Psychiatric nurse Yunus Bakhsh was driven from his job of more than 20 years—and purged from the union he had tirelessly built. But with grassroots support from across the trade union movement he fought his persecutors all the way, making legal history as he went.
Yunus’s story is more than a tale of a brave individual. It has ramifications for every union and left wing activist. It explains why effective political trade unionism is a threat to employers and right wing union leaders, and why resistance is never in vain.
It also illustrates the way employers target effective trade unionists in the public sector in the same way as in industries such as construction.
The Newcastle City Health union branch was, in 2006, one of the best organised and most active in Britain. It won its fierce reputation by fighting for its members and by its commitment to radical political causes.
An unusually high 70 percent of workers at the NHS Trust were in the union. Some 40 shop stewards met regularly and annual general meetings were attended by up to 300 members.
As joint branch secretary, Yunus Bakhsh was at its core. Known for his fiery speaking style and sharp wits, he was one of the best known black rank and file trade unionists in Britain. Yunus made no secret of his membership of the Socialist Workers Party. For him, it is a badge of honour.
When in 1996 management tried to derecognise the union and sack Yunus, workers voted for an all-out strike and bosses backed off.
Yunus was to be a candidate for secretary of the new branch when three Trusts merged to form Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS in 2006. But some in Unison wanted a far more moderate figure.
“Our branch was known for winning some of the best terms and conditions in the NHS—but also for its campaigning,” said Yunus.
“When the British National Party (BNP) stood candidates in the local elections, we organised for dozens of members to go out leafleting in uniform as health workers against the Nazis.
“Whenever workers were in struggle our union was ready to give them support. We also took a hard line against the Labour government’s attacks on workers.”
The branch became a beacon for others in the north east. It showed that organisation is built at the rank and file level—not through bureaucratic manoeuvring. Yunus was elected to the national union’s national and health executives.
Unison’s national leadership regarded Yunus and the branch as a threat. Militant strikes did not suit their vision of partnership with employers, and opposition to New Labour threatened Unison’s cosy relationship with the then Labour government.
Their chance to block the growing left in the union came in September 2006. Trust bosses suspended Yunus after they received an anonymous letter of complaint. They then conducted what they called an “impartial investigation” into claims that Yunus had bullied other members of staff.
It was designed only to find anything that could be woven into a case against him. Yunus maintained throughout that the complaint was motivated by racism.
Then the union that should have been defending Yunus used the same witnesses and “evidence” to suspend him from his elected positions. Neither it, nor the employers, were prepared to accept that racism was a factor.
Activists in Yunus’s branch were livid and demanded a strike ballot. Unison’s northern region put the branch into administration, stopping it from making any decisions. No strike ballot was ever held and the region refused to allow any discussion of Yunus’s case.
“Those were dark days,” says Yunus. “Management were organising a slanderous whispering campaign against me and some of it was being repeated by union officials.”
Some in Unison even suggested that Yunus was involved in intimidation and attacks on property. When challenged they couldn’t produce any evidence. The campaign against him took its toll and Yunus was diagnosed with depression.
In June 2008 Trust bosses sacked him. Then Unison expelled him from membership, knowing that evidence that could have cleared him was locked in a union office that he was barred from entering. In both cases he had been too unwell to attend hearings.
“I knew early on that this was going to be a fight to the death, that they were out to smash me,” said Yunus. “But I wasn’t ready for how the fight would affect my personal life.
“I remember sitting my young daughter on my knee to tell her I’d been sacked. She just put her arms around me and then screwed her hand into a little fist. That she had to go through all this too really upset me.”
A few weeks later came crucial new revelations that should have seen the case against Yunus destroyed. Kerry Cafferty, a Unison member at the Trust, was one of those who provided the Trust with “evidence” against Yunus.
Her Facebook profile showed that she was a “friend” of an open member of the Nazi BNP and had joined a range of racist-inspired Facebook groups. One was called “England is our country… our rules, don’t like it fuck off!!!”
Kerry Cafferty’s husband, Peter Cafferty, was chair of health for Unison’s northern region and chair of staff side at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust. He was also a senior figure in Unison’s Labour Link organisation.
Both Caffertys gave important evidence in both cases that Yunus faced, during his dismissal from his job and his expulsion from Unison.
Socialist Worker, which had followed Yunus’s case from the very beginning, was the first newspaper to make the revelations public.
The core evidence against Yunus was now worthless, but both the Trust and Unison maintained their stance.
Then in January further evidence of racism in the case emerged as it became clear that Yunus had been targeted by the Nazi website Stormfront. A series of postings on the site revealed a long-term plan to see Yunus removed from his job.
The website published a detailed description of the investigations into Yunus by his employer and his union. It was so specific that many believed it could only have come from someone very close to the union. Yet neither Unison nor the Trust would reconsider their actions.
“That may have been the lowest point,” says Yunus. “No matter what, I always believed that Unison would have to respond to the evidence of racism in my case. That they dismissed it will be a permanent stain on them.”
As the Trust moved through long procedures to confirm his sacking in April 2009, the support of his fellow union members and from activists across Britain kept Yunus afloat.
“Despite a terrible atmosphere at work—with Unison members even threatened with disciplinary action for attending social events in my honour—people would ring me to say the workers still supported me.
