Should a leading activist with decades of service to the movement be expelled for downloading a leftwing leaflet on a union computer? That is the principle handed down in the Unison union last week.
The final expulsion of union activist Tony Staunton has angered many union members.
Tony had his appeal against his expulsion rejected, and the original sentence was confirmed.
He has been a trade unionist and political activist in the region for nearly 30 years. He is popular not only on the left but among very wide layers of the union movement.
Tony has also been a candidate in European and general elections for Respect.
He was the secretary of Plymouth trades council for nearly a decade. He also held numerous Unison positions.
The union has been unable to find any Unison member to speak against Tony during the 15 months of the disciplinary proceedings.
Some 25 supporters held a lobby of the first day of the appeal in Plymouth.
Tony was cleared of charges of false claiming of expenses and use of photocopiers for personal or political purposes.
The local Plymouth Unison branch and the trades council have stood in Tony’s support and branch secretaries of seven trade unions in Plymouth wrote in his defence.
But Tony’s outspoken campaigning and criticism of New Labour’s policies of privatisation and destruction of the welfare state have won him enemies in sections of the union leadership.
Tony was due to stand for election to Unison’s national executive, challenging the current chair of Unison’s national Labour Link when he was suspended and barred from standing.
The expulsion has raised fears that the Unison bureaucracy is increasingly anxious to impose the centralised domination of officers loyal to New Labour.
Tony was suspended from office following a raid by regional officials on the Plymouth Unison office in November 2006.
He was charged with misappropriation and use of union resources for factional and party political purposes, and expelled in July 2007.
A key issue during the hearing against Tony was whether the compilation of emails using a Unison computer constituted the use of union resources for party political purposes.
The identification of a Microsoft Word document with an article written by Socialist Worker editor Chris Bambery, alongside emails from members of Unison’s national executive, was enough to conclude misappropriation of union resources for party political purposes.
Tony argued that the document was raw material he had used for a union newsletter article about the proposed pensions deal in local government.
Incredibly, the article from Socialist Worker was used to prove, on balance of probability, that Tony had been using branch resources for party purposes.
The entire contents of branch computers with more than eight years of files – assembled from three generations of Unison equipment accessible by all Unison representatives – were searched for any content that referred to left wing organisations or parties.
Finally, the single Word document, plus a downloaded leaflet for a local SWP public meeting and the banner heading from the national Respect website were the complete exhibits offered as evidence of use of Unison computers for party political purposes.
In conclusion, Unison’s presenting officer for the prosecution advised the panel that even one party political document on a Unison computer could compromise the union’s legal status, and was sufficient for expulsion.
Throughout the union movement, certainly in Unison, activists send emails or download documents from left wing parties, the Labour Party, the Lib Dems, the SNP or Plaid Cymru.
Union officials certainly use Unison equipment for Labour Party purposes without filling in a form that this should be charged to the political fund.
It is as if the government suddenly decided that everyone who had been driving over 10mph on a motorway should be charged – but then only arrested leftwingers.
The ownership of computers and a mobile phone bought for Tony through his 12 years of voluntary service as elected branch officer in Devon and Plymouth continue to be contested.
With a variety of documents from both sides either confirming transfer of ownership or Unison’s continued possession, only a legal judgement can finally resolve the dispute.
Tony admitted that he and his children had used the computers, permanently based in his family home, in the belief, confirmed by the branch treasurer, that they had been gifted to him.
He had offered to hand the computers over if personal information could be deleted, but the investigation stated that any deleted files or tampering would be proof of guilt.
Unison gives no guidance on the proper use of mobile phones and computers by lay activists.
This expulsion raises important political questions.
The wording of some charges identified that membership or involvement with the leftwing grouping in Unison, the United Left, constituted a breach of democracy in Unison guidelines.
If that is the case, the decision to expel Tony paves the way for further political attacks from Unison’s leadership on any organised attempt to challenge the union’s current support for Gordon Brown.
Tony is fighting for reinstatement and has formally complained to the certification officer for alleged victimisation.
Messages of support to Tony.Staunton@Blueyonder.co.uk