Tag Archives: Welfare Bill

Trade union colleague has a mental-health condition? DON’T PANIC! Some useful guidelines on how to cope.

As a trade unionist it’s become increasingly apparent to me that there is a need for guidance for trade unionists, and for members of the wider Left generally, on how to cope when they have a colleague who has a mental-health condition.

I was until recently Vice Chair of the University and College Union in Wales, but was then deemed unfit to hold elected office in the Union by my Wales Council colleagues on grounds of having a mental health condition. This followed my union colluding with another trade union, PCS, in setting the police on me for campaigning against the Welfare reforms.

Mental health conditions are very common – one in four of UCU’s members has a mental health condition. If a union’s leadership is to be representative of its membership, then people with mental health conditions should be able to participate fully in the union’s activities and democratic processes, including holding elected office.

It proved extraordinarily difficult to determine UCU’s degree of complicity in PCS setting the police on me – or indeed to obtain any information whatsoever about the matter, nor to get anyone to talk to me, as the union’s leadership appears to operate a strict no-engagement policy with its officers with mental-health conditions (fair enough, mental health is highly contagious).

So I had to resort to making a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act (DPA SAR) for the correspondence between UCU and PCS, and between my colleagues, concerning myself, to try figure out what on earth was going on.

So I eventually received from UCU’s legal department, more than 5 months after the police had come to my door at midnight to interrogate me about my “criminal intentions” toward PCS members, a pile of redacted emails in which my colleagues display an attitude toward people with mental health conditions of quite extraordinary ignorance and prejudice.

No-one in PCS has contacted me to tell me why they set the police on me. But a member of the UCU delegation to the TUC Women’s Conference in March (of which I was also a member) was told by a Wales member of the PCS delegation, by way of explanation, that PCS had set the police on me for campaigning against the Welfare Reforms killing 73 disabled people a week because “They’ve never experienced activism from someone with a mental health condition before. They just panicked.”

I thought it would be useful therefore, for both UCU and PCS, and the wider trade union movement, if I used the material from the DPA SAR in what I hope is a constructive way to try to address some of the ignorance and misconceptions that officers and officials in both unions have toward their colleagues with mental health conditions.

the charges

The above email is from a senior colleague in UCU Wales with whom I serve on national committees. Reading this, more than five months after the events in question, was the first time I learned of the allegations against me. It came as a considerable surprise to me that I had threatened violence against PCS members, and that I had threatened to set myself alight outside Transport House (the Wales TUC headquarters in Cardiff which also housed PCS Wales).

I have never committed an act of violence – nor threatened violence – against anyone. Ever. In my life. My colleagues on UCU Wales Council, and all the full-time officials of UCU dealing with this, and the PCS officials who reported this, appear to have believed without question these quite extraordinary allegations about someone they knew, worked with, and saw frequently. This says a great deal about how ingrained in both UCU and PCS are the ignorant and discriminatory attitudes of people with mental health conditions, and the belief that people with mental health conditions are “unbalanced” (in the words of my colleagues above), dangerous, and a risk to others.

come to Transport House and make a fuss

This email appears to be from a UCU official reporting a conversation with a PCS official. As I explain in an open letter to PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, all I did at the meeting in question, which I attended as convenor of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, was make a robust but entirely legitimate challenge to a PCS national vice president over the fact that PCS in Wales was refusing to work with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, in breach of its own DWP Group Conference motions.

In fact, I was in a position to prove conclusively that I never made any threats of violence against PCS members, and I never made any threat to set myself alight outside Transport House: as we do with all our direct actions, one of our disabled activists recorded the entirety of the meeting, including every utterance I made.

But I was never given a chance to respond to these utterly ludicrous accusations against me. And I only learned of these allegations more than five months later through a DPA SAR.

How should the writers of these emails (and the PCS officials who contacted UCU and set the police on me) have reacted instead?

The answer to that can be found in the answer to this question: How would these officers and officials have reacted on hearing these allegations had I not had a mental health condition?

  • They would have probably (based on their knowledge of me) been sceptical.
  • They would have probably attempted to ascertain the truth.
  • As part of trying to ascertain the truth, they would almost certainly have called me. All the people involved in the two emails above have my mobile number.
  • It is very unlikely that they would have reported the matter to the police (going through the above steps would have resolved the matter and made involving the police unnecessary).

