Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book Review - UNISON's Fantastic Four

After a busy week following UNISON Conference I finally have a few moments to catch up with blogging and, in a first for this blog, I’ll offer you a quick review of a book which I was sold by my old friend Brian Debus of Hackney branch, one of UNISON’s very own “Fantastic Four”.

Brian sold me a copy of Unison Bureaucracy Unmasked – The Defend the Four Story (London, Stop the Witch Hunt, 2014), a concise (80pp) telling of the long sad story which began at UNISON Conference in 2007 and will end when the NEC receives the final instalment of a report into the expensive, damaging and misguided pursuit by our union of four activists, which will cover the subsequent unjustified and unnecessary taking into regional administration of our Bromley and Greenwich branches.

I’ll avoid too many spoilers for those awaiting the film version, but (as someone who, like so many other UNISON activists, lived through this tragic foolishness) I can vouch for the factual accuracy of much of the content. In a nutshell, five UNISON activists faced disciplinary investigation following controversy surrounding the production of a leaflet critical of the Union’s Standing Orders Committee (SOC) which had been illustrated with a graphic of “three wise monkeys” considered by some to be susceptible to the interpretation that it was racially discriminatory.

The four out of five who faced formal disciplinary action (coincidentally – or not – the four who were members of the Socialist Party) were eventually banned from holding office for a time, following which officials from UNISON’s Greater London Regional Office took two of the branches into regional supervision

The four mounted a continuing campaign of public opposition to their treatment including legal action which (in twists and turns which will make the film version all the more dramatic) led at one point to a tribunal decision that the Marxist views of the four were not “worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

Eventually however, a tribunal ruled that the four had been subject to “unjustified discipline” for criticism of the SOC, a decision which UNISON accepted when it withdrew its appeal. The two of the four who remain UNISON members had their ban from holding office lifted, and both were present as delegates at this year’s UNISON National Delegate Conference. The other two are now members of UNITE, having been followed into that union by a number of other members and activists. Compensation payments awarded by the tribunal added to the six figure cost to the Union of pursuing this entirely unnecessary internal strife.

The book written from the point of view of the four is unashamedly partisan but provides an honest telling of the tale from their point of view and has the added strength of locating this unfortunate episode in the political and industrial relations context of the time. Among the four were activists who posed an alternative, and more positive, approach to the dilemmas with which “single status” was facing the Union in local government. The four also symbolised some of the most assertive critics of the Union’s relationship with New Labour in Government. It is difficult to disagree with the authors’ implicit (and sometimes explicit) assertions that, had it not been for this context, the saga would never have unfolded as it did.

This strength does however highlight a weakness in the text, which is the omission of references to other politically controversial internal disciplinary action which was going on at the same time. The events of National Delegate Conference 2007 had been preceded by the action taken against delegates at the 2006 Trades Union Congress who had joined an RMT-inspired walk out when Tony Blair got up to speak.

Shortly after that episode one of those who had walked out (Tony Staunton, then of the Plymouth Branch) faced disciplinary action. Around the same time Yunus Bakhsh was suspended by his employer in circumstancesin which the conduct of UNISON officials was subsequently subject to criticism. Tony and Yunus were both leading activists within the Socialist Workers Party, but in the period following these cases other independent leftwing activists, including Caroline Bedale and Alan Docherty, faced disciplinary action in circumstances in which many activists questioned the political motivations and legitimacy of the action taken.

The “four” knew at the time that their case was neither isolated nor unique, indeed joint fringe meetings on the Wednesday lunchtimes of UNISON Conference were an annual fixture for a number of years – and those of us critical of what we saw as the misuse of UNISON’s disciplinary rules also raised the issue elsewhere. It is a characteristic weakness of the political tradition from which the “four” draw their inspiration that its adherents fail to pay sufficient attention to other socialists in their analysis, however much they may show practical solidarity in reality.

However, it would be unjust to criticise Unison Bureaucracy Unmasked for not being the comprehensive history of politically contentious disciplinary action in UNISON in the period after 2006 which it does not claim to be. Anyone with an interest in trade union democracy – and anyone who wants to help UNISON avoid wasting time, energy and money we can ill-afford on future internal strife – could do a lot worse than add this useful little book to their Christmas list.

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