ON 16 November 1999 Jermaine Lee, a black Birmingham postal worker, took his own life. He was 26 years old. Last week the legal investigation into the case came to its conclusion. It revealed a terrifying level of racist harassment at the Aston sorting office where Jermaine worked. There is a powerful myth that racism is generated by the 'uneducated' and 'ignorant' people at the bottom of society. The people higher up are allegedly more 'liberal'.
Nothing could have been further from the truth in Jermaine's case. His mother, Urnell, said last week, 'For some time prior to his death Jermaine had told me he had been bullied and harassed by certain managers at work. We spoke to many of Jermaine's former colleagues and were horrified by what we heard.
'They told us of how Jermaine had for many years been targeted for harassment, threats and abuse-including racist abuse-by a group of managers. We were told of the climate of fear, bullying and racism that had existed at the office. Jermaine's complaints fell on deaf ears. On one occasion Jermaine was threatened by a senior Birmingham postal manager while another manager stood guard in front of the door to the room as if to prevent Jermaine from leaving.'
As a result of the investigations into Jermaine's death, two Birmingham managers have been dismissed, four have been subject to other disciplinary action and one resigned while on suspension. The national Post Office management have tried very hard to say they are appalled by this case and that grievance procedures and management training have now changed radically.
But there are still questions to be answered. Is it, for example, possible that organised racists flourished in the management tier of the Aston office? Have steps really been taken to make sure a tragedy like Jermaine's never happens again?
In November 2000 the postal workers' Communication Workers Union set up a harassment hotline where workers could report bullying. In the 18 months since it has received 6,000 calls. One of the calls was from disabled postal worker Nick Braddick. He suffered a seizure at work after harassment.
He wants to return to work but the ever so modern Post Office chairman Allan Leighton has refused to remove two managers who the union insists must be transferred.
Jermaine's case is powerful proof of why we need strong unions. Not only can they win better wages and conditions-they are essential to challenge the power which bosses have over individual workers. Without real unions workers get harassed and bullied, women get treated even worse-and sometimes black people are sent to early graves. Perhaps union reps in Birmingham could have done more to help Jermaine. But any failings were the product of the reps feeling too frightened to take on the management.
Bullying flourishes wherever management feel they can get away with anything. The last few weeks have suggested the tide is turning and the unions are fighting again. If that is true, one important effect will be the chance for a much more aggressive campaign against workplace racism and bullying. Jermaine Lee left a suicide note. Part of it read, 'Those guys at work hate me. Tell them it was nice playing with them and that they have won.'
Every worker, every union rep and every union official must dedicate themselves to making sure that such a 'victory' never happens again.