Friday, November 13, 2009

A shocking injustice

My friend and fellow Lambeth UNISON Branch Secretary Nick has been complaining that there are not enough posts on this blog about obscure points in the Union Rule Book - so I shall return to something I was saying about Rule K.

That is the Rule which governs how members of UNISON can access legal advice, which is entirely within the discretion of the National Executive Council (delegated of course, for the most part, to officers).

I blogged before about a case in which the Union was found by the Certification Officer to have breached our Rules - in that case a Branch Secretary was criticised by the Certification Officer. Since that time the individual in question has served on our National Executive Council.

Not everyone who is accused of putting a foot wrong in our Union is treated so sympathetically.

Caroline Bedale from Manchester has been banned from holding UNISON office for 8 years.

All charges relate to the campaign to reinstate Karen Reissmann – who had been sacked by her employer (Manchester Mental Health Trust and Social Care Trust) – and who was supported by UNISON in this campaign, not just for reinstatement to her job but for the right for trade unionists to speak out against cuts and privatisation.

Caroline Bedale has been found guilty by a UNISON Disciplinary Committee of charges relating to things she did after UNISON withdrew legal assistance from Karen Reissmann, just before Karen‟s case was due to be heard by an Employment Tribunal. The disciplinary penalty means she will be barred from holding union office for 8 years (i.e. for the rest of her working life!)

Legal assistance was withdrawn because Karen decided not to take some legal advice. Only the legal assistance was withdrawn – UNISON policy continued to support the campaign for Karen‟s reinstatement and for the right for trade union activists to speak out against cuts and privatisation.

These are two questions being posed by Karen's supporters;

What would you have done if your branch was under attack from a vindictive employer who had
sacked the Chairperson of your branch because of their trade union work and speaking out against cuts and privatisation?

Wouldn't you have been dismayed if, after an unprecedented strike by health workers and a
high profile union campaign for reinstatement, the union's legal assistance had been withdrawn? Given that the union policy of campaigning for Karen‟s reinstatement still continued wouldn't you have done what you could to defend and support her?

I know that I would always do my best to defend an activist in the branch - if we don't stick up for each other in circumstances like that we are done for.

Caroline faced three charges;

A: “Seeking to secure alternative legal advice and representation for Karen Reissmann, whose legal
advice and representation had been terminated by the Union”.

B: “campaigning against UNISON policy” – that policy is defined as “the decision of UNISON to
withdraw legal representation from Karen Reissmann” – and that Caroline has acted in a manner prejudicial to the Union in so doing.

C: “using UNISON resources to campaign against UNISON policy” – Caroline is said to have
campaigned against the Union‟s rules and policy, and acted in a manner prejudicial to the Union in so doing. It is not specified what rules she is meant to have campaigned against, and the „policy‟ is actually a „decision‟ not a policy.

This is because Caroline did the following things as a UNISON Branch Secretary;

1. At Karen‟s request, Caroline sent a letter to Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre (SUCRC) asking if they would “look into taking on” Karen‟s case if UNISON did not agree to continue the legal assistance. No UNISON funds were used for Karen‟s new legal representation.

2. As agreed by the Branch Committee, Caroline sent a letter to all branches in September 2008 to update them on Karen‟s case, and to say that the campaign continued for her reinstatement and for the right for trade unionists to speak out against cuts and privatisation. The letter asked branches to sign an open letter and petition to Ivan Lewis MP. A branch delegation together with the NW Regional Secretary, Frank Hont, was planning to meet him about Karen.

The letter mentioned that the Union had withdrawn legal assistance, and said that the Branch Committee “think this is a shame”. That was the only comment on the withdrawal of legal assistance – but this is said to be „campaigning against UNISON policy‟ and prejudicial to the union. There was NO campaign to get the union to reinstate legal assistance. There WAS a continuing campaign in support of Karen, supported at national, regional and branch levels. Caroline was found not guilty of breaking any rules by sending this letter, but was found to have acted in a manner prejudicial to the union.

I have to say, as a long serving UNISON Branch Secretary who is notoriously cautious about staying within the Rules I might very well have done the same. Caroline acted in good faith to defend a fellow activist and - had she known about the Certification Officer decision in the case of the London UNISON Branch Secretary she might have felt reassured that, even if she had committed some technical breach of Rule, the Union would stand by her.

