Following a two-year witch-hunt, Kirklees Council has shamefully sacked Unison president Paul Holmes. This disgraceful act will embolden employers to go on the offensive against trade union activists. A titanic fightback is needed.
After over two years of dragging their feet, Kirklees Council – which is supposed to be a Labour Council – have dismissed Unison president Paul Holmes from his job, after 48 years of unbroken and unblemished service.
This is one of the most blatant cases of victimisation for trade union activities in recent decades.
This crooked council has tried every trick in the book to harass and discredit Paul: from deliberately stalling for time at every opportunity; to leaking all manner of scurrilous – and sometimes even farcical – rumours to the local press.
That these acts are political in nature must be obvious to anyone with even a shred of good faith. For many years, Paul has been a thorn in the side of council bosses. His representation of bin workers struggling against racist bullying from this very council is testament to that.
The council no doubt hopes that this sacking will allow them to proceed with cutting services and running down the lives of workers in peace, without ‘troublesome’ reps like Paul making life difficult for them. It is scabby, disgraceful behaviour of the highest order.
One question that has come up time and again amongst Unison activists is: where is the union leadership in all of this?
Unison general secretary Christine McAnea and other high-profile union officials have been conspicuous by their absence throughout this whole affair. While many NEC members have turned up to speak in Paul’s defence, there has been nothing from the higher offices but stony silence.
At a time when workers – especially in the public sector – are being squeezed harder than ever, this stance is indefensible. The union bureaucracy has clearly washed their hands of Paul, the union’s president, and done absolutely nothing at all to defend him.
Many Unison activists will be contrasting this cowardly behaviour to the robust words of Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, who pledged that any Unite rep who faced victimisation by an employer would be able to rely on the union to defend them.
100 days in and @unitetheunion have ensured that our lawyers fight all legal cases for of our shop stewards and reps when they need legal assistance. We must defend our reps so that they can defend our members. #SGGS100 #JobsPayConditions https://t.co/cRM2dEmntP— Sharon Graham (@UniteSharon) December 7, 2021
Given such inaction from the Unison leadership, it is not at all surprising that some activists have been talking about collusion. Certainly the signs point that way. And it would not be the first time that the union’s bureaucracy has sided with the employers against militant Unison members.
This decision comes at a critical time – not only for Kirklees workers, who are now being told who they can and cannot have representing them by the employer, but for the struggle within the union itself.
Last week, Unison’s senior staff effectively withdrew cooperation from the democratically-elected NEC and refused to attend or facilitate its meetings.
This occurred just as the union’s NEC staffing committee was discussing a proposal to make the posts of assistant general secretary and other high-ranking officials electable as they become vacant.
For the bureaucracy to resist the union’s democratic lay leadership, in a blatant effort to protect their perks and privileges, is a disgrace. To do so at a time when the victimisation campaign against Paul has reached its peak is doubly so.
This shows the true nature of the Unison right wing. The struggles and difficulties faced by the membership are a secondary concern for them – if these people concern themselves with such things at all.
What they’re really worried about is what would happen if #TimeForRealChange activists were able to implement their programme and transform the union into a genuine fighting organisation.
For decades, Unison has been a bulwark of the labour movement right wing, and therefore of the British state also.
The thought of a left-wing Unison breaking from their control and coordinating action with other unions across the public sector terrifies the right wing. If they have to sabotage the fight for members’ jobs, pay, and conditions to prevent this, then so be it.
No wonder the union’s rank and file increasingly believe that it’s time for real change in the union, when faced with such an attitude from their own officials.
If an employer is able to victimise one of the highest officials in the country’s biggest public sector union, then other employers will leap to follow suit and sack other reps who stand up for their members. Nobody will be safe.
This will extend far beyond Unison. The trade union movement cannot and must not accept this outcome.
This is not the time for despondency or despair in the face of such news. Paul’s case must become a cause célèbre for the entire movement. Every union in the country should pledge their support in overturning this despicable decision and reinstating Paul to his job.
A call must be therefore put out to every trade union to take up this cause, and to fight for Paul’s reinstatement.
This is no time for routinism. To start with, a national meeting must be called to defend Paul Holmes. A live, in-person rally should be called in Huddersfield, and all members of Kirklees Unison should be invited as a priority, with transport being arranged if necessary to ensure the maximum turnout.
Such a meeting would galvanise activists, and show what kind of support Paul has.
Delegations and speakers from every trade union should be organised, and a common plan of action developed to fight this battle across the whole labour movement.
Kirklees Unison branch, in conjunction with the National Industrial Action Committee of the union, should agree a plan of industrial action to fight the victimisation of its branch secretary.
Ballots must be issued to all Kirklees Unison branch members, with the threat made clear: Kirklees Council will face sustained strike action unless and until Paul is reinstated. An injury to one is an injury to all.
In this way, the movement can draw a firm line in the sand. Only by mobilising both Unison members and those of other trade unions can Paul Holmes’ sacking be overturned, and the bosses’ offensive curtailed.
The stakes are high indeed. We must rise to the occasion.