Late in 2014, members of the Public and Commercial Services Union sent an open letter to General Secretary Mark Serwotka demanding greater support for reps and members in employment tribunals.
The letter, published online here, was initially motivated by the case of John Pearson. John was a PCS rep at Hewlett-Packard, who was unfairly sacked as a result of his trade union activities during a dispute over job cuts.
In May 2013, HP supplied PCS with the statutorily specified details of proposals to sack a further 584 workers on 31 July. When John Pearson, in his capacity as branch secretary, circulated those details to branch members he was suspended and later dismissed on a charge of breaching company confidentiality. John was also charged with talking to a journalist about industrial action without obtaining HP’s prior permission.
PCS initially supported John and demanded his unconditional reinstatement, stating that the charges illustrated “that HP is aiming to destroy the very concept of an independent trade union.”
However, whilst mass sackings were still taking place; the work to rule was ongoing; and John’s branch was conducting a consultative ballot on escalation of action, PCS wrote to John on 29 November 2013 informing him that the union was no longer taking action to seek a remedy for him and that not only would John be unable to continue to hold office as Branch Secretary but that his membership of PCS was at an end forthwith.
Mark Serwotka wrote to John on 10 January 2014 reaffirming the ending of union support, on the grounds that the union’s lawyers had advised that “we could not support any Employment Tribunal claim as there was no realistic prospect of securing your reinstatement” and that “neither the group nor the branch are in a position to take industrial action aimed at your reinstatement”.
Rank-and-file PCS activists attempted to remedy this situation by launching the John Pearson Defence Campaign and sending a motion to PCS Conference calling for full support for John and reinstatement of his membership. However, it was defeated after intervention of political opponents of John’s in the HP section of the union, as well as the National Executive Committee, who made personal attacks upon John’s character and made the claim that John had been “hoisted by his own petard.”
Meanwhile, John was forced to engage a private solicitor to fight an unfair dismissal claim in the Employment Tribunal. The tribunal vindicated John and his supporters by finding that he had been unfairly dismissed and that the principal reason was his activities as part of an independent trade union.
Following on from the verdict, the letter to Mark Serwotka demanded: “Full support for John from PCS as he pursues reinstatement following his ET verdict, and full recompense for the legal costs he has paid at his own expense” as well as “A written guarantee that reps and activists victimised by their employer will receive full and unwavering support when fighting that victimisation, by all available means including ET, as a point of principle.”
The letter also tackled a more general feeling that the union could do more to support reps and members pursuing Employment Tribunals. It stated: “John’s case has also thrown into sharp focus what we feel is a distinct lack of support from the union more generally regarding ETs. Many reps have voiced their frustration at the willingness of PCS Legal to write off cases as unwinnable and withhold support, particularly in those instances where the rep has then gone on to win those cases.”
This led to the further demand for: “Steps to rectify the drop in the number of ET cases being pursued, including putting experienced lay rep advocates in control of whether a case is taken forward, ring-fencing funding for cases and encouraging the training of more rep advocates.”
Signatories to the letter include Sofia Azam, a PCS rep in Ofqual who received both legal and industrial support from the union in a victimisation case very similar to John’s.
Read the open letter to Mark Serwotka here.
Read Mark Serwotka’s response and John’s comments on it here.