In fact, in asking how UCU would have dealt with a serious complaint from another trade union against one of our members if that member did not have a mental health condition, we don’t have to rely on conjecture. I am not the only person in UCU Wales against whom another trade union has recently made an unfounded complaint. As explained here, a colleague in UCU Wales was on the receiving end of a complaint from Unite. But in his case, he was not only informed of it by UCU. UCU gave him an opportunity to respond to the allegations. He was believed. And was given the opportunity to give his side of the story to the assembled delegates of UCU Wales Congress and ask for support.

The difference between the way UCU handled the complaint against me compared to that against my colleague could not be more stark. The only difference is that one of the members has a mental health condition – and therefore all accusations of deranged and threatening conduct, no matter how bizarre or unlikely, and believed by UCU without question. Because that is the way people with mental health conditions generally behave.

Liza needs some help

My argument with PCS as the convenor of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales was an entirely rational one, and was moreover a position that had been democratically arrived-at through debate within the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales. I did not, in fact, “need some help”, as the positions I was advocating had nothing to do with my mental-health condition.

Nor was my challenge to the PCS national vice president a manifestation of mental ill-health in any way. I challenged him over the fact that PCS in Wales was refusing to work with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, in breach of its own DWP Group Conference motions.

It is disturbing that criticising PCS on a matter that profoundly impacts on myself and hundreds of thousands of other disabled people is so strongly considered by UCU’s leadership (I believe this email comes from the General Secretary herself) to be incompatible with holding elected office in UCU. If fighting for the interests of disabled people is considered incompatible with holding elected office in a trade union, then we seriously need to consider what the purpose of trade unions is. Particularly given that higher and further education, where UCU’s members work, is considered by the Health and Safety Executive as being one of the most dangerous industrial environments in terms of people becoming disabled as a result of intolerably high levels of workplace stress.

It is also disturbing that, while my employer (a university) is required by Statute to respect my academic freedom, including freedom to advocate positions that may cause offense, UCU does not appear to respect the right of its elected officers to challenge others in the trade union movement, no matter how legitimate that criticism may be.

The comment about the focus needing to be on my health and well-being made me smile. If finding me unfit to hold trade union office without any semblance of due process, treating me according to the most ignorant of discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions, and colluding in setting the police on me, is how UCU focuses on my health and well-being, then I’d rather go without that kind concern for my health.

Disabled people are used to hearing the “we’re concerned about your health and well-being” justification when they’re being discriminated against, disadvantaged or excluded, or otherwise treated in a way that non-disabled people are not. In a similar way women were previously (and sometimes still) excluded from jobs in engineering or hazardous (but exciting and high-paying) professions. For a long time women were prevented from working in parts of the chemical and nuclear industries because of “concern” that chemicals or radiation could harm any potential children they have.

Excluding someone from elected office in a trade union out of “concern” for their health and well-being when one has made zero attempt to ascertain what the person’s actual health condition is, is discriminatory. A quarter of our members in UCU have mental health conditions. A core principle – possibly the core principle – of trade unionism is “nothing about us without us”. People like us should be represented by people like us: people with mental-health conditions should be fully able to participate in the union and its leadership structures.

grave concerns re fitness to hold office

This is a truly extraordinary email. Remember, I was Wales Vice Chair. And yet my colleagues are speaking about me as if I’m a criminal. The extent to which they have allowed their ignorant prejudices of mental health to “otherise” me is a case-study in discriminatory practice.

At no point does it occur to anyone to speak to me. The way UCU has handled this reminds me of an incident many years ago under the Apartheid Regime in South Africa, when the government set up a commission to look into tightening the law on abortion (there was concern that too many white babies were being aborted). Responding to criticism that there was not a single woman on this commission, the government’s response was, “If we appointed a commission to review criminal sentencing, we wouldn’t appoint criminals to it.”

Whenever there is any concern about a disabled-person’s condition, the person best-placed to give input on the subject is the disabled person themselves. Whenever a disabled-person’s condition is discussed (and there are very few legitimate reasons why it should be in a trade-union context), the disabled person in question must ALWAYS be involved in the discussion. We have lived with our conditions for many years and are generally quite adept at living life, being university lecturers, organising anti-cuts campaigns, and holding trade union office.

