A disabled person’s open letter to PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.
I am about to leave for London to join my trade union’s delegation at the TUC Women’s Conference. I find myself experiencing considerable anxiety at the prospect of coming into contact with members from the PCS delegation. I am writing to you, therefore, to ask that PCS please not set the police on me again.
About a year ago you gave an invited lecture at the university where I work. When questions were invited from the floor, I opened the questions as UCU Wales Vice Chair and asked,
“Mr Serwotka, it’s fair to say that for a great many of us in the trade union movement, PCS is considered the place you go after you die if you’ve been really, really good, and we consider you personally to be Jesus Christ. What can we as trade unionists do to make our unions more like PCS, and our union leaders more like you?”
You replied with some very useful practical advice on grassroots organising which I put to good effect when, a few months later, I organised a disabled-people’s anti-cuts direct action movement in Wales. This brought me into contact with a great many disabled people, and as a life-long and passionate trade unionist I was appalled at the very negative perception – and often outright hostility – that many disabled people hold about trade unions. I was really shocked, and could not understand this.
I still hold the views about PCS that I expressed when I asked you the question above after your talk at the university. But I have come to understand exactly why so many disabled people hold the trade unions in such low regard. Thanks to PCS setting the police on me for organising a peaceful direct-action campaign against the Welfare reforms. And thanks to PCS’s complaint against me to my own union UCU, as a result of which I am no longer UCU Wales Vice Chair.
When one is committed to peaceful protest and has never carried out nor threatened an act of violence in one’s life, receiving a very aggressive midnight visit from the police concerning one’s “criminal activities” and “plans to commit acts of violence”, followed by similarly aggressive engagement from the police on subsequent occasions, is a terrible shock. And when one is a disabled person, such experiences, as they did in my case, can trigger periods of significant ill-health which renders one somewhat useless as a campaign organiser.
But however awful my experience at the hands of South Wales Police, it was nothing compared to finding out almost three months later that it had been PCS who had set the police on me. And that my own union had known in advance of PCS’s intention to set the police on me, but had done nothing to notify me of this.
Fair enough. As PCS told both the police and UCU, I did make the following statement in a discussion on Facebook:
“I am exhausted to the core of being the hate figure of the trade union movement in Cardiff for having the audacity to object to PCS members destroying our lives. I’m so tired of being attacked by trade unionists who used to be friends and colleagues for “targeting” the poor innocent workers who are implementing the policies destroying us. To be honest, I believe that what PCS needs is a good many disabled people going down the jobcentres round the country and setting ourselves alight in front of them or otherwise committing suicide in horrific ways to show the fuckers what they’re doing to us. I volunteer to go first, I’m fucking exhausted and I don’t want to play anymore.”
I’m a foreigner, and what puzzles me about this is, when PCS passed this Facebook comment on to the South Wales Police and to UCU, you appear to have acted with an absence of the famous British commitment fair play and sportsmanship. Was it really sporting to give this comment to UCU and the police, without also giving them the full comment thread, the two days of acrimonious condemnation of disabled activists in which we were accused of wanting DWP staff to lose their jobs rather than implement the decisions that destroy our lives? In which we were accused (mainly by trotskyists not actually in PCS) of diverting PCS’s building for a general strike with our pathetic disabled-people’s side-issues (namely the fact that according to the DWP’s own figures, 73 disabled people a week die after the DWP stops their benefits)? In which we were accused of “dividing the working class”?
The thread also contained numerous other contributions from myself. In which I go at lengths to explain the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement’s absolute commitment to peaceful direct action. And to absolutely never, never, never targeting individual DWP or Atos employees. I explained how on several occasions I’d had to intervene to stop disabled people advocating hounding DWP/Atos employees on Facebook, or slashing their tyres in DWP car parks. I explained at length how I’d, several times, worked right through the night to talk a desperate disabled person going down to the Jobcentre the next morning and killing themselves (many disabled people find us when they’re searching the internet for ways to commit suicide, believing the DWP has left them with no other option. We show such people that there is a way to channel such desperation in more positive, constructive ways by participating in peaceful direct action. Some of the people I stopped from killing themselves outside DWP workplaces have gone on to be some of our best activists and organisers).
