by Yuri Prasad
Yunus Bakhsh, a highly respected trade unionist from Newcastle, has won a four-year battle to clear his name after a landmark Employment Tribunal victory.
Bosses at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust sacked the mental health nurse in 2008, claiming he had bullied and intimidated other workers. But in a scathing judgement the tribunal last week found that the Trust had unfairly dismissed Yunus for his trade union activities. The panel also ruled that the Trust, which is one of the biggest mental health employers in Europe, had discriminated against Yunus after he started suffering with depression and became too ill to attend disciplinary hearings against him.
The victory marks a crucial turning point for Yunus, who has been forced to mount a long-running legal campaign against his former employer and the leaders of his own Unison union who refused to defend him. In 2006, bosses suspended Yunus—despite his more than two decades of unblemished service—after receiving an “anonymous” letter of complaint against him.
Senior managers then conducted what they described as an “impartial investigation” into allegations that he had bullied other members of staff. But the tribunal did not believe the bosses’ version of events. Instead it concluded that the Trust had used the complaint to rid bosses of a highly effective trade unionist who had long been a thorn in their side. The judgement mercilessly attacks evidence that Trust directors and senior managers submitted to them.
Elizabeth Latham, the Trust’s head of human resources, played a crucial role in Yunus’s sacking. She draws particular criticism. The panel dismiss her statements as “not credible”. In its judgement the Tribunal argues that Latham was part of a well-laid plan to get rid of Yunus, saying, “The hand of the Human Resources Department which acted unlawfully in suspending the claimant… extends throughout the whole of the process… all the way to the conclusion of the appeal hearing…” The panel was “not impressed” by fellow director, Russell Patton, either, saying he had acted in an “arrogant and hostile fashion” in his dealings with Yunus. They described his statements as “unreliable and at times incredible”.
Evidence given by director Kate Simpson is rejected as “hesitant and unconvincing”. The Tribunal describes the methods used by Claire Hesketh, the manager responsible for the inquiry into Yunus, as “designed to find evidence against the claimant rather than conduct an open minded impartial investigation”.
While the Tribunal has harsh words for Trust bosses, it describes Yunus as a “straight forward and credible” witness, “who made no secret of his passion for and commitment to his trade union role nor of his political beliefs”. The panel praises Yunus’s witnesses describing them as “convincing”, “credible” and “illuminating”.
Staff nurse Michael Paccitti defended Yunus against bosses’ claims that he was exaggerating his deteriorating mental health in a bid to string out his appeal against being sacked. The panel reports that Michael, “struck the Tribunal as a caring and honest man who obviously tried to give truthful evidence without exaggeration: The Tribunal found itself able to accept evidence from this witness without question.”
Evidence also points to the real reasons why Yunus was victimised—he was enemy of both Trust bosses and the right wing leadership of his own union. Before his suspension, Yunus revealed to the press that Trust bosses awarded themselves whopping pay increases while cutting the patient food budget. The Tribunal looked at the timing of the “anonymous” complaint, and the Trust’s swift response to it. It notes that, “Had Elizabeth Latham been expecting to receive the letter [of complaint], she could hardly have acted with a greater sense of urgency”.
Yunus was also set to challenge for the leadership of a new Unison union branch due to be created after several hospital trusts merged. If, as was expected, Yunus won, he would be at the head of one of the biggest branches in the country. National and regional leaders of Unison saw in the bosses’ attack an opportunity to get rid of a popular and articulate critic. Instead of fighting for their activist, they joined the assault.
Unison leaders told Yunus he had no chance of winning his case at a tribunal. They refused to fund the challenge or authorise the strike ballot his members were demanding to defend him. They then used essentially the same evidence as the Trust to suspend him from office and mount their own “investigation”.
Yunus was expelled from Unison in 2008, with union leaders knowing that vital paperwork that could clear him of their charges was locked in an office that he was barred from entering. Unison leaders maintained their assault even after it was revealed that some of those who had accused Yunus of bullying had links to fascists.
Noting the possibility of collusion between management and the union leaders, the judgement notes, “The Tribunal is bound to wonder whether she [Elizabeth Latham] found in Elizabeth Twist [Unison’s former head of health in the northern region] an ally and a shared sense of purpose”. Despite finding in Yunus’s favour on crucial issues of trade union activity and disability, the Tribunal did not accept that the Trust had broken race discrimination law when taking disciplinary action against him. Yunus describes the last four years as a “living hell” that he could survive only because of huge support he has received from rank and file trade unionists.
He is jubilant at the Tribunal’s clear decision against his former employer, but remains livid with the leaders of his own union. “I want my job back and to be back in my union,” he told Socialist Worker. “Unison should commission an independent inquiry into the way I was forced out of the union, and those responsible should face charges.
“This Tribunal decision is a massive victory for me. But it is also a victory for everyone who faces discrimination because of a mental health disability, such as depression.”
“It is a victory for every trade unionist who stands up to bullying bosses and refuses to be cowed.”
“And it is a message to those in the leadership of our unions—we expect them to fight to defend activists with all their might, not to witch-hunt them because of their political beliefs.”
Demand Unison commission an independent inquiry into the witch-hunt against Yunus.
Email Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis at firstname.lastname@example.org