Bizarre resolution to FBU annual conference calls for union to be exempt from employment law!

Photo by Simon Murphy

LAST WEEK, this blog asked if a plan hatched by the FBU leadership to have every policy of the union remain in force for 20 years as a default constituted the most ill-conceived proposal ever presented to the union’s annual conference.

We think there might now be a new contender.

Resolution 82 from the Staffordshire brigade committee – which, like the leadership’s proposal, has been tabled to this year’s annual conference (due to take place between 10 -13 May) – is entitled “Judges don’t run our union”.

In the resolution, reference is made to the high-profile employment tribunal case last year in which the FBU was found to have unfairly dismissed former executive council member Paul Embery following what the judge described as a “witch-hunt”.

It seems that the Staffordshire brigade committee, like the union’s leadership, is still smarting about the tribunal’s decision. The resolution (which can be read in full here) condemns the “interference” of the tribunal in deciding that a policy relied upon by the union to sanction Embery had actually lapsed a full three years before he was disciplined. “Such a decision can only be made by the FBU and its members through our own democratic structures,” goes the resolution. “No individual member or official has the authority to determine, overturn or end policies of the union.”

These arguments – which this blog has already demolished – rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Embery case, as well as a general ignorance of how union policies can naturally expire.

More worrying, however, are the consequences if the Staffordshire resolution were to be carried. The whole essence of the resolution is that the courts should have no role whatsoever in the internal affairs of the union. Now, that position might be perfectly reasonable when it comes to most of the union’s day-to-day activities and operations. But what the Staffordshire brigade committee is arguing – and the reference in the resolution to the Embery tribunal confirms it – is that the courts should not interfere in the union’s business in any circumstances at all – not even when an employee of the union has claimed that he was unfairly sacked!

Think about that for a moment. It basically means that the courts would, if Staffordshire gets its way, have no say at all on questions of how the union treats its own employees – not even on the question of whether the union might have sanctioned an employee in a way that was unlawful.

It means that FBU employees would not be afforded the same protections and rights in the workplace as employees elsewhere.

It means that the FBU would be given some sort of special exemption from the requirement to abide by employment law.

These are the things that members of the Staffordshire brigade committee are arguing for, whether they realise it or not.

The tribunal in the Embery case was perfectly entitled to come to a view on whether the FBU had acted unlawfully in the way it sanctioned him. In considering that matter, it was quite legitimate for the tribunal to make a judgement on the question of whether a policy on which the union relied was in force at the time the sanction was handed down.

If anyone should be in any doubt about this, then consider this scenario. Imagine a fire service employer had sanctioned an FBU member for breaching a particular policy. Then imagine an employment tribunal decided there was compelling evidence to show that the said policy had actually expired several years ago, and the employer was therefore wrong to do what it did. Then imagine that the fire authority running that particular local fire service agreed a resolution condemning the tribunal’s decision and demanding that the courts stay out of the internal affairs of the service. What might be the FBU’s reaction in these circumstances?

We surely all know the answer to that question.

The Staffordshire resolution is wrong-headed and dangerous. It conveys the message that the FBU believes it should be free from the constraints of employment law to which every other employer in the country is subject.

That is the very last message that any trade union should want to send.

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