For years, an unholy alliance of council employers, right-wing union bureaucrats, and disgruntled opponents have attempted to victimise Paul Holmes, the President of Unison. Now the truth is emerging about this disgraceful witch-hunt.
Every action has a consequence. Every cover-up, even the best of them, has loose ends. There is always a paper trail of some kind, if you are prepared to look. Where different interests are involved, mistakes are often made.
As my mother used to say, they all tend to come out in the wash.
We all knew that there was something extremely fishy when the leading left-winger in Unison, Paul Holmes, was simultaneously suspended by his employers and the union hierarchy.
Everything pointed to a stitch-up, as faced by so many union activists. The fact that Paul’s suspensions lasted over two years seemed to confirm these suspicions.
The truth is now gradually emerging, casting further light upon what has been going on behind the scenes. The more we dig, the more details we discover about a blatant and premeditated plot by the employers and others to rid themselves of this troubling thorn in their side.
They must have thought that Paul Holmes would have been long gone by now – having either given up or taken retirement. But they obviously didn’t know Paul.
Paul is not going anywhere, and is going to fight this clear case of victimisation to the bitter end.
It is clear that there are a lot more facts to come out about this farce. These are likely to point to collusion at the highest levels between the union hierarchy and Paul’s employers.
We are not going to rush into print, not just yet. But there must be a number of prominent people who are shaking in their boots at the present time. They are terrified that the s**t will hit the fan.
#JeremyCorbyn adds his support for Paul Holmes, Branch Secretary of Kirklees Unison, National President of Unison and member of the TUC General Council #TimeForRealChange #DefendPaulHolmes #UNISON @jeremycorbyn pic.twitter.com/pE4bNoj2z0— #TimeForRealChange (@tfrc_unison) February 7, 2022
Up until recently, Paul Holmes had had an unblemished employment record of 48 years’ service. Over this time, he has never faced any disciplinary or performance allegations of any kind.
He has been a trade union shop steward – first in Nalgo, then Unison – for 46 years. He has held the elected position of secretary of the Kirklees branch of the union for 32 years. He was elected to the Unison NEC in 2007, and held the position ever since.
During this time, Paul has led a whole series of trade union disputes against his employer. As a result, management has shown nothing but hostility towards him.
Let us take the incident of a management away-day event in 2015. Around 50 senior managers from Kirklees Council attended this cosy event at which Ms Ruth Redfern, director of Resources, Finance and Personnel, revealed details of a plan to smash the trade union at Kirklees.
At the end of her summation, Redfern urged those present to chant back three times: “We’re going to break Paul Holmes! We’re going to break Unison!”
This sets the tone in this current dispute. Things could not be clearer.
This union-busting event was followed by threats by Ms Redfern to personally sue Paul Holmes for £120,000 in regard to the contents of a local members’ union bulletin.
Furthermore, Mr Battersby, director for Economy and Infrastructure, tried to issue Paul with a final written warning, without a hearing, for supposedly breaching a term of settlement arising from a refuse collection dispute.
Strike and suspension
Relations with the employers reached rock-bottom when in early November 2019 three sets of Unison members at Kirklees voted in consultative ballots in favour of strike action.
Following this, a meeting was scheduled on 2 December between Paul and his union, Unison, to authorise the official strike ballots.
The meeting never took place, however, as Paul Holmes was suspended by his employer on 28 November 2019.
This was greeted with jubilation by the council bosses. But there was more to come. Within days, Paul Holmes and three senior union branch officials were suspended by Unison.
On Tuesday 3 December, the council’s chief executive, Jacqui Gedman, sent an email to all councillors, informing them of Unison’s action and that the Kirklees Unison branch was now being taken over and run by the regional office.
“I just want to confirm that the council understands that a Unison investigation is ongoing, that it is serious and confidential and whilst this is happening the Kirklees branch will be under regional supervision. I will provide further information as I receive it,” wrote Ms Gedman.
How she was privy to the information that the Unison investigation was “serious” when it was supposed to be “confidential” is anybody’s guess. We would like to know who supplied her with this information, which must have come from a union source?
“There is a Father Christmas”
The following morning, Labour councillor Peter McBride, the then-deputy leader of the council, couldn’t conceal his absolute elation at the suspensions, and sent an email to Ms Gedman, stating: “So there is a Father Christmas.”
How did this email come to light? An article in the local newspaper explained:
“Unfortunately when Clr Peter McBride sent his reply to Kirklees Council’s chief executive Jacqui Gedman he inadvertently also sent it to 66 fellow councillors.” (Local Democracy Reporter, 9/12/19)
Red-faced, Clr McBride tried to brush it aside, saying it was a “flippant” comment. But this blunder by the deputy leader of the council – a Labour council – speaks volumes about their real attitude to the union.
We have discovered that the excuse given by the council for Paul Holmes’ suspension was an allegation from a Unison convenor, concerning a meeting with Paul about a secondment. The council said they forwarded the complaint to Unison, who then in turn suspended Paul and others, as well as suspending the Kirklees branch.
