The Unison monkey trial

Onay Kasab, Unison branch secretary in Greenwich, is one of four members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales targeted by the union leadership for having signed a critical leaflet at the 2007 annual conference. Alan Stevens spoke to him…

784coverThere is clearly a witch-hunt against sections of the left in Unison. What happened in your case?

There had been an increasing trend at recent Unison national conferences whereby more and more resolutions were either remitted to the incoming executive or were simply ruled out of order by the standing orders committee (SOC), thus preventing any debate over the issues they raised.

By the 2007 conference this had reached one third of all resolutions submitted. This included motions on full-time officials’ pay, the election of full-time officials, the union-Labour Party link, control of industrial action and the national pay campaign. Four branches, including mine, put their names to a leaflet that year that was critical of the lack of democracy these exclusions highlighted and that urged delegates to attempt to get them back on the conference agenda. Such a process of interventions to refer issues back is a normal part of conference.

However, in our case it has resulted in disciplinary action against myself, Glenn Kelly, Suzanne Muna and Brian Debus. It is on two counts. Firstly, an unbelievable accusation of racism for using the well-known Buddhist proverb of the three wise monkeys to caricature the SOC. It was later accepted there was no racist intent, but allegedly we caused offence. The other accusation is that we questioned the integrity of the SOC by asking in the leaflet, “Were the motions ruled out of order because they were contentious?”

So the SOC are godlike and cannot make mistakes or be questioned?

Judging by the standards used against us, absolutely. And what this is about is putting people off from questioning decisions made by the SOC. The normal democratic procedure was that prior to the presentation of their report to conference the SOC was open to challenge and this often happened in a far sharper way than in our leaflet. When the SOC’s final report went to conference, delegates would then decide whether to accept it.

In our case we raised a question and after a two-year investigation have suffered disciplinary action. This has now set a precedent that to question whether motions have been ruled out of order for the right reasons is a disciplinary offence that can lead to members being barred from office.

Some on the left, whilst offering support, have suggested that the leaflet was ill-judged. Do you think it was?

No. Of course, in retrospect you would be daft to say you would do it exactly the same way, as it led to a witch-hunt. But I don’t think anybody could have looked at that leaflet and foretold that it would lead to accusations of racism.

In fact the leaflet was circulated to branches and was handed out at conference for days, including by black members, without any criticism at all. Many black members have since said they are outraged that the issue of racism could be so misused. So, I really don’t accept that the leaflet was ill-judged.

Some members have said that you should have taken account that the chair of the SOC was black, or anticipated that the leaflet would cause offence. However, I think this highlights a problem with ‘official’, institutionalised anti-racism – it can turn into its opposite – a sort of inverted racism, where you are meant to mollycoddle people because they are black. What do you think?

I think the issue of race is being misused to witch-hunt members of the Socialist Party. One delegate got up at the conference and said that she was offended by the leaflet, that it was comparable to Bernard Manning and was something that should have died with him.

I think that’s wrong. However, I can’t question whether she was or was not offended, so at the time we decided to apologise for any unintentional offence we may have caused. We were blocked from doing that to the whole conference, but we did submit apologies to the SOC and the national black members committee.

However, we did not accept that it was reasonable to find the image racist. I have some sympathy with your point in the way it links in with how the union has investigated this. They say that whether it was reasonable to find the leaflet offensive is irrelevant. What is relevant for the union is that someone said they were offended and that this is sufficient to take disciplinary action against us. Even the employers I deal with when representing members will look at whether something is reasonable or not.

This raises another problem – the idea that you must not offend someone. Why not, if there is a good point to be made?

Well, sometimes I have offended people and I’m not sorry for it. However, I would not wish to racially offend anyone – hence the apology.

But if we are looking wider than that I’m sure I regularly offend local councillors about things they need to be offended over and I make no apologies for it. I think as trade unionists and socialists we are going to offend people and we are often not going to apologise.

