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Sunday, 10 February 2013

TRADE UNION RACISM AND SEXISM NEEDS TO BE CONFRONTED






Imagine an all too familiar tale about the abuse of white male power, predatory sexual harassment and institutional racism in Britain today.


Which organisations or institutions come to mind?  Parliament you might think or maybe the Police Service or private sector perhaps, but rarely would you think of such a tale applying to a trade union. Yes that’s right a trade union.

The British left has been left reeling of late with serious allegations about the alleged rape of a young woman in the Socialist Workers Party by a senior member of their Central Committee and the complete and utter failure of that organisation to investigate this issue in any serious, meaningful or effective way

 
Racism and sexism of the British Left is an issue that dare not speak its name. Despite black workers joining Trade Unions in huge numbers, there are only a handful of senior black Trade union officials and no General Secretaries. There are not enough black leaders of left movements generally and the political priority attached to issues of institutional racism and representation within left movements has been jettisoned.



These are serious charges that point to the belief that some Trade Unions seem to be unwilling to challenge highlight and expose the racism implicit in the cuts. The most quoted example is the failure of the former Equality and Human Rights Commissioners and TUC senior representatives, Baroness Prosser and Kay Carberry OBE who failed to challenge racism, allowing disproportionate cuts to affect black workers at the Commission, despite this being brought forcefully to their attention. The signal that was sent to the left was that race is no longer our priority.

Unbeknown to the majority on the left, there is genuine and growing discontent among black Trade Unionists who want to see their unions fighting growing public sector cuts but also fighting the disproportionate impact on black employees and wider community.

Many people seeking support and advice often approach me in my capacity as Co-Chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC).











Over the last 2 years I have heard numerous examples of desperate workers facing appalling racism who have tried and failed to convince their unions that they have a real and legitimate case against their employer.

I have heard so man similar anecdotal examples, sufficient in number and in such harrowing detail as to indicate to me that some trade unions are themselves discriminating against their own members.

Time and time again people tell me that securing effective union representation, in seeking to challenge workplace racism, is virtually impossible. It usually involves them having to work extraordinarily hard to convince some officials that they are victims of racism at work. One person told me “…it’s almost as if they are embarrassed by the issue”. They report, when it comes to racism, too many trade union officials share the same culture of denial that is evident among some of the worst UK employers.


Black members feel that there is pervasive culture of doubt and when the raise race dispute cases they are generally disbelieved and feel unsupported, with officials regularly refusing to sanction paid legal representation at employment tribunals.

The charges from black workers extend beyond the trade union movement. The is the strong perception that because Labour local authorities as a group are one of the most frequently cited employers in race employment tribunal cases, affiliated Trade Unions are simply refusing to take action.

The question here is why are Labour authorities failing to effectively tackle race claims by their employees, making decisions that result in a disproportionate number of black workers being made redundant and why are most trade unions failing to take any meaningful action?

This is a most serious charge that alleges the close link between unions and the Labour Party is resulting in a failure to represent black workers and a failure to challenge the racism of Labour local authority employers.

Where they do manage to secure representation, they find that far too many Trade Union full time officials are lacking in expertise and experience about the complexities of employment race discrimination legislation.

It is said that black workers are being sacrificed to save white workers jobs and in the fight against racism the trade union campaign against fascism has taken absolute precedence over the fight against institutional racism. In highlighting these major issues it’s always helpful to have concrete examples and unfortunately we have many we could share but one of the worst cases I’ve ever witnessed has to be the following case.

This week has seen the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) General Secretary, Mr. Jonathan Ledger resign his post with immediate effect.  NAPO informed its members of Ledger’s sudden departure in a brief email which can also be seen on the union’s website:

"Following the end of a difficult employment tribunal Jonathan Ledger has decided not to re-apply for his job as NAPO's general secretary and has ceased his employment with NAPO.

Jonathan Ledger has had a long career with Napo and we thank him for the work he has done for members and wish him well for the future. "

 

The “difficult employment tribunal” referred to relates to the case of one of the most senior black women in the British Trade Union movement. The employment tribunal took place in Croydon over two weeks during December 2012. The case has concluded and all parties are waiting for a written judgement.  Jonathan Ledger was due to face 6 allegations of gross misconduct, but shamefully the Officers took the easy and disgraceful option and paid Ledger a ‘an undisclosed amount “ all paid with NAPO members money.

What unfolded during this important employment tribunal provided a shocking and sad commentary on a culture and climate of collusion and the deeply oppressive practices existent within the NAPO Officers group.

Jonathan Ledger and Tim Wilson, Chair of NAPO, have been accused of racial and sexual harassment after complaints that Ledger had conducted a virulent campaign of sexual harassment and racism against a senior black woman official in NAPO. Tim Wilson in talking about her in relation to budgets and money is alleged to have said “black people cannot be trusted with money”, and that the Vice Chair, Dino Peros, should “watch her body language, when he asks questions about money to see how she reacts.”

 

It was further alleged that upon hearing that the complainant’s daughter had converted to Islam, Ledger is reported to have asked her “Where did you go wrong as a parent?”