I wish to submit the final paragraph of the email above for the Most Hilarious Patronising Comment About A Disabled Person Prize 2013.

My mental health has been widely discussed among my union colleagues and in the wider trade union movement in Wales. At no point has anyone sought to ask me to give input into these discussions. So it might be useful if I briefly summarise my condition.

I have clinical depression and adult ADHD. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (manic depression) on the basis of a single manic episode 20 years ago, but have not had one since. I have had these conditions all my life, and have been on medication for these conditions most of my life. Despite these conditions I have been able to work in high-pressure jobs, and work to a very high standard of professionalism. Until recently (3 years ago) I never had to take time off work as a result of these conditions. Three years ago a series of extremely stressful traumatic life events triggered an episode of severe clinical depression from which I am slowly recovering.

Until I decided to “come out” as someone with a mental-health condition a couple of years ago, no-one in my professional or social life guessed that I have a mental-health condition, or that I’ve been taking medication every day for all my adult life for clinical depression and ADHD. Had I not chosen to be open about my mental health, most people would still not guess that I have a mental health condition. However, being open about my condition has resulted in many people in the trade union movement interpreting everything I do or say as a manifestation of mental ill-health. People choose to see the label, not the person.

I am informed that many people in the trade union movement describe me as “mentally unstable”, and indeed too “mentally unstable” to hold elected trade union office, or to be involved in campaigning against the ConDem cuts, or to organise a disabled-people’s movement against the Welfare reforms.

Thing is, I am not mentally unstable. I’ll say that again, because I know that folks will have difficulty grasping this: I’m not mentally unstable.

My condition is in fact very stable, and I can say this objectively because this has been repeatedly confirmed by my psychiatrist. (Given that such a great many people in the trade union movement insist that I am mentally unstable, I naturally worry that this may be true. But unlike my trade union colleagues, I seek an opinion on my medical condition from competent qualified professionals.

Neither am I deluded, psychotic, a fantasist, nor paranoid – all diagnoses that the amateur psychiatrists of the trade union movement have made of me. It is also not true that “my opinions are determined by my mental state”, as asserted by a Unison officer in Cardiff: my capacity for rational thinking and ability to articulate an argument on merit remains unimpaired – and remains unchanged despite what “mental state” those who disagree with my arguments may perceive me to be in on the basis of whatever discriminatory stereotypes of mental ill-health they hold.

Another Unison officer (and Socialist Party branch secretary) recently responded to a view I expressed that he disagreed with by telling me to “Fuck off Liza, you psychotic bitch.” There is nothing in my medical history that remotely hints that I am psychotic.

Far more damaging than these clear-cut cases of disability hate speech has been the “When Liza’s well, she’s a brilliant campaigner/ organiser/ trade-unionist” argument which has done the rounds in Cardiff for several months. Those times when I’ve been diagnosed by assorted members of Cardiff Rancid Left as “not well”, and therefore not only unfit to be involved in campaign organising or hold union office, but also such a serious risk to the safety of other people that the police need to be set on me, have in fact been misdiagnoses of other pathological conditions I suffer from. Pathological conditions which, sadly, unlike my mental health, I am not able to control nearly as well and which are on public display far more frequently than my mental health. Pathological conditions such as Expressing Opinions While Female, Disagreeing With The SWP, Getting Really Angry, Criticising PCS For Not Complying With Its Own Conference Motions Re Working With Disabled-People’s Anti-Cuts Groups, and Being Foreign.

Before I “came out” as someone with a mental health condition, these other pathological opinions tended to be be diagnosed by folks in the trade union movement as PITA – pain in the arse. But it has been extraordinary how quick trade unionists have been to ascribe absolutely everything I do or say to their own stereotypes of deranged unhingedness, when in fact I have simply disagreed with them or they with me.

Interestingly, the most vocal proponent of the “When Liza’s well, she’s a brilliant campaigner/organiser/trade-unionist” argument is a member of the NUJ, which has a clear Code of Conduct and excellent Hacked Off Disability Guide (here) committing their members not to use damaging stereotypes of disabled people and particularly those with mental ill-health. The person concerned also served a prison sentence for armed robbery, so one would have thought he’d have an appreciation of the damage that ignorant and discriminatory stereotypes can do.

apologised on behalf of UCU

I organised a disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Cardiff that held very successful high-profile protests, that drew in many people who had never previously been involved in activism, and which significantly raised the profile of the impact on disabled people of the Welfare reforms. If this is “not behaviour that UCU Wales condones”, then perhaps UCU Wales needs to have a good hard think about what its purpose is.

