Leading health trade unionist Karen Reissmann has settled her employment tribunal case against Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust.
Karen, a senior psychiatric nurse with 25 years experience, was sacked in 2007 after speaking out against cuts and privatisation.
She was suspended for giving what her employers claimed was an improper interview, in which she criticised the transfer of mental health nursing work to the voluntary sector.
The trust then brought further charges against her when she talked to the press, told colleagues she’d been suspended, and declared that the charges against her were baseless.
Around 700 workers at the trust struck for 14 days in Karen’s defence, while 150 community mental health workers took several weeks of all-out strike action to demand that their Unison union branch chair be reinstated to her job.
During the tribunal the former boss of the trust, Sheila Foley, acknowledged that Karen’s nursing abilities had never been called into question, and admitted that many of Karen’s criticisms of the trust had proven to be correct.
The chair of the tribunal made a number of interventions during the cross-examination of Foley. In each case he narrowed the possible scope of Karen’s defence.
Karen’s legal team argued strongly that a sensible person reading the “offending interview” would see that this was a union matter, but the chair disagreed.
Most seriously he declared that the rights to freedom of speech that Karen might claim under the Human Rights Act were overridden by her duties to her employer under her employment contract.
If the tribunal had proceeded to a conclusion and found against Karen on this basis, the implications for all other lay activists in the unions would have been devastating as there would be a precedent for employers to use against those who speak out.
The chair’s ruling on this point could have been brought before a higher court, but the costs of doing so are astronomical. It is extremely unlikely that Karen’s Unison union would have been prepared to back her.
In the summer of last year, Karen rejected legal advice provided by the lawyers paid for by Unison.
At this point, the union withheld further funding for legal representation, and Karen’s friends and supporters were forced to raise money to permit her case to continue.
The tribunal was ended on the third day of proceedings when it was announced an agreement had been reached. The details of the settlement are subject to a strict confidentiality clause, with neither Karen nor the trust allowed to issue any comment with a direct bearing on the case.
However, in a statement to Socialist Worker, Karen said that she was “happy with the outcome of the case”. She also pointed out that, in general, employment tribunals reflect a system that benefits employers.
She said, “About 87 percent of cases brought to tribunal are won by employers. And, even if you win your case, tribunals do not have the power to demand your reinstatement.”
The problems in the tribunal system are a matter for the whole trade union movement, and it is urgent that an organisation with significant resources tests the chair’s interpretation of the law in a higher court.
Despite not winning reinstatement, Karen’s campaign has helped bring attacks on freedom of speech for trade unionists to national prominence.
When Unison organised a national day of action scores of trade union branches were prepared to give their support.
Together with the strong stand taken by her fellow workers, this will doubtless make other employers think carefully before launching a similar attack.
It is testimony to the strength of Karen and her colleagues that their Manchester community and mental health Unison branch has emerged from this battle with its organisation and spirit of defiance enhanced.
Karen is restanding for her position on the Unison national executive with elections due in spring this year.
Karen’s legal defence fund still needs donations to pay for her representation in court. Donations should be made to Karen Reissmann Legal Defence Fund, Unity Trust Bank, sort code 08-60-01, account number 20215859, or sent to the fund’s treasurer, Kathy Crotty, 181 St Mary’s Road, Manchester M40 0BN