Ledger and Wilson were aided and abetted by a NAPO Officers Group that conspired to sack the complainant on trumped up charges, instead of dealing with her devastating complaint against both Ledger and Wilson.

Instead she found herself facing a range of serious counter charges and endured a relentless attempt to force her to accept a compromise agreement, forcing her out of her job. She became seriously ill with extreme stress and depression as a result.

The details of her complaint revealed that Ledger had constantly and indecently propositioned her, suggesting that she and her young daughter join him in a threesome and showing her naked pictures of his partner stored on his phone and in March 2010 trapping her in his office, unzipping his trousers and masturbating in front of her.

Despite her detailed grievance, Tim Wilson and the Officers Group that included Ledger decided that they would hear the grievance against themselves, whilst subsequently initiating disciplinary procedures. This well-known ‘management’ tactic of counter allegation on receipt of a grievance is not only unlawful; it also breaks every single rule in the trade union book.

Ledger and Wilson appointed one Sian Griffiths to investigate the grievance. This is someone who is not only a close personal friend of Ledger’s, having stayed at his house on numerous occasions, but she had also been the subject of a previous complaint by the complainant.

There was a formal challenge about the process and the clear conflicts of interest relating to Griffiths. Ledger and Wilson rejected these and decided they would personally adjudicate the complaint against themselves, only supported in this despicable act by the spineless NAPO Officers Group who insisted that Griffiths was ‘independent’ and that despite these legitimate objections the “investigation” was to go ahead.

This “kangaroo court” was supported by the entire NAPO Officers Group who had consistently failed to take any action when Ledger’s abhorrent behavior was brought to their attention.

It is further alleged that Ledger has had a long history of such serious complaints relating to the sexual harassment of women, all of which was known to the most senior officers at NAPO.

When the complainant refused to take part in this charade she was sacked. Indeed, in March 2012, a temporary female employee of NAPO submitted a grievance against Ledger for sexual harassment, including sending her emails and text messages of a sexual nature, using work email and during work hours. Amongst the allegations made by this other female employee was that Ledger put his hand up her skirt and said he wanted to “f*** her until she moaned and groaned.” 

He also allegedly sexually assaulted a third female employee of NAPO (although she did not make a complaint). Ledger who does not smoke, was seen to have taken a cigarette from her mouth, put it in his mouth, lick it and put it back into her mouth.  This was a sexual act to demean a young Muslim woman, who he knew would be reluctant to complain as an administrative worker. Ledger was using NAPO headquarters, as is his personal fiefdom and relied upon his power as General Secretary to bully, intimidate and ensure all such complaints were bought off or buried.


There is one ray of light in this depressing tale. The one NAPO officer who has consistently supported the complainant and relentlessly challenged the scandalous behavior of NAPO officers is Harry Fletcher.

It was during Fletcher’s time as Assistant General Secretary of NAPO that the organisation developed a radical suite of equality policies and campaigns.

 

Anti-racism and anti-sexism policies were pursued in a public campaign that exposed institutional racism in the criminal justice system. What was a progressive culture of challenging discrimination has been replaced of late with an insidious culture of corruption and collusion among a dangerous clique of senior NAPO officers. The worrying thing about all this is that both Jonathan Ledger and Tim Wilson are/were Probation Officers. Tim Wilson has gone back to his role as a probation Officer in Northumbria.

Sadly, the new Co-Chair of NAPO, who is a woman, Lisa Robinson, supported the behavior of Ledger and Wilson and was a member of the panel that dismissed the complainant. I am informed that Robinson has been questioned by the Police for her association with a known criminal, Christopher O’Neill, aged 50, an ex- service man, currently on remand for fraud and stealing £150,000 from a charity he worked for.

The trial is due to start later this year in North Wales. Wilson and Ledger were warned about this and told it could have a negative impact on NAPO and its members but the warning was ignored.

There is a touch of Jimmy Saville about this deeply sordid case. NAPO seemed to be enveloped in a culture of denial, cover up and conspiracy to shield Ledger and by extension NAPO from repeated accusations of sexual harassment. Not only were the victims of this Ledger fundamentally failed but a signal that sent out left women feeling unable to complain about his behavior and those that did were bullied intimidated and threatened.

NAPO rank and file members deserve much better. There is a proud and progressive union brought low by a renegade officer group in the grip of a dangerous sexual predator. NAPO members must demand accountability. There should be a full, open and public inquiry into the actions of NAPO officers groups and disciplinary actions should be taken against all those found to have colluded with these disgusting and oppressive practices. Ledger payout should be recalled and any pension entitlements be reviewed. He should not be able to walk away smiling with a tidy sum of members money to finance his predator lifestyle.

To add insult to injury this Officer conspiracy to prevent both the National Council and rank and file from finding out was going at the same time as NAPO is campaigning hard to block Governments attempts to privatise the probation service.

More generally the British Left and Trade Unions in particular like to pride themselves on their rock solid commitment to tackling racism and sexism.

