The IWW London general membership branch had a recent victory which combined personal casework with some direct action. I was the main caseworker. However, this case involved people coordinating union action in a hostile workplace with no recognition agreement. I’ve put together some notes below about how we won and what it means. It’s important to note that for legal reasons we can’t name the employer unfortunately.
This was the first major case I’d dealt with outside of the public sector. The IWW is a very different organisation from the PCS as was the workplace involved. For starters I don’t work in the same place as the member being represented.
The ideal of worker self organisation is just that, an ideal. In reality we often need to bring people in from outside and this can actually be helpful. Being able to tell the employer that I had years of experience representing people in the public sector certainly helped with this case. The first meeting we had was technically a grievance meeting but I used it to rip the company’s policies to shreds saying that I’d never seen anything like them.
The case revolved around some instances of bullying which had exacerbated disability issues for the worker. I used the first meeting to point out our view that the company had failed to protect the member at work and that they were legally culpable. I followed up the meeting with a request by email that the member be allowed time off work with full pay whilst the issues were resolved. I left them in no doubt that we were looking at the full range of options at our disposal.
The company had already suffered direct action with regards to the case of someone being sacked a few months earlier. They had not enjoyed the experience so reminding them that their reputation could be damaged was a key part of this case.
I expected the case to be resolved very quickly as the member was on full pay but not at work but they stalled and stalled. We also argued that as it was a small firm they should appoint an independent person to deal with the grievance, as we had no confidence in the senior management. They did so but they still took an awful long time dealing with things even though they were paying for this extra help. This helped in understanding the incompetence of the bosses involved.
We were invited to a fresh meeting with the independent investigator and at that meeting the instigator asked the worker whether they wanted to come back to work and how that would be managed. Following the meeting the worker told me that they would actually be happier leaving and we discussed how we could make that economically viable for them.
We won the grievance and the investigator suggested a phased return back to work. I wrote to the company suggesting that if they were in agreement that it might be best for the worker to leave their employ then they should suggest a realistic package. I suggested a further 3 months pay as this would give the worker some money while they looked for another job.
This was eventually agreed upon and a legal settlement was drafted for us to sign. There then followed some legal matters. These took a long time so to add pressure to the employer a piece of direct action was called for. You can see the video (or surreal art project) of the action below.
The direct action honed the senses and it wasn’t long before the settlement was complete and those dealing with the legal side were able to successfully argue for the payments to go beyond 3 months and to include the date that the settlement was signed.
The result: This was a case that started in the summer of 2014 and ended in the winter. It took months of us making demands and crucially setting out clearly why we were making those demands. But it was the threat of direct action that enabled the worker to receive thousands of pounds.
The employer was ruthless and hostile to having a union involved but we turned that to our advantage. They were inexperienced and scared. Feeding on their fear was paramount. In industrial relations we often see companies exploiting trade union weakness and pursuing ever harsher practices. With this case we showed that unions can do the same when the opportunities arise. It’s unheard of to get paid time off for grievances to be dealt with, it’s unheard of to get such generous release packages in the private sector but we got them. They must have been scared of legal challenge to willingly get an outside company in to conduct the grievance.
The IWW worked closely with the Angry Language Brigade on this case (you can read their account of the case here) and received a lot of help from the Solidarity Federation. It was a fine example of what we can do when we combine direct action with solidarity for workers.
Congratulations to the worker who defeated the bosses!