Fair enough, tactically, I can understand PCS’s decision not to include in the complaint to UCU or the police anything about the context in which the comment was made, to exclude all my comments about how we run a peaceful campaign that never targets DWP/Atos staff, to exclude all my comments about how we work very hard to stop disabled people going to DWP workplaces and killing themselves, and to include the only comment in which (after considerable provocation and under tremendous stress) I lost my temper. Tactically, I can understand why PCS did that.
Tactically. If, say, the tactic was to shut down a campaign calling on PCS to organise a boycott of implementing the Welfare reforms that was gaining a UK-wide profile and gathering momentum, that some in PCS felt was in danger of diverting PCS’s attention away from its most important campaigning priority, namely building for a general strike.
It was easy enough to persuade both the police and UCU that I was a danger to the public: it’s well-known that I have a mental health condition. Never mind that folks with clinical depression aren’t generally known for our proclivities for violence. I have a mental health condition, which makes me, in PCS and UCU’s eyes, an unhinged dangerous nutter.
I have no idea whether this was the tactical consideration behind PCS setting the police on me. I’m not in PCS. I couldn’t possibly comment. However, judging by the numbers of PCS reps and officers who’ve contacted me, this does appear to be a hypothesis circulating in PCS.
This may possibly explain some rather startling information that was made available to me when I received, a week ago, the actual complaint against me that PCS made to UCU. Although these events happened in October, I’m only now beginning to learn what actually happened, firstly because no-one bothered to tell me for almost 3 months that it had been PCS that set the police on me, and secondly because UCU’s leadership appears to operate a strict no-engagement policy with members with mental health conditions (fair enough really: not only are people with mental health conditions very dangerous, we’re also very contagious).
So I had to resort to a Data Protection Act Subject Access Request to UCU to try to figure out what the hell PCS had said to UCU. It had, after all, cost me my position as UCU Wales Vice Chair. So I was rather keen to know.
So I was somewhat intrigued to learn the following:
According to PCS, I’d “threatened violence against two PCS members.” And I’d “threatened to set fire to myself outside Transport House” (the Wales TUC headquarters, also home to PCS Wales).
This sure was news to me. But not, evidently, to my union’s leadership. Nor my fellow Officers of UCU Wales Council. Nor, evidently, to quite a lot of the rest of the trade union movement in Cardiff, as their disgusting attitude toward me in recent months suddenly begins to make sense. They’d all known since October that I’d planned to do these things. Yet I’ve only just found out, after a lot of hard work trying to find out what the hell’s going on. Because, when one has a mental health condition, all the normal trade union rules and custom and practice don’t apply. Being included in discussions about oneself, being informed of complaints against oneself, being shown the evidence, being given a right of reply. Stuff like that. Of course you have to suspend these things in the case of people with mental health conditions. Christ, there’s no knowing what they might do if you treated them like human beings. They’d probably go on the rampage or set fire to themselves or something.
And so PCS made the diagnosis, from the Facebook comment I’d made above, that I was planning to set myself alight in front of PCS HQ. Awesome. Ok fair enough. I have a mental health condition. It’s self-evident that when a person with a mental-health condition writes an exasperated Facebook post like the one I wrote, it obviously means they’ve actually planned to intentionally go and set themselves alight outside PCS HQ.
But the accusation that I’d “threatened violence against two PCS members” was a bit of a puzzle. Even given PCS’s expertise with regards making psychiatric diagnoses on the basis of Facebook posts, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what on earth I could possibly have written on Facebook to have given PCS cause to believe that I’d “threatened violence against two PCS members”.
But delving through the pile of senior UCU officers’ & officials’ that arrived from UCU’s legal department as a result of my subject access request, I found this:
So this appears to be a UCU official reporting that a PCS official had “called to say he has had reports from a meeting last night” that I “threatened violence against two PCS members” as well as threatening to set myself alight outside Transport House.
The “meeting last night” refers to a Compass Cymru meeting which I and several other disabled activists attended, at which, on the panel of invited speakers, was a PCS national vice president.
