Paul Holmes, the democratically-elected President of Unison, the biggest trade union in Britain, is facing disciplinary action from his employer.
You would think that the union would be mobilising its members to defend him. After all, if the bosses can take down our president, what does that mean for the rest of us? ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ has been a basic tenet of trade unionism through the generations.
Instead, however, Paul has been cold-shouldered by Unison officials. In fact, as well as being victimised by his employers, he has been suspended by his own union for almost two years now.
At the same time, Unison’s apparatus, which supposedly exists to put the union’s policy into practice, is trying to prevent union branches from expressing their solidarity with Paul – wheeling out an assortment of unelected officials to instruct branches about what they can and cannot discuss.
This bureaucratic jiggery-pokery (which is officially called ‘governance’) has resulted in a wave of protest. Up-and-down the country, Unison members have raised solidarity motions, only to be told that the issue cannot be discussed.
The bureaucracy is determined to try and crush any movement in support of Paul Holmes. These vicious right-wingers want his head on a stick.
But they haven’t been getting it all their own way. Despite all the bureaucratic shenanigans, motions in support of Paul have been passed by a number of branches, including: Unison Community Northern Ireland; London Fire Brigade branch; Cambridgeshire County; Camden; Birmingham; and Portsmouth.
Solidarity with Paul Holmes, recently elected Unison’s National President and runner up in its General Secretary election.— Richard Burgon MP (@RichardBurgon) September 5, 2021
Tomorrow his employer, Kirklees Council, is taking him to a disciplinary hearing.
We can’t allow bosses to get away with picking off key trade unionists.
The left victory in the NEC elections has raised the sights of a big layer of Unison activists, who understand the importance of the campaign to defend Paul Holmes.
The shenanigans inside the Labour Party – with bureaucratic proscriptions, suspensions and expulsions – have also had an impact. After all, the right wing of Unison is intimately tied to its counterpart at Labour HQ.
Paul’s hearing has been stretched out over a six-week period, and is being conducted in an isolated hotel, miles from anywhere. Paul – who doesn’t drive – has explained that he would need to take six trains and four buses just to get there.
Nevertheless, this didn’t stop more than 70 people – first thing on a Monday morning – from travelling to the hotel to protest against this victimisation on the first day of the hearing. In addition, more than 110 people attended an online solidarity meeting at the same time.
DEFEND PAUL HOLMES— Socialist Appeal (@socialist_app) September 6, 2021
Socialist Appeal supporters attended the Defend Paul Holmes lobby in Huddersfield this morning, the first day of Kirklees council's hearing into the charges against UNISON President and staunch trade unionist Paul Holmes. pic.twitter.com/bCYgxCCOhn
It is important to reiterate what this disciplinary means in concrete terms: If Kirklees Council, with the active collusion of the Unison bureaucracy, manage to sack the elected President of Britain’s largest trade union, without the union doing anything to stop them, then this will give employers everywhere the green light to attack any trade union activist that makes life uncomfortable for them.
Even under the feeble leadership of Dave Prentis, Unison used to understand this. When Karen Reissman, an NEC member and NHS activist, was disciplined by her employer, Unison mobilised a response, including strikes, a lobby of Parliament, a national day of action, and a demonstration – because they understood that they needed to defend Unison reps facing victimisation.
This was all done through discussions in branches, in the regions, and at a national level. There are other examples also.
The recent TUC Congress supported a motion offering 100% support for reps facing attacks from employers.
Speaking on this motion, Mick Lynch of the RMT stated: “Reps are the lifeblood of our movement. If we can't defend them, who will defend us against our employers.”
If this is the response of the TUC, famed for its timidity, then it illustrates how far out on a limb the Unison bureaucracy is.
My message of solidarity for Paul Holmes Branch Secretary Kirklees UNISON and elected President of UNISON @tfrc_unison @skwawkbox @IanBFAWU @wylie_alan @pad6 @orgreavejustice @DaveBlacklist @LGSMpride @TucHuddersfield @PhillipsBarrie @RedRosa91940184 @mygibbo @johndunn322 pic.twitter.com/HG4w71Gyst— 💙 💙 💙 #NHS (@John_Burgess001) August 30, 2021
As the crisis unfolds in the aftermath of the pandemic, employers and the Tories will be looking for their pound of flesh. That, incidentally, is one of the reasons that trade union membership is on the increase.
