Thursday, August 16, 2007

How to Save Someone's Job

I was involved in a campaign to defend someone's job a while back, and think it's an experience worth writing up here. It's not one of those struggles that makes the headlines, it didn't get as far as a ballot let alone a strike ... but that's because the campaign won. It's actually a very everyday sort of case, but I think the manner of how it won was something of a model.

This bloke - let's call him Jerry - worked for a transport company. He had an unblemished work record for seven months, then - with tragic personal cricumstances in the background - lost his rag with a workmate one day (no violence involved). He faced the sack, in the form of termination at the end of his probation.

The employer should have signed off his probation after six months, but the manager responsible hadn't done so. So Jerry was dealt with as a probationer, facing a 'review' of his employment rather than a disciplinary hearing with the basic rights that would involve. In fact, the manager had made such a dog's breakfast of the proceedings that Jerry's union rep was able to save his job - albeit with the probation (that he shouldn't still have been on anyway!) extended.

But before the extended probation was up, the aforementioned personal tragedy came back to haunt Jerry and he was unable to come to work one day. This got him back up in front of the management, this time pretty determined to sack him.

As this was still a 'review of probation', Jerry and his union rep were not even entitled to see the charges against him, let alone to have a properly-constituted disciplinary hearing - and if he were sacked, he would have no legal redress, having been employed for less than a year.

The union rep prepared all the arguments, but knew that this alone would not win it. The rep discussed the situation with as many people as possible in the workplace, and found that with some encouragement, they were keen to defend Jerry, especially as he was well-liked and hard-working. Workers drafted a petition, and got well over half the workforce to sign it - hardly anyone refused. Some wrote statements in support of Jerry as well as signing the petition.

Jerry, his rep and some other members went to their union branch meeting, where he got unanimous support, and agreed that in the event of Jerry being sacked, they would hold a special branch meeting near his workplace to plan an appeal and moves to industrial action if necessary. Activists started working on fixing a venue, date and time.

Meanwhile, the rep discovered that several other new workers had gone past their six months without having their probation signed off. She tabled the issue for discussion at the local negotiating meeting, and demanded that management ensure that probation is always dealth with promptly. Management had no choice to agree, but the rep kept on their case to make sure they were actually delivering.

When Jerry's probation review happened, things did not look good. But then the rep produced the petition and the statements from workmates, and made sure the managers were aware of the strength of feeling in both the workplace and the branch. Management decided not to sack Jerry, but to confirm him in position.

Jerry had no knowledge or experience of trade unionism before this job. But he is now a hard-working, committed union activist, handing out leaflets in the workplace, encouraging new workers to join, coming to meetings when he can, and always up for campaigns and industrial action.

The lessons?

  • No matter how silver-tongued your union rep, mobilising the members is the key to winning.
  • Behind every individual case there is a collective issue - in this case, justice for probationers.
  • Don't just get workers justice - get them involved.
  • It is a disgrace that ten years into a Labour government, workers in their first year of employment still don't have the right to claim unfair dismissal, and that employers still have the right to use the notion of 'probation' to deny workers basic rights.