Wednesday, November 22, 2006

UNISON witch-hunt?

A complaint to the General Secretary of UNISON following the UNISON South West Regional Council on 8th October 2006 stated that a 2-sided A4 colour newsletter of the UNISON UNITED Left South West, which contained my mobile phone number, was apparently printed using UNISON resources outside of the union's Rules.

Unannounced, a team of senior regional officials entered the UNISON offices on the ground floor of Plymouth's Civic Centre on Wednesday 1st November at 11:00am, having confirmed I was in London leading a delegation to lobby Plymouth MP against NHS cuts. All information on the office computers was downloaded, the Branch Administrator and Treasurer questioned, and all records and financial documents taken away.

I was contacted in London and required to hand across my Vaio Laptop and home Personal Computer the next day. I explained the computers had been in my possession for a period of years and contain data, files and information that is personal, confidential and not the property of UNISON.

Whilst I wish to co-operate with the Union and consider myself to have operated within the Rules of the union, I do not feel empowered to hand over the information contained on the machines. Such information includes individual confidential documents, e-mail and Windows XP accounts for three of my adult children as well as myself, work-related specific documents and politically sensitive information, including personal data not relevant to UNISON that I do not have permission to release to the union.

I have offered the investigatory team access to the computers at my home, for the documents to be viewed and UNISON files to be downloaded in my presence or the presence of an observer chosen by me, to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of myself and my family's personal documents is maintained.

I have confirmed that I have used both machines for my own personal use, including the production and storage of documents that are not the business of the trade union. I, like my predecessors, have been gifted computers by the City of Plymouth UNISON Branch in lieu of Honorarium, without any stated restriction placed on their use. I have considered the machines as my own and utilised them accordingly, and have received no guidance to the contrary over a period of 10 years. The current machines in question are registered in my name and contain software registered in my name.

I do not believe in Honoraria and would not accept payments for my union activities as a matter of principle, believing the tenet of voluntary collective organisation as reliant upon the voluntary work of activists. However, like most of my colleagues, I cannot afford the level of equipment required for high levels of publishing and correspondence and consider supply of such equipment as a reasonable trade for the long hours of unpaid work received by the union.

The provision of home and transportable equipment for lead officers has been the custom and practice of this Branch and a long-standing facility offered to activists. Poor and restricted facility time has ensured most branch machinery and administration is maintained outside working hours, with all Branch Secretary letters, all minutes of meetings, newsletters, flyers and other publications produced at home, outside of working hours, voluntarily and without payment. The provision of the tools with which to do the job has been an obvious requirement that the Branch has met in lieu of honoraria to myself as Branch Secretary and my predecessors, with a clear understanding that the equipment may also be for personal use, similar to the day-to-day practice of thousands of trade union representatives across the country.

I see no reason why UNISON has any right to have open access to these computers.
Further, I challenge the organisation and execution of this investigation, and question the practice and motives behind the complaint. Indeed, I am convinced that UNISON would challenge any employer that behaved in this way towards any of our members.

The unannounced arrival at the Branch Office of three UNISON officers was experienced as heavy-handed, unsupportive and offensive. The series of communications leading-up to the arrival of the team can only lead to one conclusion: that it was timed to coincide with my presence in London as the leader of a delegation from UNISON to lobby our MPs against the cuts in the Health Service, and checks were made to ensure I would not be at the Branch office. This implies a prejudgement that I would be a barrier to any investigation, which consequently had to be undertaken in my absence. The conduct of interviews was similarly accusatory, starting from an assumption of wrong-doing. The process was poorly managed and personally offensive. I was given no notice of the interview, no context or introductions and was not able to have anybody present to support me at the first interview. Again, such methods would not be tolerated by UNISON from any employer.

Such an approach to dedicated and hard-working UNISON representatives is inappropriate and, I find, outrageous. A shared approach to dealing with the complaint, and a reasoned dialogue should be a matter of course between colleagues. The methods used have been unnerving of the morale of key activists and a distraction from the urgent business of the Branch and union. Core Officers are under extreme pressure with insufficient capacity to match the newly published plans from the Employer for major Privatisation of Highways services, swiftly on the heels of attacks on discretionary payments and cuts of more than 200 jobs, alongside the pension and pay campaigns reaching a crucial point, and a challenging watershed in the local negotiations on Job Evaluation and Equal Pay.

I am left to conclude that the investigation represents an attack on the Branch and myself. The Branch has a long-established reputation for policy making and policy challenge at regional and national level. My role and political affiliation is widely recognised as challenging to current perspectives and strategies proposed by the national leadership. I am a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and an active member of the RESPECT Party in Plymouth.

This investigation was been initiated within days of my declaration of the intention to stand in the forthcoming National Executive Committee elections. The timing of a strategic investigation into myself and the Branch about practices of supply and use of equipment - practices that have been in place for many years, is questionable. It has, therefore, subjected me to significant personal distress, and subjected those close to me to unnecessary anxiety.

Following initial interview with me the lead investigating officer offered his opinion that this would progress towards a disciplinary process under Rule I. I have since received recorded delivery letters and a series of calls requiring the machines to be handed over to UNISON, with no acknowledgement of the issues relating to confidential information.

I am therefore unable to pass across either of the computers. I wish to comply with the investigation and stay within the rules of the trade union. I am now subject to an instruction from the Regional Secretary hand over the equipment or be deemed to have broken Rule. I consider this instruction as unreasonable and therefore not enforceable, because:
Contested possession: The computers are gifts in place of honorarium to myself, as part of a common approach to resourcing the voluntary work of lead officers of this Branch. To hand over equipment I believe to be mine may compromise my claim to ownership and thereby place me in jeopardy under Rule.

Custom & Practice: I have been supplied with a succession of pieces of computer equipment by a number of UNISON agencies in the South West over a period of 8 years. All equipment has been donated to myself as a volunteer for the trade union, in return for a wide range of data construction, storage and production. At no time have I received guidance or instruction as to the parameters for use of the equipment, nor the ownership of work produced on the machine. I have utilised the equipment in the same way that any private person is entitled to use their personal computers. I therefore contest that this equipment is not within the parameters of the investigation.

Privacy: the computers contain data not the property of UNISON that is subject to protection. There is private information stored about individuals, including memberships of organisations that are not affiliates of UNISON. There is also, accessible through technological trace, up to 8 years of private and confidential e-mail communications, undertaken daily by myself and my family using our own e-mail accounts on all matters, all of which it is my right and the right of my family to have protected as private under Human Rights legislation often used by UNISON in defence of our own members. In addition, there are articles, personal accounts and reflections that detail my personally held beliefs, my political expression and thoughts that were not intended for publication or view, and to which I am unwilling for UNISON representatives, their agents or mediators to have access. To hand over the computers in their current state would, necessarily, compromise the right to privacy of myself and others to whom I am responsible and liable, and therefore place me in jeopardy.

UNISON is now taking legal advice to recover the equipment and information contained on them. I find this excessive and intimidatory given the period of investigation as pre-disciplinary, but assume that I should seek legal advice also. I remain appalled at such treatment at the hands of a trade union to which I have offered unstinting unpaid service for many years.
I intend to defend myself vigorously. I have not broken and would not knowingly break the rules of the union. I remain committed to the aims and objectives of UNISON and a devoted trade union activist. I ask for your formal support, including a letter of concern to :

The General Secretary UNISON, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ

Regional Secretary UNISON, UNISON House, The Crescent, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4DU

And a message of support to:

Tony Staunton
21 Bayswater Road


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