Decades of work around equality laws, workers rights and representation of their members and the support given to various community based campaigns including justice campaigns are all examples of where the Trade Unions have delivered on the issue of race.

However, it has to be said that senior level TUC support for the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality and the creation of an all encompassing Equality and Human Rights Commission has been a critical error of immense proportions that led to an increase in rates of racism in the workplace, obliterated accessible legal advice for black workers resulting in the issue of race and racism disappearing off the political agenda.

 

Despite this I don’t think many could argue that in the main, the Left and the Trade Union movement has been a force for good in challenging discrimination.

The TUC support of the Lawrence family and their work with anti-fascist / anti-racist organisations such as Unite Against Fascism opposing the BNP and English Defence League are all cases in point.  However many black trade unionists feel that whilst there is a focus on and resources put towards opposing far right groups the same cannot be said about much needed work on tackling workplace racism and under representation of black members in union structures. The TUC Race Relations Committee is currently reviewing the progress made by the Trade Union movement on the TUC Stephen Lawrence Task Force Recommendations.

 

The work of Unions such as the PCS and others shows that there is a real commitment to tackling racism but progress remains largely patchy and inconsistent among too many trade unions. What is absolutely clear is that whilst much has been done there remains so much more to do.

Black workers need proper representation and support from officials who are both empathetic and experts in race employment law. The lack of such representation and support has resulted in many black workers seeking out black officials who become overwhelmed with the number of cases that come their way. It is these few black trade union officials alongside their progressive comrades who continually push, argue, campaign and demand changes to Union practices. They bear a disproportionate burden in seeking to ensure anti-racist practice becomes mainstream in Trade Unions.

The theme for this year's TUC Black Workers conference that takes place 12-14 April is aptly entitled ‘Putting Race Back On the Agenda'. If progress is to be made we will need to see the TUC support the demand for the adoption of a radical new approach to tackling these issues. That would include things like the political prioritisation of challenging institutional racism, defending the concepts of multiculturalism, adoption of race equality strategy including ambitious targets, a clear ethnic monitoring framework, improved race employment training for Trade Union reps and a drive to improve representation at senior levels.

As Co-Chair of BARAC, I can tell you that Black Trade Union members consistently report having difficulties in securing expert professional representation from their Unions when seeking to challenge workplace racism.

Time and time again I am approached by black trade unionists that feel let down, dismayed and angered by the quality of support they can expect from Unions.

Too many full time Union officials and local representatives, it seems, don’t understand the complexities of the law in relation to racism in the workplace. I have hundreds of anecdotal cases where it is alleged that officials have been at best entirely unsympathetic towards claims of racism and in some instances openly hostile to handling race claims.

Add to that the often repeated complaint that black workers rarely get access to legal representation in taking cases to the Employment Tribunal even when they have, what appears to be an incredibly strong case. Again I cannot count the number of cases refused legal support from Trade Unions that have gone on to win at a subsequent Tribunal with alternative forms of representation. The reality is though the vast majority of race Employment Tribunal cases where the claimant has no legal representation fail.

Black trade unionists are marginalised with the Trade Union movement because of a culture of racism that continues to blight the lives of black workers. Fancy ass trade union policies, wonderful worded motions and anti-fascist demonstrations are necessary but not a sufficient response to tackling the racism we have seen at NAPO.

The Trades Union Congress General Council needs an overarching radical race equality policy with clear targets, sanctions and key milestones. They should instigate a root and branch independent investigation into these cases and the wider problems of representation and discrimination faced by black trade union members.

The TUC should revisit and refresh specific policies for increasing representation of black trade union officials; there is no strategy or process of ethnic and faith monitoring of trade union decisions and the allocation of resources to race grievances.

We need to expertly train union officials to equip them with the necessary expertise to ensure they can represent all their members.  Trade Unions need to be in the forefront of fighting workplace racism and have policies in place that ensure, they take seriously and act upon internal complaints of racism from black members and prevent the sometime inadvertent, sometimes calculated, collusion with racist management practices.

BARAC will continue to press the case for Black Trade Union members and will be seeking your support in doing so. 50 years after Dr Martin Luther King’s world famous “I have a dream” speech we take the opportunity to promote a national conversation on race and racism.

BARAC will be holding a fringe meeting at the TUC Black Workers Conference on our 'MLK50 Equality In Our Lifetime 2013 campaign'. 

This year long campaign is our attempt to promote a national discussion and dialogue on race, racism and race discrimination. We invite organisations to join us in exploring these critical issues. A BARAC activity for MLK50 includes seminars, public meetings joint three-day residential conference in partnership with other National black organisations and a finally national march against racism and for jobs and justice.

 

The MLK50 Parliamentary launch takes place on 11 March 2013 6-8pm in the Houses of Parliament and is open to the public. Speakers include Doreen Lawrence (invited), George Galloway MP, Equality Activist Donna Guthrie, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Society of Black Lawyers and Khi Rafe from the Mary Seacole Campaign.


 Lee Jasper, Co-Chair BARAC UK

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