In the case of unintentional racial offence, whilst I think an apology is warranted, an investigation into any complaint should examine firstly whether offence was caused, secondly whether it was reasonable to be offended and finally whether or not disciplinary action is justified in the particular circumstances. In our case we didn’t even get to stage two. An investigating officer decided there was offence and that was it: we will be disciplined.

What is frightening for union members is that, based on this decision, along with not being able to challenge the SOC, a precedent is potentially being set that if any member criticises the leadership they are going to get done either for questioning their integrity or for causing offence.

And all they have to do is find one individual who is offended.

Absolutely.

Originally there were five accused, but it quickly came down to only the four SP members. Was the Socialist Party singled out?

The fifth was Matthew Waterfall, the Hackney branch secretary, who is not a member of the Socialist Party. He gave evidence at the investigation, the disciplinary hearing and at the industrial tribunal that he had more to do with producing the leaflet than either Glenn Kelly or myself. It was produced in his branch. Glenn and myself approved the wording over the phone and didn’t see the image until later.

However, the union dropped the allegations against Matthew and decided to send him on anti-racism awareness training (which they haven’t arranged yet). I think they couldn’t exclude him initially, as he was secretary of the branch that produced the leaflet and played an obvious role in it. However, they later came up with an excuse to sideline him so they could focus on a witch-hunt against members of the Socialist Party.

Two of you have been barred from office for three years, one for four years and the fourth for four years. Why the different punishments?

I think the union’s logic is that Brian Debus as chair of Hackney branch had a greater involvement in the leaflet and got five years, Suzanne Muna got four years because she drew the cartoon, and Glenn and myself got three years because we had less involvement than the others. I’m guessing that is the logic – it wasn’t explained.

You all lodged an appeal, which had the effect of holding the suspensions in abeyance until the hearing. However, you then instituted proceedings at an industrial tribunal. Why resort to the courts?

Well it’s one of a number of tactics in our campaign. We are also calling for mass opposition from the membership, more organised and widespread protests and lobbies and using the internal processes within the union (although that is quite limited – we are not allowed to discuss it in branch or stewards’ meetings, which, of course, makes it difficult to organise). The legal action runs alongside that.

We have no faith in the union’s internal appeal process – in fact, I’d go so far as to say I’d get a fairer hearing from my own employer. Unfortunately, we are also likely to get better justice from the capitalist courts than our own union, which is an appalling position to be in.

The union has not even followed its own rules so far as the process is concerned and our protests have been ignored. In addition we gave comparator evidence, pointing out, for example, that the union had actually used the three wise monkeys image itself, but that too has been ignored. There is also the timing: we don’t want to wait until we are suspended and hope to use the courts to prevent that. It’s a sad state of affairs, but the union is more likely to listen to a court ruling than to its own members.

We are making use of legislation to argue that we are being discriminated against as a result of our philosophical beliefs, which are manifested by our membership of the Socialist Party. It is a tactic available to us and I see no reason not to use it.

What all this reveals is that unions are a reflection of capitalist corporations, with appointed, paid officers on salaries and benefits equivalent to company executives. They control the union like a company and there is very little real democratic involvement of the members – which, of course, is what lies behind your leaflet.

Yes.

A criticism we have of most of the left is that they are too content to entrench themselves within the bureaucracy and do not properly address the fundamental weakness at the heart of the trade union movement: the lack of rank and file organisation. So, for example, the membership is not in revolt over this witch-hunt.

There are obviously weaknesses. So far as the bureaucracy is concerned, I think it varies from branch to branch. In my branch we do not simply rely on the usual meetings and means of contacting members, but try to engage with them around issues that concern them and take these up with their employers. For example, campaigns around cleaners and catering workers have led to many of them becoming active in the union.

However, at a regional level the full-time officials are extremely remote and can’t see any possibility of a successful fight. If these officials actually attended meetings with the active membership they might have a different view.

