WeeklyWorker

15.11.2018
London HQ functions as a bureaucratic machine for the benefit of the bureaucracy

One rule for members ...

Tony Greenstein describes how his defence of Stan Keable, who was dismissed as a council housing officer under the ‘anti-Semitism’ purge, led to his own suspension

On March 26, as Labour’s local election campaign got underway, various Zionist organisations staged their first ever ‘anti-racist’ demonstration, outside Parliament as part of the false anti-Semitism campaign against Jeremy Corbyn.

A counter-demonstration was mounted by Jewish Voice for Labour, supported by Labour Against the Witchhunt and other groups. One of the demonstrators was Stan Keable, the secretary of LAW. Stan got into a conversation about the holocaust, in the course of which he stated that it was not only caused by anti-Semitism (a statement of the obvious - anti-Semitism has existed long before the holocaust) and that the Zionist movement had collaborated with the Nazis in the period leading up to it.

Unknown to Stan, his conversation had secretly been recorded and before long it was on social media. This resulted in headlines in papers like the Evening Standard1 and the Jewish Chronicle.2 The next day local Tory MP Greg Hands sent out a tweet demanding action against Stan; and Steve Cowan, leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, where Stan was an employee, was only too happy to oblige.

Stan was promptly suspended and in May I represented him at his disciplinary hearing, the result of which was that he was dismissed. As a lay representative from Brighton and Hove, I should not have had to represent him, but when Stan approached Unison’s London regional organiser, Steve Terry, for support he received none. Terry’s advice was that Stan should plead guilty. In a letter of May 8 Terry advised Stan: “... the course that you should take is to indicate that you regret any offence caused by your remarks and plead mitigating circumstances”.

A supporter of Progress, Terry should have declared a conflict of interest between his rightwing views and those of Stan Keable. His own prejudices rendered him incapable of seeing that there was only one issue: namely freedom of speech and the right of free assembly of workers - rights guaranteed under articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Terry, however, is a typical Unison bureaucrat, completely incapable of comprehending such issues.

The two main charges laid against Stan were:

1. That, in attending a counter-demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament on March 26 2018, you knowingly increased the possibility of being challenged about your views and subsequently proceeded to express views that were in breach of the council’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy and the council’s Code of Conduct (‘Working with integrity’ and ‘Working with the media’).

2. That you made inappropriate comments which were subsequently circulated on social media, which are deemed to be insensitive and likely to be offensive and potentially in breach of the Equality Act 2010 and/or the Council’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy.

Steve Terry could find nothing wrong in disciplining workers for expressing their views.

Clearly these charges were a threat to all workers. The idea that by ‘causing offence’ Stan was guilty of a disciplinary matter is outrageous. The right to free speech is meaningless if all you have the right to do is to utter platitudes. Giving offence is integral to freedom of speech unless you are inciting people to racial or other forms of hatred (ie, hurting or insulting someone on the basis of an unalterable characteristic - age, disability, etc). Stan was doing none of these things. He was criticising Zionism.

My turn

Of course, Terry was unconcerned by such matters. It was not surprising that Terry, who is not used to criticism from members, complained about my comments regarding his behaviour to his boss, Maggie Ferncombe, the London regional secretary, with whom I had crossed swords when she was the South-East regional secretary.

As a result, on June 4 I was called to an investigation hearing conducted by two more officials, Gail Adams and Tony Jones, who is himself a Labour councillor in Reading. I have already published the interview,3 the whole of which can be read4 or listened to.5Suffice to say that the outcome of the investigation was as I predicted.

On Monday October 8 I was called to a disciplinary hearing to face three charges:

1. That I had engaged in disrespectful or intimidating behaviour, or had exposed Steve Terry to ridicule, embarrassment or contempt and I had violated his dignity.

2. That I had not maintained strict confidentiality over the kangaroo court procedures adopted against me.

3. That I had broken, disobeyed, etc union rules.

Those hearing my case - Mark Fischer (chair), Linda Crowther and Maggie Cook of the national executive council - were clearly not happy with the fact that I had secretly recorded the investigation hearing.6 Union bureaucrats and their servants are always happiest when they can operate in the dark, so the first thing that happened when we began was that everyone had to place their phone in a tray which was placed outside the room. Unfortunately this trick does not appear to have worked, as my phone had no difficulty picking up what took place and I have made the transcript available!7

Presenting officer Gail Adams CBE was most offended by my suggestion that the hearing was a “stitch-up”. She emphasised that if I had argued that someone else had put my blog post up or had had access to my blog then she would have been more than willing to acquit me of the charges.