In the email there is a worry that my “behaviour”, of which the UCU official has “significant experience”, will damage UCU Wales. The “behaviour” referred to is my unfortunate habit of fighting for the interests of the UCU members I represent. When the union fails to safeguard the collective interests of a section of its membership, I fight just as hard on my members’ behalf as when management fail to safeguard their interests. This is in no way a manifestation of mental ill-health. It is simply what good trade unionists do. If this kind of behaviour is problematic (to some, but not my members), then perhaps UCU Wales needs to have a good hard think about what its purpose is.

But no matter how much of a pain some of the union’s officials (but not the members I represent) may find my “behaviour”, nothing in my “behaviour” has ever involved threats of violence against anyone. Not even remotely. This email seeks to conflate my “behaviour” as a trade unionist who makes a Big Fuss when the union fails to safeguard her members’ collective interests with the stereotype of a mentally unhinged violent lunatic who is a threat to public safety.

PCS involving police

The above appears to be an exchange between UCU and PCS officials in which it appears to have been determined that the only possible course of action is to set the police on me. Do they never, at any point, consider whether the allegations against me hold water? Do they never, at any point, consider contacting me?

It seems quite extraordinary that trade union officials with many years of experience can act in this way when the entirety of their evidence against me is an exasperated comment I made in a Facebook thread that perhaps PCS will only begin to take notice of the plight of disabled people (73 of whom a week are dying when PCS stops our benefits) if we all go down the Jobcentre and set fire to ourselves. In the context of the Facebook thread, this was very obviously a rhetorical device and was in no way a threat: it was simply an expression of exasperation after I and other disabled activists had been bombarded on Facebook for two days with accusations (from Trotskyists not in PCS) that by advocating that PCS organise a boycott of implementing the Welfare reforms, we were “dividing the working class” and “distracting PCS from its role of leading the build-up for a general strike”.

If that Facebook comment had been made by someone without a mental health condition, there is no way union officials in PCS or UCU would have taken it as a credible threat or a matter for the police. But because I have a mental health condition, it is obvious that I’m a danger to the public.

Yes, I should not have allowed the Trotskyists to wind me up. But I’m not the first trade unionist who’s lost their temper in an argument with Trotskyists, and I won’t be the last. If the police were to be set on every trade unionist who says something unfortunate out of frustration with Trotskyists, then the Metropolitan Police would be spending an awful lot of time at the home of the UCU General Secretary.

officers of council believe she has

At around the time this email was sent (10th January) was the deadline for nominations for UCU Wales Council officers. I had always intended to stand for re-election as Vice Chair, so I was really puzzled and profoundly concerned that none of my Wales Council colleagues was prepared to support my nomination. At the time I was completely unaware of the ludicrous allegations against me, or that my fellow officers of Wales Council believed I had brought the union into disrepute and that I was unfit to hold union office.

This is another reason it is really important to involve disabled people in discussions concerning them: it gives us a sporting chance at re-election for trade union office. My response to my Wales Council colleagues not being prepared to support my nomination was an excess of self-examination and self-doubt as to my abilities as a trade union officer. Had I known that my colleagues’ reasons for not supporting my nomination for re-election was nothing to do with any failings on my part as a trade unionist and entirely due to their ignorant, offensive and discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions, it would have been a great relief. I would have known then to seek nominations from folks in UCU Wales whose attitudes toward people with mental health conditions is less antediluvian.

This email, which appears to be from UCU’s General Secretary Sally Hunt, refers to someone at TUC Executive (presumably Mark Serwotka) saying that PCS members were being threatened. She assumes this is a reference to me. It is not. I did not, and would not, ever threaten PCS members (or anyone else) with physical harm, or with setting myself alight. One would have thought that trade unionists and colleagues who work with me would know this.

keep it quiet

This appears to be an email from the UCU Wales President. What he describes as “clearly being a major issue” only became a major issue because of my colleagues and fellow trade-unionists’ assumption that because I have depression, a very common mental health condition, I am also a risk to the safety of others. That such levels of ignorance of mental-health conditions, and such prejudiced assumptions of those of us with mental-health conditions, exists among the leadership of a trade union whose members have a very high incidence of mental ill-health, is quite extraordinary. UCU members would rightly question whether such a leadership is able to safeguard their interests.