Unfortunately she would have been wrong to have been reassured. It seems the Union takes a harsher view of someone who is held to have breached a Rule to try to help a member than it does when someone breaches a Rule in a way which could obstruct a member from receiving help (unless of course that it is the politics of the individual which makes the difference).

What takes the case almost into the realms of fantasy though are the allegations made by the Union about things she did in her own time and with her own resources.

3. She allowed her private telephone numbers to be used as the contact point on a press release from the independent „Reinstate Karen Reissmann Campaign‟.

4. Caroline sent an email from her own computer using her email to a closed discussion email group for members of the United Left in UNISON, to let them know what was happening in Karen‟s case. She said that legal assistance had been withdrawn and that there were attempts to persuade the union to reinstate legal support. This email is said to have been “in furtherance of a campaign against a decision of UNISON to withdraw legal representation from Karen Reissmann”. There was NO such campaign to try to get the legal representation reinstated. A comment in an email does not constitute a campaign. Again, she was found not guilty of breaking any rules by sending this email, but was found guilty of acting in a manner prejudicial to the union.

Caroline had every right to express her personal opinions in personal emails - and to allow her home telephone number to be used for a campaign. I have often used my own resources to book meetings, produce leaflets and organise campaign activities. Like Caroline, I am diligent about not using our Union's resources for purposes other than those specified in our Rule Book - but what I do in my own time with my own money and resources is my own business.

I have been proud to count Caroline as a friend and comrade over a number of years. She is an excellent and dedicated trade unionist and the sort of person upon which the movement depends. She has often been a critic of our leadership when it has been wrong - and has as often been foremost amongst our activists.

If we permit a good comrade to be hounded out of office in our Union then we shall be as guilty as those doing the hounding.

As a member of UNISON's National Executive Council re-elected for a fourth term I believe that there is a great deal of which we can be proud about in relation to our Union. We shall, over the next period, be the first and sometimes only line of defence around vital public services upon which some of the most vulnerable depend. I am proud to be a UNISON member.

But I am not proud of the politically motivated misuse of our disciplinary procedures which becomes more blatant year by year. It's time this stopped.

2 comments:

Nick Venedi said...

Hello Jon

Glad you took my last comments on board and did a brief introduction explaining what rule k is (its not about special k by Kellogs then?) Also good to be reminded that you have been re elected to serve on the NEC 4 times. That is because you are good at what you do and genuine in your efforts to change the world by 2012.

My only other criticism now (sorry) is to try and be brief with your articles. You could have said what you wrote today and used half the text. Remember most people speed read? You are also wrong to say that not many people read these blogs. I am constantly finding that ordinary members would make a comment to me showing clear knowledge of what I wrote, plus a few (well quite a few) of those who want to keep an eye on what we do?

Cheers gov now go have your mushy peas on the Brighton pier...

Nick

Anonymous said...

I don’t know Caroline too well. I first met her whilst we were both waiting to make our presentations to the National industrial Action Committee. Caroline on the Karen Reissmann campaign and me for the Fremantle Care workers campaign.

I was very impressed with how they had been running the campaign and as someone who believes in learning from others we exchanged ideas on campaigning.

Having read Jon’s report on her disciplinary, it is quite frankly a disgrace. We can ill afford to lose hard working activists who are member led. The time of these witch hunts/persecutions of branch officers has to come to an end if we are going to seriously face up to the onslaught to come. There needs to be a fundamental change in our priorities. Resources should be focussed on supporting branches facing redundancies, cuts, and privatisation not financing investigations in expensive hotels.

There is an opportunity for someone to sort this out before there is further damage to the credibility of our union, after all it can hardly escape the employers notice that something is going on.

Our Council (Barnet) has attracted national media attention for their ‘easyCouncil’approach to public services. This is a challenge the branch has been preparing and dealing with for 18 months. We need to unity of purpose across our union.

I hope that the decision against Caroline is reversed and we can look to really working in ‘unison’ to face the war that is coming.
John Burgess
Branch Secretary
Barnet UNISON