This also explains the election of the left NEC in Unison, and Sharon Graham’s recent victory in the Unite general secretary election.
If the trade union movement does not fight every single attack on our activists, then this will embolden the government and the bosses. Weakness invites aggression.
The struggle inside Unison is directly linked to that taking place inside the Labour Party.
For starters, some of those involved in trying to undermine the left Unison NEC are precisely the same people who sought to undermine Corbyn. And the union has a significant weight and influence inside the party.
These right-wingers are agents of the ruling class inside the Labour and trade union movement. Their interests lie in defending their own positions and privileges.
This was actively revealed at Unison’s recent Labour Link committee meeting, on 13 September, where left-wing members tabled a series of important votes on policy issues relating to the upcoming Labour Party conference.
Despite two procedural motions being put and won by 11 voted to 8, the right-wing chair of the meeting refused to allow the motions to be discussed.
The motions refused for discussion pertained to: Jeremy Corbyn’s readmission to the PLP; opposition to bans and proscriptions; opposition to any moves for the abolition of the ‘One Member, One Vote’ method for leadership elections; and a commitment to open selection.
These are central issues in the Labour Party at the moment. And these motions would have firmly committed Unison delegates to supporting the left at party conference.
The left majority on the Labour Link committee have published a statement, which explains what happened (see below). Reporting on this meeting, the Skwawkbox adds:
“The left won all of the votes 11-8, but a staff member then said the votes couldn’t count because there had to be a two-thirds or three-quarters majority – but when challenged to show the rule that said that, nothing was forthcoming. It was just conjured out of nowhere. A vote to change the Labour Link chair was also blocked with the same excuse.”
This shows the right-wing bureaucracy are making things up as they go along – pulling every trick in order to deny democracy and prevent the left-wing transformation of the labour movement.
The problem for the right wing, however, is that with every stunt they pull; with every undemocratic stitch-up that they try and cobble together, they simply undermine any remaining authority or credibility they have in the eyes of the membership.
Socialist Appeal has consistently argued that the struggle to transform Unison cannot be won in the union’s headquarters, but needs to be brought out into the open, and carried into the membership – into the branches, regions, service groups, and self-organised groups inside the union.
The scandalous antics of the right wing must be exposed for all to see, to make it clear what this civil war represents. This is a battle of genuine trade unionism, representing the interests of members, against bureaucratic privilege and cronyism.
We, the undersigned, formed the left majority at a critical Unison National Labour Link Committee meeting on 13 September to establish Unison policy going into Labour Party conference.
Despite having a majority at the meeting, our motions submitted in good time prior to the meeting were not tabled. Despite winning two procedural votes, both by 11 to 8, which should have allowed our motions to be readmitted to the agenda, this was prevented from happening.
For the record, the motions not debated were:
- For the readmittance of Jeremy Corbyn to the PLP;
- Against proscription and the unnecessary damage this is doing;
- A commitment to ‘One Member, One Vote’, and to oppose any return to the electoral college or increase to the nominations required for leadership candidates to get on the ballot;
- A commitment to open selection, including opposition to any increase to the thresholds required to trigger open selections for MPs.
We call on the Labour Party leadership to recognise the new mood in Unison for a democratic and accountable labour movement, and to plan accordingly for its implementation.
We call on Unison Labour Link members to elect Labour left candidates in the current Labour Link elections, so we can win officer positions at the next meeting and ensure Unison takes a positive, socialist message into the Labour Party in line with member wishes.
Exclusive: left on Unison NEC accuse staff of blocking votes on union’s positions at Labour conference https://t.co/XBXbtZOusR— The SKWAWKBOX (@skwawkbox) September 20, 2021
Dear Cllr Pandor,
I am writing to you and including all Kirklees elected members to advise you to step back from making a decision which could have long lasting public reputational damage for Kirklees Council.
I refer to the disciplinary hearing of Paul Holmes, branch secretary of Kirklees Unison and President of Unison.
I have no idea as to what discussions or advice you were given when the decision to suspend Paul was made 21 months ago, but it was seriously flawed.
It’s worth reflecting on the following:
- He is the elected President of Unison nationally, a union with 1.4 million members.
- He has been the elected branch secretary for Kirklees Unison for 32 years.
