London Met University targets union activists

Simon Deville looks at the ongoing witch-hunt at London Met University

London Met University has gone through a series of crises that have left the university in a precarious financial situation. In 2009 the university was ordered to pay back £36.5 million to the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) after it was discovered that they were claiming fees for students who had dropped out of their studies. Last year the university lost its trusted status for Tier 4 student visas, forcing all its international students to transfer to other universities, and losing the university still more income.

While these are clearly problems caused by bad management, senior management’s LondonMetresponse has been to attack the workforce, first with redundancies and then with the proposed setting up of a ‘shared services’ company which would outsource large groups of staff. Each time Unison has fought these attacks with successful strike action against redundancies, and forced the university to back off from its shared services plans.

Max Watson, the Unison branch chair and NEC member, has been at the forefront of a vibrant and active branch that has been able to take on these management attacks. Recently another Unison activist, Jawad Botmeh, was elected as a staff governor.

In 1996 Jawad Botmeh (a Palestinian man) was convicted of conspiracy to bomb the Israeli Embassy. Despite a high profile campaign against this miscarriage of justice — which Unison supported — Jawad served a life sentence. Having served his sentence Jawad was released and found work at London Met University. He declared his previous conviction to London Met, but despite this he was appointed to the post of Admin Assistant five years ago.

London Met University is now using Jawad’s appointment as a means to attack Max Watson, who was one of three members of the interview panel that appointed him. At the meeting to suspend Max and Jawad on 7th February, the Regional Officer for Unison was physically prevented from attending the meeting, and Max wasn’t told what he is supposed to have done wrong.

Max’s branch and Unison’s Higher Education Service Group are rightly giving the pair their full support. Their hearings took place on the 18th February, and the branch organised the second rally in support of the two within a week prior to the start of the hearings. The results are awaited .

Following the hearings London Met have stepped up the witch hunt and have now suspended Professor Steve Jefferys, the Director of the Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI) and UCU member, where both Max and Jawad work, for the same charge of appointing Jawad.

In a letter to the Governors, Professor Jefferys sums up the situation: “I was suspended… for “potential gross misconduct” by not referring Jawad’s original application in 2008 for a part-time three-month appointment to the Deputy Vice Chancellor, my then line manager. [N]o-one at the hearing today could refer me to a policy suggesting we should discriminate against people who had served prison sentences, or against people with particular kinds of convictions. … The WLRI mission to undertake ‘academic, applied and socially-committed research and teaching emphasising equality and social justice into all aspects of working lives’ includes both appointing a highly diverse workforce and offering people a second chance.”

Professor Jefferys goes on to explain “In 2010 an 18-month post was advertised, [Jawad] applied for it – and declared his conviction on a form which this time procedure meant went to HR, who then organised the interview. HR approved the post, and in so doing endorsed my earlier decision not to make his lengthy prison experience a reason for not employing him. A month later, the University dismissed him because of a Home Office letter saying incorrectly he did not have the right to work; but a week later when they revised this advice the University reinstated him. Again it is not credible that no-one in HR opened his file at this crisis point.“

Trade union activists everywhere must ensure that the London Met management aren’t allowed to get away with targeting union activists who fight back against attacks on workers’ conditions. Likewise we must ensure they are not allowed to punish Jawad Botmeh a second time for a crime he never committed in the first place. For up-to-date information or details about how to get involved in the campaign see www.londonmetunison.

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