Statistically, having a mental-health condition does not make one any more likely to be violent or a risk to others than the general population. This is true even for those conditions which can present with violence. People with depression are certainly not a risk of violence.

Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination: the discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses stem in part, from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public (DHHS, 1999, Corrigan, et al., 2002). Trade unionists should not be perpetuating these damaging stereotypes, let alone applying them to their trade union colleagues.

Recommendations

In summary, how should trade unionists (and members of the wider Left, for example in anti-cuts movements) deal with their colleagues with mental-health conditions if a situation arises that they think is related to the colleague’s health condition?

1. DON’T PANIC! And in particular, don’t call the police. It is horrendously unpleasant to be on the receiving end of an aggressive midnight visit from the police.

2. Before doing anything else, speak to the colleague with the mental health condition. They are better placed than anyone to give input about their disability. And it may well turn out that what was initially mistaken to be a manifestation of unhinged deranged lunacy may not be a manifestation of mental ill-health at all (it might, for example, be the expressing of an entirely legitimate view that you disagree with).

3. Cut out the amateur psychiatry. You would not make diagnoses on the basis of zero evidence of someone’s fitness to hold elected office if they had cancer, diabetes, or were Deaf. Do not assume that a person is “very ill”, or “mentally unstable”, or “is a brilliant trade unionist/ campaigner/ organiser when she is well”, just because some twit from the local anti-cuts movement, trades council or the SWP pronounces it so. When you hear such “diagnoses” being imparted about your colleague, ask yourself, from where did the twit uttering the diagnosis get the information? From a psychiatrist who clinically assessed your colleague and made a professional medical diagnosis? Or is it more likely to be an ignorant, prejudiced comment based on discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions?

4. Likewise, terms such as “deluded”, “fantasist”, “paranoid”, “unstable”, “unbalanced”, etc, are medical diagnoses, and should not be used by trade unionists unless they are an actual medical diagnosis (and even then, there would be few legitimate reasons why such terms would be used.

5. Terms such as those in point 4 above should never be used to counter arguments with colleagues with mental-health conditions. If you disagree with your colleague, or are of the strong opinion that she is talking out of her arse, then say “I disagree”, or “You’re wrong”, or “Your argument is bollocks”, and explain why. Do not say “you’re deluded”, or “you’re paranoid”, or “Your views are determined by your mental state”. The latter are medical diagnoses, which you are not qualified to make, and which have no place in robust debate. Even if the person you’re arguing with is deluded, or paranoid, or their views are determined by their mental state, you should still engage with their argument on its merits: play the ball, not the player.

6. If you are ever in doubt as to how to deal with a colleague with a mental-health condition, conduct the following thought-experiment: say to yourself, “let’s imagine, hypothetically, that this person does not have a mental-health condition. How would I deal with the situation then?”

7. If recommendation 6 above doesn’t work and you are really, really flummoxed as to how to deal with a colleague who has a mental-health condition, ask yourself, “how would I prefer to be dealt with, if I were on the receiving end of the treatment/attitudes/assumptions that I’m about to apply to my colleague.”

8. And finally, always remember,

Some trade unionists have mental health conditions. Get over it.

If any UCU member, officer, or official, (in particular those who have written the emails featured in this blogpost), would like to make a formal complaint against me for publishing these emails or for the assertions I make here, the Procedure for the regulation of the conduct of members can be found in the members’ area of the UCU website. You will need to make a case that I am in breach of the union’s Rules 13.1/6.1/6.1.1.

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Trade union colleague has a mental-health condition? DON’T PANIC! Some useful guidelines on how to cope.

As a trade unionist it’s become increasingly apparent to me that there is a need for guidance for trade unionists, and for members of the wider Left generally, on how to cope when they have a colleague who has a mental-health condition.

I was until recently Vice Chair of the University and College Union in Wales, but was then deemed unfit to hold elected office in the Union by my Wales Council colleagues on grounds of having a mental health condition. This followed my union colluding with another trade union, PCS, in setting the police on me for campaigning against the Welfare reforms.