The disabled activists were very unhappy with PCS because PCS in Wales was refusing to talk to, engage with or work with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, in breach of PCS DWP Group Conference motions. So we decided we were going to raise the matter with the PCS national VP from the floor – a direct action. So I challenged the PCS VP on PCS Wales’ breach of its own policy toward legitimate disabled-people’s campaign groups, and asked Plaid Cymru president Leanne Wood (also on the panel) whether as a consequence of PCS’s refusal to work with us the Welsh Assembly would fund the mass evacuation of Welsh disabled people to Scotland to become refugees, where our key allies in the Unions were prepared to work with us.
This action was no different to other direct actions we carried out, for example when we went to the Co-operative Group’s South Wales Area Members Meeting and I moved a motion calling on the Co-op to make its supermarket skips accessible to disabled people, given that many of us now have to scavenge for food in supermarket skips thanks to Atos with which the “ethical” Co-op had a business relationship. That action, along with the guerilla hymn-singing storming of a Co-op Bank to hold a memorial service to the Co-op’s lost ethical principles, went viral on the internet and was a huge hit with disabled people, and was instrumental in the Co-op’s decision to drop Atos.
Do you know what the real reason for our campaign against the Co-op was, Mark? We did it for PCS. The Co-op had the same relationship with Atos that the DWP has for its staff: Atos carried out their occupational health. From PCS members we’d learned that Atos is just as horrendous at occupational health as it is at administering the Work Capability Assessments, and causes considerable suffering to PCS members. So we figured, if we went to PCS and said, Look, we forced the Co-op to drop Atos as their occ-health provider. If you organise a boycott among your members of implementing the decisions that destroy our lives re the WCA, we’ll launch a full-on nationwide direct-action campaign against all employers of PCS members that use Atos to do their occ-health.
That was the plan anyway. But it was scuppered by (1) PCS refusing to work with us or even talk to us, and (2) PCS setting the police on the campaign organiser, which kinda put a damper on everyone’s enthusiasm (and in addition caused the organiser an episode of severe ill-health).
So at the Compass meeting, I tried to engage with the PCS vice president afterwards (I’d always previously got along very well with him), to try to persuade him why PCS should work with the disabled-people’s movement in Wales. He told me he was refusing to speak to me on the grounds that I had accused DWP staff of being “murderers”. I was really appalled and assured him I’d never said any such thing, nor would I. He told me again he was refusing to talk to me. I asked him if I could send him an email to articulate our position. He said I could do so (I never got a reply).
Feeling terribly, terribly disheartened, and exhausted, I had an overwhelming need to be alone, so after the exchange with the PCS VP I left the meeting immediately and went home, feeling too depressed to even speak with the other disabled activists.
That is what happened at the meeting at which PCS claims I threatened violence against two PCS members. I know you won’t take my word for that, Mark. I have a mental health condition. Nothing I say can be relied on – these are simply the deranged ravings of a lunatic. Fortunately, therefore, you don’t have to. Because, like we did with all our direct actions, we recorded the entire proceedings. Including my exchange with the PCS VP.
The accusation that I threatened violence against 2 PCS members, and that I threatened to set myself alight outside PCS Wales HQ, are completely baseless. More so, this is, quite frankly, disability hate speech. This plays to the very worst of the most ignorant of discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions.
PCS has never told me why they set the police on me. But I understand that the reason given to your members who’ve asked is that PCS was concerned for my well-being and asked the police to make a “welfare check” to see whether I was ok.
When the police are asked to make welfare checks, in all other cases I’m aware of (and as admitted to South Wales Police themselves as part of our dispute resolution), they do so immediately. In this case, they sent round their PCS-ordered midnight intimidation squad 2 days after PCS made the complaint.
After PCS went to the police about me, and 36 hours before the intimidation squad actually arrived at my door, I saw several PCS lay reps and PCS Wales full-time officials – at a meeting. Given their very touching concern about my “welfare”, why didn’t any of my PCS comrades enquire after my “welfare” then?
Or if they were so concerned about me, why didn’t they phone me? I know quite a lot of the PCS Wales Council members and full-time officials socially.