However, Gail entirely missed the point. It was not that I denied what I had said, but that I justified it as being necessary in the circumstances. The real crime in this case was not what I had written about that miserable union bureaucrat, Steve Terry, but how he had treated a union member.

I demonstrated beyond all doubt that there is no redress for union members when they are sold out and betrayed by the union leadership. Back came the parroted response that I had broken “the rules” by subjecting Terry to ridicule, contempt, etc. I have to say that I have no respect for someone who is willing to sacrifice a union member’s right to free speech for the sake of the “rules”. To me Terry is contemptible. Certainly I had not intimidated him - how could I? By speaking on the phone? But then the charge is that I mayhave exposed Terry to “ridicule, embarrassment or contempt”. If the truth be told, then it is indeed ridiculous to behave as Terry did. He unfortunately shows no signs of being embarrassed and, as for contempt, surely that is the proper reaction to a union official and Labour councillor who betrays his membership? When it comes to violating his dignity, well, that assumes he had any to begin with.

The actual complaint was made by Maggie Ferncombe. Clearly this presented me with a problem, since the person whom I had allegedly affronted - Steve Terry - was not available for cross-examination. This is the basis of part of my appeal: I had apparently humiliated, etc someone who was not available to give evidence. Just imagine, in a court of law, if you are accused of insulting, intimidating, etc someone and then that person does not give evidence - but someone who talked to him does! This is Unison’s idea of justice.

Cross-examination

This is the relevant part of the cross-examination:

TG: You made the complaint about me?

MF: I did.

TG: ... and yet the obvious thing would have been for him to have made the complaint, would it not?

MF: I can’t speak for Steve.

TG: But you spoke to him.

MF: I can’t speak for Steve whether it’s obvious or not for him to make a complaint. What I can say is that Steve raised it with me because of the subject matter. He believed that it was an issue that I needed to be aware of ... Most regional organisers will come to me if they think there’s an issue that the press may or may not be interested in, because we must be prepared to have a response. He raised it with me and I then read your blog and, once I had read your blog, that is when I decided I would make a complaint.

TG: Can you enlighten us as to why he did not make a complaint?

MF: I don’t know.

TG: You spoke to him, but you have no idea why. You did not ask him?

MF: No.

TG: You weren’t interested?

MF: No.

TG: You did not invite him to make a complaint?

MF: No.

TG: You did not think it was necessary for him to make a complaint?

MF: I think that was down to the member of staff.

TG: Clearly.

MF: I took my responsibilities as a senior manager of the region to determine that I didn’t think this was appropriate. I thought it was outside of our norms - fact.

TG: I realise that.

MF: And I took the decision to make the complaint. And in fact I informed Steve that I had made the complaint.

TG: But Steve had the right to make the complaint if he was aggrieved, did he not?

MF: All members of staff have the right to make a complaint.

TG: So you have no idea, on the basis of your relationship with him, why he chose not to make a complaint?

MF [after some considerable delay]: I can only say that it is highly, highly unusual in my experience for a member of staff to make a complaint about a member.

....

TG: What was the nature of your conversation with Steve Terry?

MF: I just explained that he said that there was an issue that was happening in that particular branch, regarding a member and that he was going to be advising and that he thought that I needed to be aware of it on the basis that it might attract interest from the press and therefore we might be contacted - as have most other of my regional organisers over the years, when there has been an issue going on with a member of the branch that the press might be interested in. So that we were prepared.

TG: The charges against me today are ... that I was disrespectful, intimidating, I exposed him to ridicule, embarrassment and contempt and it violated his dignity. If we go through those. Did he say that I disrespected him?

MF: I did not have a great deal of conversation regarding how Steve felt regarding the blog at all.

TG: So you weren’t curious as to how he felt?

MF: Steve didn’t offer how he felt when I had a conversation with him. Steve offered that there was an issue I needed to be aware of in one of our branches that I would need to be prepared for, should the media decide to ...

TG: Sorry, he didn’t come to you and say, ‘I’m feeling intimidated as a result of the behaviour of Mr Greenstein?’

MF: No.

TG: Did he say that he felt ridiculed or embarrassed or felt that I held him in contempt?

MF: No.

TG: Did he say that I had violated his dignity?

MF: No.

TG: So would you agree that these charges are entirely speculative? That they have no basis or foundation and are not the subject of an allegation?

MF: No, I don’t agree with that.

TG: But nonetheless he did not make any complaint as to this nature, did he?

MF: No, but the charges talk about conduct which may ... and I believe your conduct ...