“People I’d represented at a disciplinary hearing, whose conditions I’d help to improve, and people who had joined me on protests all wanted me to know they backed me.”
Yunus was inundated with support from the wider working class movement including left wing union leaders Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Matt Wrack of the FBU. The campaign to reinstate Yunus also got the backing of hundreds of trade unionists and their branches.
Denied legal representation by Unison, Yunus raised thousands of pounds so that he could have a lawyer represent him at an Employment Tribunal. Legal costs throughout the case ran to well over £100,000.
Dave Hopper from the north east area of the miners’ NUM union spoke for many when he said, “The whole of the movement should respond to this appeal on behalf of Yunus.”
He urged people to give generously, saying “You never know—it could be you next.” Labour MP John McDonnell raised Yunus’s case in the House of Commons through Early Day Motions.
Within Unison, the fear of disciplinary action forced many to keep their heads down. Yet conference fringe meetings to support Yunus and other left wingers who had been targeted by the union leadership were the biggest ever organised.
Despite the strain the campaign was taking on him, Yunus continued to speak wherever he could deliver his message—never give up the fight.
In July 2010, the Tribunal delivered a massive blow to the bosses—and by implication, Unison—when it declared that Yunus had been unfairly dismissed for trade union activities.
The judgement attacked the Trust directors’ evidence. Head of human resources Elizabeth Latham drew particular criticism. Her statements were dismissed as “not credible”.
Noting the possibility of collusion between management and union leaders, the judgement notes, “The Tribunal is bound to wonder whether she [Elizabeth Latham] found in Elizabeth Twist [Unison’s head of health in the northern region] an ally and shared sense of purpose.”
The panel also ruled that the Trust—which is one of the biggest mental health employers in Europe—had discriminated against Yunus after he started suffering from depression.
The judge fined the Trust and ruled that Yunus should be reemployed as a psychiatric nurse by June 2011. This extraordinary result shook the Trust to the core.
Of the 40,000-plus unfair dismissal claims before Tribunals in 2007-08 only eight led to orders to reinstate or re-engage the employee
Yunus came to work with his uniform and all the relevant documents, but the Trust had no intention of obeying the ruling. It sent him home with a letter.
Yunus had to raise still more funds to return to the Tribunal. Once there the judge branded the Trust “utterly reprehensible” for refusing to comply with his order. He increased the compensation bill to the maximum allowed—a total of more than £105,000.
Yunus told Socialist Worker at the time that he was delighted with the verdict, but was now planning further legal action against the trust.
“I’m appalled at their behaviour,” he said. “They were given money for healthcare and threw it away illegally suspending me, dismissing me and then defending this case instead of reinstating me. Meanwhile, I’m left with the bills for bringing the action.”
Early in 2012 leading employment lawyer John Hendy QC took up Yunus’s case. He pressed for a ruling into whether public bodies could use their funds to deliberately flout the law. In June he was granted permission to seek a judicial review.
It became clear to the Trust that they would need to spend still more in legal fees to defend the case. So they decided to settle the case out of court for £200,000 plus the legal costs of the judicial review.
Newspapers and TV news programmes in the north east of England continued to feature the case, and local MPs are still asking why so much public money was spent pursuing it.
NHS bosses who once believed they could rid themselves of a leading militant with a cleverly hatched plan now have egg all over their faces. Health services managers everywhere now know to think twice before sacking a union activist.
But just as there are red faces in the Trust, so there should be in Unison. Instead of standing by its member, the union sided with the employer knowing that its story and evidence were cooked-up nonsense.
Even more disgracefully, when it emerged that racists were centrally involved, the union refused to reverse its position. It put its desire to smash its own left wing above the need to defend its lay members from attack.
The result has been enormous damage to Unison’s reputation in the north east and to its organisation among health workers in Newcastle. Activists there report a huge drop in membership, moribund meetings and steadily declining working conditions.
Yunus has said that to rebuild, activists must grasp every opportunity to mobilise the union’s members. “The turnout of health workers from the north east on the 20 October TUC protest shows that many Unison members want to fight, despite everything that has happened.”
As the six year battle came to an end, Yunus said, “I hope my fight inspires workers everywhere who face attacks when they stand up for what is right. And I hope my victory deters those bosses who think they can get away with sacking trade union militants.”
The history of Yunus’s case
August 2006: Yunus speaks out against bosses awarding themselves pay rises as they cut the budget for patient food
September 2006: Managers suspend Yunus after receiving an “anonymous” letter alleging he was a bully
January 2007: Unison leaders suspend Yunus from elected office and launch an inquiry into identical allegations with identical “witnesses”
June 2008: Management sacks Yunus
November 2008: Unison expels Yunus
January 2009: A key accuser is revealed to have joined racist-inspired Facebook groups and be “friends” with BNP members
July 2010: An Employment Tribunal rules that bosses unlawfully sacked Yunus for trade union activity and discriminated against him on grounds of disability
April 2011: A judge fines Trust bosses and, in a rare move, orders them to reinstate Yunus
June 2011: Bosses write to Yunus saying they will not re-employ him
November 2011: The Employment Tribunal increases Yunus’s award to more than £105,000, the maximum allowed. The judge brands the Trust “utterly reprehensible”
June 2012: Yunus seeks a judicial review on whether public bodies can disobey Tribunal orders
October 2012: Trust bosses agree to pay an additional £200,000 to settle the?case