Karen Reissmann’s employment tribunal began in Manchester on Monday.
Karen is a mental health nurse and Unison union branch chair who was suspended and then sacked for criticising deficiencies in mental health provision in Manchester.
Her colleagues rallied around her in a brilliant show of solidarity, taking 14 days of strike action in 2007.
Since Karen was sacked, she’s been doing agency work. The employment tribunal is her chance to get justice.
Unfortunately it has a very narrowly defined remit, as the panel chair insisted at the start of the case. He made it clear it is the tribunal’s job to evaluate only if Karen had been “improperly sacked”.
The issue is not whether they should have sacked Karen but whether they went about it the right way.
Karen’s legal team will be arguing that she told the truth and she was outspoken as a Unison officer, defending the health service and giving a true account of a bad situation.
Events since her sacking have, tragically, shown that the mental health service in Manchester has been substandard.
The trust has been rated “weak”, and there has been a death. The organisation that complained about Karen’s criticism is having its contract ended.
The only witness called on the first day was Sheila Foley, former chief executive of the Manchester Mental Health Trust. She gave a long defence of her role in suspending and then sacking Karen.
She has since fallen out with the trust and will be taking them to her own tribunal for unfair dismissal. But that, she insisted, had nothing to do with Karen’s case.
Nor was the issue Karen’s position as chair of the union branch and chair of the staff side in talks about reorganising the service. Sheila Foley said she sacked Karen as an employee, not as a union rep.
Crossexamined by Karen’s barrister, Foley agreed that the trust had been rated 173rd out of 175 trusts. That, she said, was “a true picture of where the organisation was”.
Had there been problems with Harp, the voluntary organisation that had taken Karen’s criticisms personally? According to Ms Foley it had been too soon to tell.
The chair then ruled it was not the tribunal’s job to judge Harp or even whether Karen’s view of it might be correct.
The question became: was Karen speaking as a nurse or as a union official when she gave the interview that led to her sacking? Sheila Foley thinks she was “wearing a nurse’s hat” not a “union hat”.
Karen’s barrister suggested that the language of the interview was clearly about unions and campaigns.
While the journalist who conducted the interview didn’t mention Karen’s Unison role in her article, it was in her notes. The case was continuing as Socialist Worker went to press.
Watch this site for updates on the tribunal