TG: So it may have exposed him, but there is no evidence to suggest that it did expose him.

MF: Well, I haven’t really done an investigation into what ...

Protecting their own

The chair, Mark Fischer, who is part of the Prentis right wing of the union, was not happy with my cross-examination. His favourite phrase was, “Let’s stick to the facts.”On one occasion I was forced to respond: “Well,I’m giving you the facts. You may not like them, but I can’t give you any others!”

Appendix 2 of the Unison rule book has been written with the express purpose of protecting unelected union officials from their own members. As I repeatedly emphasised during the hearing, there is no redress or accountability of union officials and that is the real crime in this case. But, of course, no charges were ever brought (or contemplated) against Terry, because the whole process was in the hands of Unison officials.

What my case demonstrates is the democratic deficit in Unison. It is not a leftwing union. In the past eight years, at a time of massive cuts in local government, it has failed to defend its members’ jobs, conditions or pay. Indeed the union officials have fought against any attempts to take action. Prentis is infamous for his lack of backbone. Despite the fact that Unison has good a policy on Palestine and supports Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, it has also backed the false ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign.

It is ironic that the executive officer who was responsible for my case was Beth Bickerstaffe, the daughter-in-law of a previous general secretary, the late Rodney Bickerstaffe - and, before you ask, I am sure that the appointment process was open, transparent and fair! The irony lies in the fact that Rodney Bickerstaffe, who was a supporter of Palestine, when he spoke at an AGM of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign attacked the use of false accusations of anti-Semitism against PSC supporters. This understanding seems to have disappeared from his successors.

That is what the actions of Terry are about. He agrees fully with the idea that support for the Palestinians, and in particular criticism of Zionism, is ‘anti-Semitic’. That is why Stan was abandoned and that is why I was subject to a bogus ‘investigation’, the outcome of which was inevitable.

I was also charged with a breach of confidentiality and, although I was technically guilty, I argued that in order to bring the greater crime, Terry’s treachery, to light it was necessary to publicise his crimes. However, in the eyes of my accusers this defence carried no weight.

I made it clear that in the event of being found guilty, I had no intention of pleading mitigation, as I had done nothing wrong. I was sentenced to the maximum possible punishment (bar expulsion) - three years suspension with loss of membership rights.

By the way, my defence, that the principle conceded by Unison in the case of Stan Keable was going to be used by other councils to attack the rights of other workers has come to pass. Paul Jonson, a Dudley council officer, has just been suspended for attending a picket outside rightwing Labour MP Ian Austen’s office and putting a post on Facebook which described Israel as a “racist endeavour”.

Election rules

Compare this case with the breaking of rules which occurred during the 2015 election for general secretary. The culprit was the London regional secretary, Linda Perks. Perks held a briefing for regional organisers at Unison’s Greater London office.8 Those attending were paid Unison staff, attending in work time.

In clear contravention of the election procedures, which instruct staff that they should not in work time “carry out any activities intended or likely to … affect the election or candidature of any person”, Perks gave detailed instructions to staff about campaigning for Prentis. She made it clear that she was speaking as a manager to staff by repeatedly referring them to regional managers.

“You clearly cannot be caught out saying ‘vote for Dave’,” she says, and warns staff to be careful that, if there are witnesses to conversations in which they are lobbying for Prentis, to be sure that they are “friendly witnesses”. She names the official in whose office Dave Prentis’s election leaflets will be kept, but advises staff not to mention this by email.

This was unequivocal evidence of the most blatant disregard for Unison rules on the part of the Greater London regional office. Paid officials joke about using the name of the regional convenor to justify distributing election leaflets for Dave Prentis - and about how to distract branches which they describe as part of “the opposition”. This is the same office that I came into conflict with.

The case eventually wound up when the Union Certification Officer confirmed that Unison had broken its election rules.9 In her ruling the assistant certification officer, Mary Stacey, found that

the union breached paragraph 51 of the ‘General Secretary 2015 Election Procedures’ ... in that the union’s funds, property and resources were impermissibly used to campaign for a particular candidate (Mr Dave Prentis) by reason of the following matters:

At a meeting of all Greater London regional staff held at Congress House at 2pm, October 21 2015, during work time the regional secretary of the London region openly campaigned for Mr Prentis’s re-election for general secretary and directed her staff to campaign for Mr Prentis during working time, and was assisted and supported by her regional management team.

