Unison's Special Chocolate Biscuits Scandal: An insight into murky behaviour at the top of Britain's biggest public sector union
Britain's biggest public sector union last month escaped the embarrassment of having to rerun an election for its well known general secretary, Dave Prentis despite a judge deciding that one leading official " flagrantly " broke union rules to get him re-elected.
The union had faced a barrage of complaints from three rival candidates to Prentis - Heather Wakefield, John Burgess, and Roger Bannister - and a long standing party member, Jon Rogers at a hearing at the end of last year before an assistant certification officer and part time judge, Mary Stacy.
She rejected demands for a rerun of the election, criticism that the Electoral Reform Services who had a £1 m fee to supervise the election were not independent, and also threw out a complaint against Liz Snape, Dave Prentis's long term partner, that she had broken rules by campaigning for him in union time,
But the judge upheld a complaint against Linda Perks, now a national secretary and previously London's regional secretary, for flagrant breaches of union rules - after reading a transcript and listening to a secret tape of a meeting held at the TUC's Congress House, where, it is said, 50 officials were urged to break campaigning rules to ensure the re-election of Dave Prentis. The code name for the campaign was " Special Chocolate Biscuits".
The judge ruled out taking enforcement proceedings to force another election only because she was satisfied that Dave Prentis did not know that Linda Perks had taken such actions and because she thought he would still have won despite electoral irregularities in the campaign.
The election took place in a febrile atmosphere just after Ed Miliband’s resignation as Labour party leader and when Jeremy Corbyn was mounting his successful bid for party leader.
Mr Prentis who had won overwhelming support in previous election but was facing a much tougher challenge with a leading union official, Heather Wakefield, standing against him alongside two other candidates.
The judge, said some of the criticism of Heather Wakefield by Prentis supporters amounted to “demonization” and she also criticised the failure of the union to apologise to Jon Rogers for threatening him with a libel action when he complained of electoral malpractice.
But she reserved her most damning criticism for Linda Perks and the way the union later handled disciplinary proceedings against her and its failure to investigate other people who were involved.
After listening to the tape the judge ruled :“ Ms Perks tone is not just confident and swaggering in so openly breaking the rules but chilling in its brazenness and demonstration of unchecked power”.
She blatantly had known she was breaking union rules by getting officials to organise support for Dave Prentis during work time which was against union rules. The judge notes that it almost looked that for 3 or 4 days officials would do little else but campaign for Mr Prentis.
Linda Perks was suspended by the president of the union. But the judge says:
“The subsequent leisurely disciplinary proceedings of Ms Perks and outcome do not inspire confidence or serve as a deterrent for future overzealous officers. Some might think the move to National Secretary in Head Office on unspecified strategic projects retaining all pay and benefits represents reward rather than punishment, though she has endured the imposition of a final written warning.”
The judge is asking the union to review its procedures and set up a police for whistleblowers - which the union does not have - despite relying on whistleblowers from other public bodies to provide it with information.
" Work is also required to restore trust amongst its Greater London members following the activities of the regional secretary and the RMT ( Regional Management Team ) which have done so much damage to the Union's reputation both internally and externally."
The union's response is this :
"UNISON welcomes the assistant certification officer's decision to uphold the result of the 2015 general secretary election and reject the call from the complainants that there should be a re-run. The union’s development and organisation committee will be now be considering the ACO’s comments.”
It strikes me that though the union escaped an election rerun for such an important post - that it does need to put its house in order. Unions play an important part in a democracy in exposing appalling conditions and treatment of workers in this country and abroad. They must be seen to be squeaky clean in the way they run their affairs or their own reputations will be damaged. They can't fight causes against rogue employers if the break their own rules or try to fix election results.