By Niall McCrae:
The Covid-19 contagion has led to radical changes in the workplace. In the ‘new normal’ of working from home, meetings are held online. For day-to-day business, temperamental internet connection and poor sound may be tolerable. But a virtual exchange is more problematic in the context of a disciplinary hearing. The worker does not have a representative by her side, presenting evidence is awkward, and online proceedings worsen the power imbalance in favour of the employer. Imagine a single mum trying to defend herself from a cramped flat with noisy young children.
As a trade union officer, I have been involved in abysmally unfair disciplinary hearings. On one occasion a care assistant who had defied the demands of her employer to take the Covid-19 vaccine (due to her concerns about possible impact on her fertility), was subjected to a dehumanising inquisition. The manager and personnel administrator probed the worker on her menstrual cycle and planned pregnancy. It was hard to believe what I was hearing, after all the rights and protections gained through employment law and policies.
My role is not to make a martyr of an employee but to seek a fair outcome. In this case the worker was being threatened with redeployment away from direct care, which she did not want. The care home organisation appeared to be jumping the gun on mandatory vaccination: the government was conducting a consultation on this. Currently, imposing a medical intervention on staff against their will (and against their employment contract), is unlawful as well as ethically dubious.
I tried to defend the worker on grounds of proportionality, equity and safety but the panel tried to silence me, perversely arguing that my points were irrelevant. The hearing was adjourned, giving the worker at least a stay of execution. The member complained in writing that the hearing was unduly stressful and intimidating, discussing her intimate personal details, and that denying her representative’s input breached Section 13 of the Employment Relations Act 1999.
The Covid-19 regime has led to a surge in membership of the Workers of England Union. This body differs from the established unions in four ways: independence from employers, generic coverage, individualised approach, and political neutrality. I shall explain how these are beneficial to workers.
The WEU always deploys external representatives. The large unions have shop stewards, but this arrangement incurs a conflict of interest: The union rep is under the same management as the employees whom they represent. He or she is likely to be involved in regular meetings on organisational matters such as pay and changes to working conditions, and relations with senior managers and personnel administrators may be perceived by the rank and file as overly respectful.
Open to anyone in any workplace, WEU membership ranges from part-time supermarket cleaners to esteemed professors. In the past, the Transport & General Workers Union was by far the largest in Britain, its scope of occupations widening after several takeovers. But most unions were specific to trades or professions. Some workers may doubt that a generic union has sufficient experience and expertise for their particular setting. But whether a university, warehouse or abattoir, statutory rights are the same. Large companies may act as if they are a law unto themselves, but they aren’t. Such arrogance or complacency often leads to the employer losing at a tribunal.
As membership declined across the UK workforce from the 1980s onwards, trade unions consolidated into fewer, larger organisations, resulting in the supersize Unite and Unison. This takes us to the third difference: individualised representation. I remember my father grumbling, back in the 1970s, about his social work union showing little interest in his dispute with management; NALGO was focused on bigger battles. Syndicalism runs deep in the veins of the older unions, with their history of fighting the ‘Tory’ state. For activists, there is more reward in getting headlines for pay or pension campaigns than in getting bogged down with individual grievances.
Political neutrality is another attribute of the WEU. Originating in the labour movement of the late nineteenth century, trade unions are unsurprisingly slanted to the left of the political spectrum. However, like the Labour Party, their mission has been distorted from representing the working class to the divisive identity politics of race, gender and sexual orientation. Minority groups are favoured, while traditional views and social norms are dispasraged. The ‘woke’ agenda is force-fed through union literature, pushing gender fluidity and critical race theory. I first observed this change on the 50th anniversary of the NHS, when a Unison brochure celebrating historical landmarks in the public health service highlighted the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence (an event of no relevance).
The larger unions do not hide their political ideology, such as opposing Brexit. An employee in trouble for uttering a politically incorrect opinion or outmoded phrase may not gain much sympathy from a shop steward of opposing opinion. In a censorial atmosphere, workers of conservative, patriotic or (dare I say) common-sense outlook are realising that the large unions will not protect them.
The WEU liaises with the Free Speech Union, founded by Toby Young. Although the FSU has made a tremendous impact, gaining mainstream media coverage, it is not a registered trade union and thus cannot attend hearings. A special joint membership rate has been arranged for FSU members who seek protection from a potentially punitive employer.
The Covid-19 regime has brought new threats to workers. Dissent from the official narrative may be regarded as spreading dangerous disinformation. The prospect of compulsory vaccination (‘no jab, no job’) is causing much concern. Stephen Morris, general secretary of the WEU, recently met businessman Godfrey Bloom on boosting employees’ protection and privacy from unsolicited medical intervention, leading to a flood of membership applications.
Whereas the older unions tend to support tighter controls in the workplace (ostensibly to protect workers), the WEU is wary of the changes to working conditions resulting from Covid-19, which give bosses immense power. While grievances and disciplinary hearings are the bread-and-butter of WEU work, on many occasions the union has successfully represented workers at employment tribunals.
Inevitably, some pandemic-related disputes will end in higher courts of law. The WEU will fight for any member whose bodily integrity is threatened by Covid-19 coercion. My body, my choice.
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This post The Workers of England Union: protecting employees from Covid-19 coercion first appeared on Wake Up UK and is written by Daniel Mortimer
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Author: Daniel Mortimer
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