Stacey noted the “impermissible use of Unison resources by Ms Perks by using a workplace meeting during work time to promote Mr Prentis as a candidate and belittle all the others, and constitutes campaigning”, adding: “It is apparent from the transcript that Ms Perks knew that she was breaching Unison rules in the meeting and seeking to enlist the collusion of her staff.”

Stacey also concluded:

143. It is clear that leaflets in support of Mr Prentis were to be covertly stored at the Greater London regional office in breach of the election procedures. Ms Perks repeatedly tells her staff not to leave an email trail about using the Greater London regional office as a distribution hub for the leaflets ....

145. In response to a question Ms Perks tells her staff that they should tell the members to lie about having received campaign material in support of Mr Prentis from full-time officers and instead: “‘They got them from the regional convener’ is all you need to tell them. ‘They got them from the regional convener or the regional convener team’ is perfectly fine,” she said ....

154. No matter how many times one rereads the transcript, the shock does not diminish. It is flagrant: Ms Perks’ tone is not just confident and swaggering in so openly breaking the rules, but chilling in its brazenness and demonstration of unchecked power.

Linda Perks was suspended, as it was an obvious and deliberate breach of the union’s election rules. It is difficult to think of a case that was more deserving of summary dismissal than this one. However, Ms Stacey found:

213. On the conclusion of the internal disciplinary process she was given a final written warning and received a disciplinary transfer away from the Greater London region. At the time of the hearing the applicants had assumed that, having been compulsorily moved away from the Greater London region, she would now be based in another part of the country. It emerged during the hearing that she had moved to the union’s newly refurbished head office approximately half a mile from the London regional office, retaining her grade and status. There was no evidence as to her job title or job description at the hearing ....

... Ms Perks now has the title of national secretary and is engaged on “strategic projects”.

In other words, the whole affair was carried out with a nod and a wink. What obviously happened was that Linda Perks agreed to a disciplinary process whereby it was guaranteed that she would not be dismissed and nor would she suffer any financial or other penalty. This is the contempt union rules are held in when those who make them break them.

Initially Unison’s officials and Prentis even denied that the tape recording of the meeting was genuine. They alleged it had been “tampered with”. But Mary Stacey found: “The president’s email is ... a classic example of an attempt by the victors to write the history (regardless of accuracy) and denigrate those whom they see as their vanquished adversaries.”

Unfortunately Ms Stacey went on to find that, because there was no proof that similar behaviour had occurred outside London, the result should stand. This was an amazing position to take. If there has been a flagrant breach of election rules8 in one part of the country, then that should have resulted in an inexorable inference that the whole election was corrupt.

Stacey’s finding over the ‘penalty’ that Perks suffered is damning and shows the utter cynicism of Unison’s officials when those breaching the rules happen to be those in control of the union.

257. ... the disciplinary sanction applied to the Greater London regional secretary for her actions ... is revealing. She has remained an employee at the same pay, seniority and level ... Although she has received a final written warning, ... she remains a very senior employee enjoying all the fruits of high office and long service, based in the union’s prestigious head office, working on undefined “strategic” projects. Remarkable clemency and lenience in the circumstances and perhaps not a deterrent penalty to décourager les autres ....

295. The subsequent leisurely disciplinary proceedings of Ms Perks and outcome do not inspire confidence or serve as a deterrent to future overzealous paid officials. Some might think the move to national secretary in head office on unspecified strategic projects, retaining all pay and benefits, represents reward rather than punishment ...

In September Perks retired from her position in Unison. At her retirement function Dave Prentis spoke about the debt that he felt to her: “Absolutely packed house to thank Linda Perks, one of our longest-serving regional secretaries. We will all miss her.”10 For once Prentis was telling the truth. He will certainly miss his faithful Perks.

Notes

1. www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/london-council-officer-suspended-for-nazizionist-comments-a3804626.html.

2. www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/labour-marxist-suspended-from-council-job-over-holocaust-comments-1.461829.

3. http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2018/06/unisons-shameful-betrayal-of-its.html.

4. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SsDFouCpO-HXb9d_7RPF44mpx4h3uUx8/view.

5. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1z3lOlB2osmEnaLizTECx8jG9mlRxNRA6/view.

6. http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2018/06/unisons-shameful-betrayal-of-its.html.

7. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HllfM5xYVXWKKC4YVoe0XvwZuJQvX515/view.

8. www.4shared.com/mp3/HTYMDTN-ce/unison.html.

9. See, for example, https://uniondemocracyblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/rogue-unison-regional-secretary-breaking-unison-rules-in-election-rigging-scandal.

10. www.johnslabourblog.org/2017/10/from-london-unison-regional-secretary.html.