In the course of a few days this week Yunus Bakhsh, a leading Unison union and health activist, could be both disciplined by his union and sacked from his job as a psychiatric nurse.
The twin assault on Yunus is an attempt to break one of the strongest union branches in the country by removing its elected joint branch secretary, and an attempt to silence the left.
Unison has scheduled a disciplinary investigation for Yunus on Thursday of this week, while his employer has set Monday of next week as the date for a hearing that includes the threat of summary dismissal.
The management meeting was arranged without any contact with the union official who is representing Yunus.
The leadership of Unison knows that an increasing number of members are questioning their close relationship with the Labour government.
But instead of reflecting that feeling, they lash out at left wingers who embody such concerns. Yunus is caught in a pincer movement by his employers and the union leadership.
Union activists across the region are worried that if Yunus is sacked, their bosses will feel confident to attack other trade unionists.
Maddie Nettleship, branch chair of Gateshead health Unison, told Socialist Worker why her branch supports Yunus: “The union must always defend its stewards against management.
“If there are disputes between union members, they should be dealt with after we have safeguarded our activists’ jobs.
“I want to see our national leadership putting up a fight for Yunus. Otherwise it will be a green light to other employers, including my own, to threaten anyone who wants to keep the NHS public, defend jobs and fight for decent pay.”
Jon Rogers, who sits on Unison’s national executive, is circulating a letter to all other executive members calling for support for Yunus.
The letter argues, “The disciplinary charges against Yunus have widely been seen as victimisation of a leading Unison activist by a hostile employer.”
It points out that “it is vital for the strength and health of our union that all activists are assured that they will receive the very best support and representation should they face hostile action from our employers”.
The letter cites the way in which in 2005 Unison responded vigorously to attacks on Nigel Flanagan and Paul Summers – two union activists in Sefton, Merseyside, who were victimised for their union activities. In a classic employer’s trick, they were accused of intimidation and sacked.
Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary, condemned the dismissal and supported a strategy that involved industrial action. When he was on the union’s national executive, Yunus was also among those who organised to support Sefton.
The eventual settlement did not secure all the union’s objectives, but was far more than would have been achieved otherwise. Leading Unison activists are demanding the same treatment for Yunus.
Last August Yunus led a high profile campaign against cuts in facilities for patients at the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust, where he has worked for 19 years.
A month later he was suspended from his job after management received an anonymous letter that made unsubstantiated allegations about him. The trust refused to allow him to see the letter, but still suspended him.
Yunus’s union branch, which was shortly to merge with two other branches, moved quickly to demand a ballot for strike action. Instead regional secretary Gill Hale and regional convenor Clare Williams placed the branch in regional administration.
An unelected Unison full-time official now runs the branch.
Stewards were not allowed to raise Yunus’s case at a meeting of this shadow branch in early December. A few days later Yunus was told that, following the meeting, some members had made complaints against him to the union.
On 15 January – a day before the northern regional council where motions in support of Yunus had been submitted – he was interviewed by the union and suspended from office.
No other witnesses from the union meeting were called.
Meanwhile a report was produced for Unison’s industrial action committee. It confidently asserts that there is little enthusiasm for a strike ballot within the hospital trust.
Many of those who have seen it say the report is the product of a deeply flawed procedure.
Though it claims to be based on extensive consultation with union stewards, who were asked to gauge the feeling of members in their sections, in many areas this did not happen.
The union provided no information about Yunus’s case to those it questioned, and there was no publicity material to highlight his case.
It is stated that members in the area covered by the former South Tyne and Wearside branch are 98 percent against holding a ballot for industrial action. Yet many workers there say they have never been consulted.
A similar lack of consultation is evident at the hospitals in Northgate and Prudhoe trust where the report claims 96 percent of members are against a ballot.
The report does admit that support for Yunus is strong among members at the former North Tyne branch. But it suggests that in certain community psychiatric nurse wards and offices there is unanimous opposition to the strike ballot.
Yet all stewards in these sections report that there is no part of their membership that is solidly against a vote.
Many are left wondering how it was possible to “ascertain the feeling of the members” without any consultation meetings. A genuine gauge of the feelings of the membership would have been to organise the ballot straight away.
Yunus’s branch has not been allowed to discuss the report. Activists have been threatened by regional officers with disciplinary action if they hand out any “unofficial” material that mentions Yunus’s case.
Members of Unison’s northern regional council have also been told that they cannot discuss the case because it is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
But after Yunus’s supporters leafleted local workplaces, an angry Kenny Bell, Unison’s deputy regional convenor, organised a meeting for a section of Newcastle’s local government workers to ensure that “all members are accurately informed”.
Rush messages demanding Yunus’s disciplinary hearing be postponed to Dave Prentis, Unison, Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ Email firstname.lastname@example.org