Victimisation, by bosses and the state, of those who try to organise in the workplace is nothing new. But recently a spate of high profile cases have focused wider attention on the issue.
Last year, William Hill bookmakers announced plans to extend their Sunday opening hours. As they already have over long shifts, forced overtime and the generally shitty end of the stick when it comes to working conditions1, this rightly riled people up. In one district in Liverpool, a meeting was called with the intent of organising against this change.
There were a number of factors as to why this didn't take off, not least a full time union official who had been invited trying to stamp out effective rebellion in the form of collectively shutting up shop at the current close time. But the most important reason was that management got wind of it and swiftly announced that anybody attending unofficial meetings would be sacked.
Though anecdotal, the example above outlines why employers use victimisation and bullying. Done right, it nips the threat of workplace organisation in the bud so thoroughly that the workforce will ultimately take whatever's thrown at them until they're driven out or institutionalised by it. When standing up for yourself becomes too risky, even the flimsy protections of employment law (such as the working time directive) go by the wayside and you are left at your employer's mercy.
Despite the faith many trade unions place in social partnership, this is the ideal scenario for the bosses. They deal with unions because workers' collective power means they have to in order to maintain industrial peace, and nothing else.
This explains why oppression outside of the traditional union strongholds is so commonplace already. There are no doubt a thousand untold anecdotes similar to the William Hill one above. Likewise, for every high profile case of a sacked organiser like Andrej Stopa there are no doubt a myriad more whose attempts to collectivise the workforce are stamped out long before we ever hear of them.
The issue is now being noticed by the mainstream trade union movement because, tellingly, it is creeping into their territory. The government is determined to smash union power in the public sector as part of its offensive to roll back every right workers have ever won and to tear apart public services and the welfare state, a situation I detailed in my last blog.
The unions themselves, even those that make noises about militancy, are being largely compliant with this. PCS, for example, is bending over backwards to adjust to the restrictions on facility time before they have even been enacted. But of course the same does not apply to all the organisers, reps and activists within those unions – which is where the issue of victimisation comes in.
At London Metropolitan University's Working Lives Research Institute, three staff members have been suspended for their activities. The witch hunt against Professor Steve Jefferys, Jawad Botmeh and Max Watson is outlined here:
The reason given for the three suspensions is the recruitment of Jawad Botmeh to an administrative post in the London Met’s Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI). Jawad has worked in the WLRI for five years, initially in a temporary role. When he applied for the job he was honest about the fact that he had been in prison for some time. Jawad served 13 years in prison on a conspiracy charge. He has always maintained that he is innocent, and his case is seen by many as a miscarriage of justice, Amnesty International have concerns that he was denied the right to a fair trial, and pointed out that he had an alibi and there was no direct evidence against him. Jawad also had support from MPs Harry Cohen, Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn and from UNISON nationally. WLRI chose to give an opportunity to a former prisoner, and have had no concerns about employing Jawad and there have been no complaints about his work. London Met were made aware of his conviction when he applied for his job, and when he then applied for a permanent post. It was only when Jawad was elected as the staff governor that London Met suspended him.
Here’s where the plot thickens. As well as suspending Jawad, London Met suspended Max Watson, who is chair of the London Met UNISON branch, as well as being on the UNISON NEC. London Met UNISON are one of the most active and militant higher education UNISON branches. They have stood up to management over threats of redundancies and outsourcing, they have taken strike action on a number of occasions and have achieved at least partial victories. They have also supported the already outsourced workers and helped them to win their Living Wage campaign, which is a considerable achievement given London Met’s current circumstances and management’s attitudes. Outsourcing is still on the cards for a lot of non-academic workers. Management have recently been targeting Max as he has been outspoken about the union branch’s opposition to outsourcing. Max’s suspension may well be an attempt by London Met management to get him out of the way, either permanently, or at least for the time being while they push through their plans for privatisation.
A few days later, Steve Jeffreys, head of WLRI was also suspended. The next day, the Head of Human Resources resigned.
In the Home Office, there are two separate cases of union reps losing their jobs as a result of their activity. In Liverpool, Kevin Smith raised a grievance about being bullied by his managers. In response, management rushed through a vexatious counter claim that saw him sacked even in defiance of their own procedures. In London, Jon Bigger has been served with a compulsory redundancy after being “surplus” for two years. This despite Jon applying for numerous other roles, including ones where he was the only applicant.
