Last week was a good one – two victories in the space of a few days is not bad going!
The obvious victory was election to Unite’s Executive Council, to represent the Union’s health workers. This matters, in the big scheme of things. The success of myself and Frank Wood consolidates the Union’s shift towards a position of active defence of the NHS and its workforce.
The other victory was a lot smaller, but in some ways pleased me a good deal more. I’ve been representing two clinical staff for months. They really hadn’t done anything wrong, and any trivial weaknesses in their own performance reflected far wider organisational problems. This case could and should have been resolved a year ago, through a review of the policies and procedures of the Trust concerned. Instead, the two workers were scapegoated, suspended, accused of serious breaches of their professional code – and appeared to be on a conveyor belt to dismissal.
On Friday, we won the first case. Next week, I’m confident we’ll win the second case. The two staff can get back to work and get on with their lives.
It wasn’t an easy victory. The charges were astonishingly serious on the face of it, but the investigating officer’s case crumbled under scrutiny. I cross-examined her from 9.30 in the morning to 3.30 in the afternoon, with a half hour break for lunch. We went line by line through every statement, every scrap of evidence, every relevant line of the professional code, every paragraph of the relevant policies…. Every single accusation fell apart. One very serious allegation, under questioning, amounted to the staff member appearing unprofessional by carrying an umbrella when making a home visit. Why did she carry the umbrella? Because it was pouring with rain! We started to enter the realms of absolute farce. I admit to quite enjoying the final two hours of questioning as it became so obvious that the employer had made astonishingly serious mistakes.
This case was won through massive amounts of preparation and real attention to detail. I made it clear that any outcome that was in any way detrimental to the members would be heading straight for Tribunal. There’s little question we would have won any Tribunal case. Even under those circumstances, though, there’s always a strong fear that an employer has gone so far down a punitive route that they’re simply unable to stop themselves seeing it through to dismissal. Still, this was a victory, and a satisfying one.
There’s a real problem, though. There are countless cases pretty much identical to this one. There’s a scandalous problem of bullying in the NHS now, with informal reports suggesting that some employers are sacking people on trumped-up charges on an almost routine basis. I think this is partly about getting rid of staff without the cost of redundancy payments, but – probably more importantly – it’s about keeping all staff intimidated and compliant by random acts of victimisation.
I’m proud of the role I played in saving a couple of jobs, and I couldn’t be happier for the two (really decent) individuals concerned. I didn’t become a union rep to be a proxy lawyer, though. One of the priorities for union activists has got to be to re-build collective organisation. That way, when an employer starts to bully, we say, ‘On your bike’ – and we back up that response with whatever action is needed. And one or two victories through collective strength would stop these victimisations happening in the first place.
Ultimately, the power of unions doesn’t lie in reps reading policies carefully, or putting fancy arguments well. Our power is a collective one. It’s incredibly important that we return again and again to that fundamental truth.