If PCS was so concerned that I was a threat to your members, why then, the previous month, had I been allowed to volunteer with most of the PCS Wales council raising money for PCS’s hardship fund by serving with the Workers Beer Company at the Reading Festival? PCS Wales officers were well aware of my mental health because I was unable to work the full-6-hour shifts and they were really nice about allowing me frequent breaks. But given that PCS believes I’m such a fire risk, weren’t you putting your members at risk by letting me camp with them at the festival campsite? Or indeed driving a car-load of PCS folk to the festival & back in my car? Wasn’t PCS worried about what I might get up to with all that petrol in the car?
If PCS was so concerned that I was a threat to your members, why then did PCS not raise any concerns with the university that employs me, that sends me into workplaces full of PCS members to deliver courses? Quite a lot of PCS Wales senior officers knew that I was employed to deliver courses in public sector workplaces, because a couple of weeks before PCS set the police on me, I’d given them leaflets for the university’s workplace courses and asked them to distribute them to their members.
I am significantly disabled, and I am supported in employment by a Remploy support worker. Which several senior officers in PCS Wales knew about. Because I am quite open about discussing my own mental health condition as a concious attempt to normalise and de-stigmatise mental health (ok fair play I did a bit of a rubbish job there with my PCS mates).
Before anyone in PCS decides to set the benefit fraud police on me, I assure you the work I do is all declared, legit and has been given the ok by the DWP. Disabled people on ESA are allowed whatever small amount of supported “permitted work” their condition allows. Which is rather gracious of the DWP, given that even with this work I do not earn enough to live on.
So, at the same time that PCS believed I was such a danger to your members that you had to set the police on me, I was actually delivering courses in civil-service workplaces. In which I often have senior civil servants, Welsh Assembly Members, etc in my classes. And PCS knew about this. Did no-one think that if I really was as unhinged as PCS claimed, surely my employer, my Remploy support worker, or my students might have noticed?
My line manager, the Director of Teaching in a large university department, is a Facebook friend. As are many of my work colleagues and managers. They all followed the disabled-people’s direct action campaign with interest (and a lot more support than I got from UCU or PCS). If my Facebook posts were really so inflammatory (‘scuse the pun) that PCS had no choice but to set the police on me, don’t you think my managers might have noticed, and pulled me out of a very public-facing role?
I’m about to leave for the TUC Women’s Conference now. As well as a UCU delegation, there will be a PCS delegation. I haven’t really been among PCS folk much since you set the police on me and ousted me from trade union office. As you can imagine I’m rather nervous that PCS might set the police on me again. Given what a dangerous, unhinged, deranged – and inflammable – lunatic PCS believes I am, I’m really anxious I might get the police set on me again by accidentally doing something threatening. Like accidentally looking funny at a PCS member. Or giving them the evil eye, so that their crops fail, and their livestock die. Folks with mental health conditions were believed to be able to cast such evil eyes in Medieval times, and were sometimes burned at the stake for it. PCS’s approach to disability equality appears to be similarly Medieval. The one exception is you appear to believe that we burn ourselves alive, rather than you do it for us.
Could you please give me your assurance, Mark, that PCS will not set the police on me again? I assure you that I am totally ok. My medical team are quite happy for me to attend the TUC Women’s Conference. There is really, really, no need for PCS to be concerned about my “welfare”.
I suspect that PCS uses a very different definition of the word “welfare” that disabled people use. The semantics of PCS’s use of the word “welfare” appears to be much closer to the semantics of the ConDem’s use of the word, as in “Welfare Reform Bill”.
In fact, I would very much appreciate it if PCS could refrain from having any further concern for my “welfare”. Ever again. And that of disabled activists generally. We have a right to organise our own campaigns, and to participate in our trade unions, and to hold elected positions in our trade unions. I do appreciate PCS’s touching concern, but disabled people have enough shite to deal with right now thanks to the ConDems, and we really would be very much better off without PCS being concerned for our “welfare” in the way PCS was so concerned for mine.
Dr Liza van Zyl (an unhinged lunatic who once held trade union office but now doesn’t, thanks to PCS)