Veteran trade union activist Tony Staunton was disgracefully expelled from his Unison trade union last week following more than six months of suspension as branch secretary of the Plymouth council branch.
More than 40 supporters held a rally outside his hearing in Plymouth.
After 23 years of active service as an elected representative to Unison, Britain’s largest public sector trade union, and its predecessor Nalgo, Tony was found guilty of a series of political contraventions of the union’s rules – all of which he denied.
Additional charges relating to the improper spending of money or use of Unison photocopy equipment were disproved during the three day hearing.
It was found that Tony had been given computer equipment by the branch. This was in recognition that he produced all minutes, records and correspondence, leaflets and flyers, a periodic eight page magazine and regular newsletters outside of work time at home at nights and weekends.
Branch officers offered formal evidence that the equipment was gifted to him over a period of many years.
Yet the disciplinary hearing decided that all purchases from branches remain the property of the trade union even after full depreciation, and rejected that the equipment could have been gifted.
Further offences were committed by Tony refusing to return the equipment he considered to be his to Unison following the written demands of the union general secretary.
Tony offered a strong defence, answering all allegations with witness statements and documentary evidence, despite having no access to relevant records.
But the hearing panel spent less than two minutes per charge in closed session before announcing its decision.
Over 40 full written testimonials from trade union activists, including branch secretaries of seven trade unions in Plymouth, were offered as evidence of Tony’s commitment to trade unionism in the city, along with hundreds of signatures to a collective testimonial.
The panel spent 14 minutes considering these documents before expelling Tony.
Trade unionists across Plymouth and the south west of England have declared their shock at the outcome. Motions from the PCS civil service workers’ union and Plymouth’s trade union council have already been passed condemning the decision and calling on Unison’s general secretary to intervene.
Without any evidence the panel determined that a United Left leaflet and other political documents had been produced on the machines in Tony’s home, and that he had therefore breached union rules.
A small number of emails and downloaded images from “party political” websites found on branch office machinery were accepted as evidence of the use of union resources for political purposes.
Names and addresses from Tony’s personal calendar and electronic address book shared between the union office computer and his mobile phone were also considered evidence of political use of union equipment.
In all, Tony faced 23 charges surrounding the ownership and use of computers for purposes outside of the rules of the union, all of which he denied.
The decisions of the union panel have significant implications for all those on the left in Unison.
Charge B2, for example, makes clear that “participating in, organising and allowing resources of the union to be used in support of a factional organisation”, Unison United Left, breaches Rules B.2.1, B.2.4 and B.2.5 and breaches Rule I.2.2 by “acting in a manner prejudicial or detrimental to the union, his branch or service group”.
The effect of this ruling is to give guidelines surrounding union activity the force of formal and binding regulations for the first time. This places all those activists supporting and promoting left wing ideas or organisation within the union at risk of their membership.
This is in contravention of basic political rights as well as the union’s agreed rulebook and must not be allowed to stand.
It is clear that the use of computers and communication technology by union activists is now widespread and routine. Yet no clear guidelines, let alone instructions and regulations exist for locally elected representatives at branch level.
To consider the viewing of party political documents on a computer to signify the use of that computer for party political purposes is patently absurd.
Unison local government branches routinely download the manifesto of councillors seeking election, to understand the potential policies of their local employers.
Labour Party policies and documents are transmitted and quoted routinely in Unison’s official email correspondence to branches and members using Unison equipment.
The findings of the disciplinary represent a political witc-hunt and must be challenged.
The case now goes forward to appeal.
Messages of support to Tony.Staunton@blueyonder.co.uk