- Kirklees is one of the ten biggest branches in the union.
- He has been a trade union shop steward for 46 years.
- He has been on Unison’s NEC for 14 years (elected 8 times).
Dear Leader of Kirklees Council,— 💙 💙 💙 #NHS (@John_Burgess001) September 19, 2021
I am writing to you and including all Kirklees elected members to advise you to step back from making a decision which could have long lasting public reputational damage for Kirklees Council.#DefendPaulHolmes pic.twitter.com/24HRfpIPdh
It would be wrong to downplay down the significance of suspending Paul Holmes. He has rightly earned a reputation of being totally committed to his members and his track record for delivering for his members is second to none.
It worries me that you must have been made aware of the risks of this suspension, yet still pursued this aggressive action by suspending Paul. Furthermore, by dragging out the suspension for 22 months, Kirklees Council has added to the detriment and mistreatment of Paul Holmes.
I would add that Employment Tribunals do not look kindly on employers who use suspension as punishment as suspension is supposedly a neutral act; being suspended for 22 months cannot be spun as anything other than victimisation of a trade union rep.
The suspension of Paul Holmes for 22 months and counting, in my humble opinion, brings Kirklees Council’s reputation as an employer into disrepute.
Who made the decision to waste public money holding a council disciplinary meeting in a four-star hotel when there are plenty of suitable Kirklees Council spaces available at no cost to the Kirklees residents tax payers?
What do you think employees will think when they hear that Kirklees Council has suspended an employee for 22 months?
As a Labour politician you will no doubt be aware of the history of the trade union movement, which is littered with stories of trade union reps being targeted by employers. I am advising you that if this disciplinary continues and Paul is dismissed, then Kirklees Council’s name will be added to the list of rogue employers who have victimised a trade union rep.
I leave you with this.
The Yunus Bakhsh case which started with a suspension in 2006 and ended in the High Court in 2012. I provide a link to the High Court case here.
Bakhsh, R (on the application of) v Northumberland Tyne & Wear NHS Foundation Trust  EWHC 1445 (Admin) (28 May 2012)
“After a hearing lasting several weeks in March and April 2010, on 21 July 2010 an Employment Tribunal sitting in Newcastle found that the dismissal was by reason of his legitimate trade union activities and hence the dismissal was automatically unfair pursuant to s.152 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The tribunal found that he had also been subject to disability discrimination. This decision was not appealed. The written decision of the Employment Tribunal ran to well over 100 pages and, though I have not read every line of it, it appears to have been thorough and comprehensive and reviewed all the evidence in considerable detail. It vindicated substantially the case advanced by the Claimant.”
I see very clear links with this case and with what Kirklees Council is doing with Paul Holmes.
As a trade union rep of 42 years, I felt it was important that I approach you and all councillors at Kirklees Council to see if there is any way for you all to avert the impending disaster for your reputation as an employer.
I leave you on this point.
I will now set out my own analysis of what appears to be happening in Kirklees Council.
Paul is going to be dismissed regardless of how well he mounts a defence.
He will appeal to the council and I predict his appeal will not be upheld.
The likely sacking of Paul Holmes – branch secretary of Kirklees UNISON and elected President of a union of 1.4 million members – strikes to the heart of the trade union movement. I am 100% certain that an Employment Tribunal claim for victimisation of a trade union rep will be lodged in support of Paul.
I’m guessing a pot of money has been put aside to make an offer to settle outside the courts. This pot of money has already been used to pay his wages for the last 22 months.
I have news for you and your fellow councillors. Whatever you offer Paul, he is not interested in money.
Why would public money be set aside to fund a lengthy suspension and pay the costs of expensive hotel bills for the hearing and, in the event of a dismissal, pay the legal and officer costs in Employment Tribunal, Employment Appeal Tribunal and to hear the case at the High Court as happened in the Yunus Bakhsh case.
The 45,220 UNISON members who voted for him in the general secretary election last year all know he publicly stated he would continue to take his workers wage and not take the £100,000 plus salary for the elected Unison general secretary role.
Are you prepared for a five-year relentless campaign to reinstate Paul Holmes – a campaign that will haunt Kirklees Council?
I believe there is time to avert this political disaster.
As leader of Kirklees Council, you have that power. I hope you use it wisely.
Trade union rep