We shouldn’t be surprised about this. At that point, Unison nationally was under right-wing control, and were more than happy to suspend a left-wing branch official, especially one like Paul Holmes.
Axes to grind
Paul’s suspension by Unison was lifted on 9 December 2021, over two years later, without any action as yet being taken against him. Paul was re-elected as branch secretary in February 2022, and the suspension of the Kirklees branch was also lifted in the same month.
Meanwhile, in December 2019, the employers appointed an external investigator, a human resources consultant, to investigate the allegations against Paul Holmes.
To widen the net further, however, the consultant did not confine the investigation to the original complaint.
Brushing aside confidentiality, the investigation became common knowledge, and began to include anyone who had a grudge against Paul going back nearly 20 years!
This included disgruntled former employees of the Kirklees Unison branch, some of whom had been dismissed for fraud in 2005, some fifteen years prior to the investigation. Such individuals obviously blamed Paul for their demise, and were determined to get their own back.
Other witnesses included his political opponents in the union, members or former members of the Socialist Party, who were hostile to him. This avenue provided an open-season for anyone who had the slightest thing against Paul to bring forward complaints – the more the merrier.
It became clear the investigation had nothing to do with Paul Holmes’ work in the council, but simply his relations with some staff employed by the union branch. Therefore, any such complaint should be an internal union matter, which has its own procedures, and not the prerogative of the employer.
The employer intervened in the process with the sole intention of getting rid of Paul Holmes, a thorn in their side for many years, as is clear from the above.
Despite the very flimsy – most would say non-existent – case against Paul, the employers were keen to take matters further to a disciplinary hearing.
Incredibly, it was not until 15 June 2021 that Paul Holmes was informed of the allegations against him, 19 months after he was suspended.
Sectarianism and spite
The whole case is based on tittle-tattle from people who had held a grudge against Paul over many years and were his political opponents. He strenuously denies all allegations.
One of his accusers is Angela Waller: a lead witness for the employer and a leading member of the Socialist Party in the union.
All that one could say is that no self-respecting trade unionist, let alone a socialist, would partake in the framing of a fellow trade unionist by an employer. This is the action not of a comrade but a bosses’ nark. It is unforgivable. It is an elementary principle that you defend a union activist who is being victimised and sacked by an employer.
The Socialist Party has circulated an anonymous statement of the 14 employers’ witnesses who claim they are “left-wing reps and activists”. This is not true. In fact there is only one “left-wing” activist among the witnesses, which is Angela Waller herself. This was clearly an attempt by the Socialist Party to cover their shameful position.
There is nothing worse than malice and spite in such matters. They are the slippery slope to ruin.
Colluding with racists
Another accuser of Paul is Kath McHendry, the assistant Kirklees Unison branch secretary. She complained about a meeting Paul had attended, not at the time, but three months later.
However, McHendry only raised her complaint when Paul had already been suspended – shortly after complaints were raised about her own conduct, when she placed a racist post on Facebook about a campaign to restore the ‘gollywog’ (a type of doll based on a racist caricature of black people) on Robertson’s jam, complete with large gollywog image. (We have a screengrab of the incriminating Facebook post.)
She shared the offensive Facebook page with the comment, supposedly words coming from the gollywog: “Hello, I am back. Share me. See how far I can go before I get put back of Facebook. Lol.”
This raises the question of how a person holding such repugnant views could remain as a senior Unison branch official? How would people of colour view such a person? What action is the union going to take over this posting?
Angela Waller, the star witness for the employers, with the backing of the Socialist Party, launched a campaign against Paul Holmes called ‘For a Fighting Democratic Leadership Team in Kirklees Unison’.
This campaign stood a slate of five candidates in the local branch elections, including Kath McHendry – all of whom were witnesses against Paul.
This was a ‘slate of the disgruntled’. In the slate, Waller stood against Paul for Kirklees branch secretary, who was in the process of being sacked by the council.
The supporters of Paul Holmes won all the branch positions, except one. The campaign ‘For a Fighting Democratic Leadership Team in Kirklees Unison’ managed to get one elected: Kath McHendry, of Robertson’s jam fame.
The fallout from this scandal will run and run. This whole episode is not simply a local Kirklees matter. The employers used this frame-up to sack an effective trade union official. Paul is the figurehead of the left in Unison, who won the leadership of the biggest trade union in Britain.
Behind the employers’ attack stand the establishment and right-wing careerists, along with Starmer and his friends, who are doing everything in their power to sabotage the new left-wing leadership in Unison.
The victimisation and sacking of Paul Holmes is only part of a much wider political plot to destabilise the left-wing leadership of Britain’s biggest union.
Paul has already appealed to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. He is determined to fight this victimisation and clear his name.
His fight is the fight of the whole trade union movement against victimisation – and against the powers that be that defend this rotten system.
There is a long way to go. But, believe me, everything is destined to come out in the wash.