Fighting back against victimisation

Pat Mollins is a private sector care worker who ended up victimised by management for union organising in his workplace. Here is his story of how they fought back – and won. This piece originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of the rs21 magazine.

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There were many reasons why we began to orgasnise in our union, but the key one was management’s use of suspension as a means of effectively sacking people.

If they wanted someone gone, they would just suspend them without pay and give them a meeting to attend in a few weeks’ time. Workers with bills to pay and families to feed can’t go without earning for weeks at a time. Inevitably they would look elsewhere for work and take whatever they could get as soon as they could get it.

This knowledge that management could get rid of someone at any time, for any reason, meant we were always working under a cloud of fear and stress. The union needed to confront and beat the terror of suspension if we wanted to get anywhere. And once we’d begun to organise openly it was a question of when, rather than if, we would have to face this.

A union built around one active person can prove too brittle when faced with a backlash from management. We’ve tried to develop a culture where people share the work – and the risk – from the very beginning.

So we take people’s employment situations into account. If they’re on a zero hour contract, they shouldn’t be expected to take an openly leading role in union work. Leave this for colleagues with minimum hours in their contracts – bosses won’t even bother with disciplinary procedures if they can reduce or eliminate the hours of a union activist.

Concerns

My first suspension came a few weeks after we’d handed in a joint letter setting out staff concerns about health and safety. A manager casually informed me that I was suspended for “irregularities in the finances of my service users”. I was told I could have no contact with any other member of staff. I would face an investigation meeting in around six weeks’ time and receive no pay during my time on suspension.

The plan was to isolate me from my colleagues and discredit me. Management hoped I would be unable or unwilling to fight the allegations. But I was the first worker they had tried to get rid of this way who was also a trade union member.

The experience of being suspended was unpleasant in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Of course I was anxious about losing my job and angry at having my integrity called into question. What I didn’t see coming was how being off work could mess up your life.

When you’re working you crave and cherish every bit of free time. You don’t realise how much your life is structured around work. My life just spun into disorganisation. I felt powerless and deflated. I didn’t realise how isolating it would be to be separated from the colleagues and service users I saw every day, or how frustrating it was that they would have no idea why I wasn’t at work. When I had very little free time, I could get loads done with it. But when I had nothing but free time, I couldn’t get anything done.

What helped me was the support I received from friends and fellow activists. Staying active politically and keeping in close contact with rs21 comrades helped me to keep my perspective. My union branch was incredibly supportive. The union promised to back me financially if it came to that.

Fortunately the company had not bargained on me kicking up a fuss and agreed to pay me during suspension. Your company cannot use suspension as a punishment. Unless it is explicitly stated in your contract that you can be suspended without pay, you must be paid in full. Unfortunately none of my colleagues who had been suspended in the past had stuck around long enough to contest this. Management also conceded a contractual pay rise that I should have received when my probation period ended.

If two weeks into a suspension you find yourself with a pay rise and a grand of unpaid wages landing in your bank account, it’s safe to say things aren’t quite going according to management plans. The allegations against me collapsed completely at the investigation meeting. I was back to work the following Monday.

Example

Most small private sector employers rarely have to deal with anyone holding them to account. My suspension was meant to set an example of what happened to uppity workers. It did just that – but not in the way management had hoped. Workers saw that the days of summary sackings were over. Beating the suspension gave us our first solid win and helped us recruit to the union hand over fist.

I was back at work for just under a month before I got suspended again. The first suspension was the act of an overconfident management. This one was from managers who were panicked and reactive. Our union had grown significantly and we were in a position to organise opposition to a pay cut they were trying to bring in.

People knew what the suspension was about and that our right to organise was under attack. Colleagues ignored the instructions not to talk to me – I received dozens of phone calls in support. Members turned out to a Unison branch meeting at the town hall and officially elected me as rep. The branch passed a motion supporting me and kept workers updated about my case from start to finish.

Once more the employers’ case against me collapsed in the investigation meeting. Everything I’d done was completely within my rights as a trade union member. Ultimately the company had no alternative but to accept that.

Culture

This second win cemented a culture change in the company. People now know that the union makes them more secure. This has partially lifted the sense of precarity we work under. But there’s still a lot more work to do to provide protection for colleagues on zero hours contracts. Management still uses reduction of working hours as an informal disciplinary measure.

Organising in private sector social care is difficult, but is by no means impossible. Workers are often physically separated on different sites, plus there’s a high turnover of staff. But these problems can be overcome with new forms of communication and support from union structures and socialist organisations.

Private sector social care is in many ways the “Wild West” of labour relations. As union organisation gets more developed in this sector, we will inevitably deal with more cases of activists being victimised. We need to build links among rank and file activists to support us and allow us to learn from one another.

Socialists should take on the task of organising these workers. Their challenges often encapsulate the wider problems we’ll have to overcome if we are to challenge neoliberalism at the point of production and begin to rebuild working class strength.

Tips for getting organised

  • Get acquainted with your company’s disciplinary procedures. All companies must have these in writing (ours were buried in a 200+ page staff handbook). They should set out exactly what behaviour or actions can lead to a disciplinary.
  • If you’ve not broken any explicit rules, or if your employer cannot demonstrate that you’ve done so, then chances are you’re going to be fine. Make sure you are represented at every step of the process by a union official and build your case
  • It’s illegal for an employer to victimise a worker for trade union activity, but you can lose that protection if you cannot show that union activities occurred at an “appropriate time”. Creating a space outside of the workplace can help here.
  • Building the union broadly and involving every member in activities makes it harder for management to single anyone out. They may calculate that it’s worth losing money at an employment tribunal if it means breaking a union, but we shouldn’t give them this opportunity.

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