who is also the women’s officer says ‘As I understand it the complaints that have gone in, have not been from the regional leadership of the union nor full time officials but have come from activists in the branch who have had concerns’, we should take note”.

We went on: “After all, is anyone here suggesting that women reps who are not right wingers making complaints of bullying and harassment should simply be ignored? Is anyone suggesting just because you are on the left that you can never behave in an unacceptable manner?” The statement concluded: “We understand that many good activists and socialists will fear that, whatever the legitimacy of the claims or not, the union bureaucracy will seek to use it for political ends” and we therefore proposed “a jointly agreed independent investigator and if necessary an agreed independent panel”.

Had this action been fought for by the left at that time, we would be facing a very different situation today. Instead, however, the majority of Unison Action selected Paul Holmes as their general secretary candidate, even though he reacted to questions on the issue by refusing to answer and, on one occasion, storming out and saying he was withdrawing his name as a candidate. Unfortunately, it seems that desperation to find a candidate who was not a member of the Socialist Party, after the withdrawal of previous contender Glen Williams, led those who now lead TFRC to ignore their misgivings and select Paul Holmes rather than Hugo Pierre, the Socialist Party’s candidate.

The way forward

Despite what are, in our view, serious mistakes by the leadership of TFRC, the Socialist Party recognises that having a left majority on the NEC of Unison is a very important step to transforming Unison into a fighting trade union. We take a principled position, fighting at every stage to strengthen the left of the union and to oppose the right. That is why, at the February 2022 NEC, Socialist Party members voted with TFRC for the suspension of Paul Holmes to be lifted. It should be for Unison members, not the employers, to decide who holds office in the union. However, our members also spoke to make clear that the disciplinary panel needed to be convened urgently so that the union could form a view on the charges, and also care had to be taken to respect the positions of the complainants in and around the Kirklees branch office. This action is long overdue.

We are not able to form a judgement on the charges made against Paul Holmes, and we fully recognise that the employers and also the right wing of Unison want to use this situation to damage the left. However, if TFRC continues to try to avoid dealing with this serious issue, they will further play into the hands of the right wing, who are inevitably using this to try to undermine the left leadership of the union, claiming that it does not take accusations of bullying seriously.

This could be put right at the April NEC if they either reverse the decision and go to a hearing or urgently carry out a serious, democratic investigation into the complaints against Paul Holmes – with all sides given an opportunity to make their case, combined with instituting the safeguarding measures requested by the complainants while the case is dealt with.

The right wing further claims that the left are putting the protection of Paul Holmes above fighting for the interests of ordinary members. This rings hollow with many long-standing activists who have witnessed under a right-wing leadership a failure to fight the loss of 500,000 council workers’ jobs, the real-terms 20-25% cut in pay over the last 10 years in many of the public services the union organises in, and the increased pension age and pension payments.

However the left leadership must prepare urgently to mobilise the membership to fight the ‘cost of living’ crisis, put forward a serious strategy to fight for council services – including supporting ‘no-cuts’ councillors – and fight on the serious issues facing Unison members.