So far as our campaign against the witch-hunt is concerned, we have members who wanted to protest immediately in a number of ways. The most negative way was to leave the union and we have had to fight to keep them. There are others who wanted to occupy Unison headquarters. However, that would likely result in them being thrown out of the union, so we’ve had to talk them out of it.

Of course, there would be nothing better than not having to rely on the law and to be able to use the union’s internal mechanisms to get the message out, put our case to get it properly heard. Why has our case not been heard by conference, for example, or taken out to the membership – one of our campaign demands? The reality is, none of that is going to happen.

Where I agree with you is that nationally an awful lot of the membership are remote from what is happening and it is proving to be a Herculean task getting the message out and letting people know what is going on. Contacting other branches is not allowed. In fact, I have been threatened with separate disciplinary action for having contact with members of other branches – and not even over this issue, but when members who never hear from their own officials raised issues with me. I raised their lack of representation in an email to regional level and was threatened with discipline unless I apologised for raising it!

So, yes, I agree there’s a problem: not enough of our members are involved with what is actually going on with the trade union and the wider labour movement. Some branches like my own are in a better position than a lot of others, but there is a massive problem, with the bureaucracy being remote from what is going on at the bottom and I think they like it that way. I was sitting at the TUC headquarters the other day looking around and thinking that for bureaucrats it’s great working here – a million miles from the membership, unelected, no members to criticise what you do or don’t do.

Bringing it back to our leaflet – it won’t solve everything in itself, but it’s why we call for the annual election of all full-time officials with the right of recall. And it’s why we call for workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage – I wouldn’t mind betting half of them wouldn’t do the job if they had the hassle of actually representing workers without the generous rewards that they are getting at the moment.

In more active times it was common for multi-union shop stewards’ committees to represent an entire workforce as a single, united bloc and the union bureaucracies had to accept it. Now most of the left are content to function within the machinery of their own union, representing just their own members. The left needs to unite around a policy of winning back the rank and file democracy we once had.

I agree. The trouble is that once you become a branch secretary like me you become a firefighter and don’t have a lot of time to think about developing the left. In Unison in Greenwich we have a good shop stewards’ network, but I have lost count of the times we have attempted unsuccessfully to work together with the other trade unions. We have suggested joint branch meetings and joint meetings of shop stewards, but it hasn’t happened.

I accept that the left generally needs to make a lot more effort. My experience, having attempted to do it on a small scale, is that I’ve had a very negative response from other trade union branches. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a mood for it amongst the members.

A weakness I can see straightaway with that approach is that you are largely talking to other branch officials or shop stewards, but the members of all these unions know nothing about it. It should be made public, shouldn’t it?

I agree, but it has to be over a particular issue rather than proposing unity in the abstract – for example, the proposal by Greenwich council to set up a trading company, on which all three unions have a different attitude. I think making a public call for a meeting that calls for a joint approach to this would be the way to do it. That’s a local initiative, but I think what goes alongside it is developing the National Shop Stewards Network.

OK, but a weakness of the NSSN is the policy of ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of unions. For a socialist it is not the union but the working class that is important, isn’t it?

Yes: in our campaign against the witch-hunt we are asking the wider movement to ‘interfere’ in the affairs of Unison and protest.

And this is not just a problem between unions, but also within them. As I mentioned before, there are attempts to stop you ‘interfering’ with what goes on in another branch, even when there is something plainly wrong. Effectively you are told to get on with your own branch and stay out of anything else – we are not even supposed to discuss it on pain of disciplinary action.

However, we are part of a movement, our movement.

Stop the witch-hunt

Send protest letters to: Dave Prentis, Unison HQ, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ; d.Prentis@unison.co.uk
Send copies to: Defend the Four Campaign, PO Box 858, London E11 1YG; info@stopthewitchhunt.org.uk
Website: www.stopthewitchhunt.org.uk

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