In the Department For Work & Pensions, Lee Rock was dismissed for sickness absence. Lee has had Crohns Disease for 35 years and depression for 15, and the DWP accepts that these are covered by the Equality Act. He had completed a six month written warning for sickness and was in the 12 month “backsliding” period when he was dismissed.
At the time he was dismissed, he had been absent just two days in the past six months. His last day of absence was three months prior to being dismissed. His branch haven't seen a dismissal in any similar case, and the belief that he was singled out because of his trade union activities is reinforced by the fact that his union activities are mentioned in the letter referring him to a decision maker for possible dismissal.
Returning to education, it has very recently emerged that there is a teachers' blacklist. Supply teachers are being made to sign contracts with private companies which deny basic legal rights and entitlements or risk being out of work. Which of course parallels the underhanded – and illegal – blacklisting in the construction industry where even speaking up about a run of the mill safety issue (let alone being a militant union activist) can see you sacked and denied work across the whole industry.
In terms of how we fight this kind of victimisation, the answer obviously lies in collective action and solidarity. Employment tribunals may grant some financial compensation, but even where they rule that a worker ought to be reinstated they ultimately have no power whatsoever to enforce that. Moreover, being a fundamentally individualistic response, they offer no guarantee at all that the same won't happen to someone else.
Petitions might be a more “collective” gesture, but they're just that – a gesture. Whilst they might serve as a demonstration of how much support a given cause has, with no muscle behind them they can be easily ignored and discarded.
That's where industrial action comes in. Last year, an unofficial postal workers' walkout saw a suspended colleague reinstated. A wildcat bus strike got the same for a sacked worker. Likewise, a spontaneous walkout and mass picket at Ratcliffe power station saw a militant union rep get his job back. As ever, direct action gets the goods.
The reasoning behind this is simple. Bosses aren't victimising trade unionists who believe in social partnership. Those who will agree to police the workforce or sell a deal after a cosy chat in the back office aren't being targeted. The militants are – those agitating in the real interests of the workforce, advancing the class struggle or even bringing worker organisation to a demoralised and atomised workplace. This is because they want to head off or stop disruption to their business, hence to stop them we have to make sure that trying to bin off militants will only earn them more disruption.
Another good example of this is in the Solidarity Federation Workmates pamphlet, which details how an RMT rep used a struggle to build a rank-and-file direct action culture. When the bosses moved on him, it became evident that the result would be a wildcat strike. As a result, they backed off.
Mainstream trade unions are starting to embrace this idea now that they're more obviously under fire. The RMT has previously balloted over victimisation, and PCS are currently taking action short of strike for Kevin Smith. Likewise, Max, Jawad and Steve's case is the subject of a mass campaign.
But the problem with official action is that it is constrained by legalities and technicalities. Management have the time to churn out counter propaganda, and a workforce being commanded from above is likely to be less of a disruptive threat than a load of militants.
In the Kevin Smith case, for example, though PCS won a ballot for action short of strike his colleagues actually voted narrowly against full strike action in that same vote. No doubt management's spin was heavily to blame for this – as well as for the attitude of those scabbing on the action short of strike – but it's also a fact that it's hard to grasp the power of collective action if its organisation is out of your hands. Not to mention constrained by the toughest anti-strike laws in Europe.
None of this should be seen as a criticism or condemnation of those organising in Kevin's or any of the other campaigns. I've been to their picket line and no doubt will go again and their solidarity and dedication can't be faulted. Rather, it's a reflection of a broader collective culture that we've all lost and all need to play our part in rebuilding.
If we want to fight the victimisation of workplace organisers, whether there's an established union or not the solution remains the same. When management move against someone for organising, the wheels have to stop turning and stay that way until they back off. This is necessarily unofficial if it is to be as effective as possible. Moreover, it has to go without saying that such struggles will never be contained in one workplace.
This is why rank-and-file organisation in the workplace is so vital. Not just because the representative structures of trade unions have separate interests to the mass of workers they represent (though they do, and this is the root of stifling bureaucracy). But because it is only through this kind of horizontal organisation that we can offer our fellow workers the confidence to act for themselves and to make a stand without waiting tentatively for the say so of officialdom.
The importance of this cannot be understated. Ultimately, if we want to challenge the fact that picking off militants is the status quo, then such an attitude – and such a wildcat response to management attacks – needs to become the norm.
- 1. Not the least of which seems to be a callous attitude to the mental health of those whose shops get robbed. Horror stories include a store manager who had a machete to her back being disciplined for failing to protect company property and another who had been covered in petrol and threatened with immolation by an irate customer who was later sectioned being told that they expected her to work as normal the next day!