Mental health conditions are very common – one in four of UCU’s members has a mental health condition. If a union’s leadership is to be representative of its membership, then people with mental health conditions should be able to participate fully in the union’s activities and democratic processes, including holding elected office.

It proved extraordinarily difficult to determine UCU’s degree of complicity in PCS setting the police on me – or indeed to obtain any information whatsoever about the matter, nor to get anyone to talk to me, as the union’s leadership appears to operate a strict no-engagement policy with its officers with mental-health conditions (fair enough, mental health is highly contagious).

So I had to resort to making a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act (DPA SAR) for the correspondence between UCU and PCS, and between my colleagues, concerning myself, to try figure out what on earth was going on.

So I eventually received from UCU’s legal department, more than 5 months after the police had come to my door at midnight to interrogate me about my “criminal intentions” toward PCS members, a pile of redacted emails in which my colleagues display an attitude toward people with mental health conditions of quite extraordinary ignorance and prejudice.

No-one in PCS has contacted me to tell me why they set the police on me. But a member of the UCU delegation to the TUC Women’s Conference in March (of which I was also a member) was told by a Wales member of the PCS delegation, by way of explanation, that PCS had set the police on me for campaigning against the Welfare Reforms killing 73 disabled people a week because “They’ve never experienced activism from someone with a mental health condition before. They just panicked.”

I thought it would be useful therefore, for both UCU and PCS, and the wider trade union movement, if I used the material from the DPA SAR in what I hope is a constructive way to try to address some of the ignorance and misconceptions that officers and officials in both unions have toward their colleagues with mental health conditions.

the charges

The above email is from a senior colleague in UCU Wales with whom I serve on national committees. Reading this, more than five months after the events in question, was the first time I learned of the allegations against me. It came as a considerable surprise to me that I had threatened violence against PCS members, and that I had threatened to set myself alight outside Transport House (the Wales TUC headquarters in Cardiff which also housed PCS Wales).

I have never committed an act of violence – nor threatened violence – against anyone. Ever. In my life. My colleagues on UCU Wales Council, and all the full-time officials of UCU dealing with this, and the PCS officials who reported this, appear to have believed without question these quite extraordinary allegations about someone they knew, worked with, and saw frequently. This says a great deal about how ingrained in both UCU and PCS are the ignorant and discriminatory attitudes of people with mental health conditions, and the belief that people with mental health conditions are “unbalanced” (in the words of my colleagues above), dangerous, and a risk to others.

come to Transport House and make a fuss

This email appears to be from a UCU official reporting a conversation with a PCS official. As I explain in an open letter to PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, all I did at the meeting in question, which I attended as convenor of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, was make a robust but entirely legitimate challenge to a PCS national vice president over the fact that PCS in Wales was refusing to work with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, in breach of its own DWP Group Conference motions.

In fact, I was in a position to prove conclusively that I never made any threats of violence against PCS members, and I never made any threat to set myself alight outside Transport House: as we do with all our direct actions, one of our disabled activists recorded the entirety of the meeting, including every utterance I made.

But I was never given a chance to respond to these utterly ludicrous accusations against me. And I only learned of these allegations more than five months later through a DPA SAR.

How should the writers of these emails (and the PCS officials who contacted UCU and set the police on me) have reacted instead?

The answer to that can be found in the answer to this question: How would these officers and officials have reacted on hearing these allegations had I not had a mental health condition?

  • They would have probably (based on their knowledge of me) been sceptical.
  • They would have probably attempted to ascertain the truth.
  • As part of trying to ascertain the truth, they would almost certainly have called me. All the people involved in the two emails above have my mobile number.
  • It is very unlikely that they would have reported the matter to the police (going through the above steps would have resolved the matter and made involving the police unnecessary).

In fact, in asking how UCU would have dealt with a serious complaint from another trade union against one of our members if that member did not have a mental health condition, we don’t have to rely on conjecture. I am not the only person in UCU Wales against whom another trade union has recently made an unfounded complaint. As explained here, a colleague in UCU Wales was on the receiving end of a complaint from Unite. But in his case, he was not only informed of it by UCU. UCU gave him an opportunity to respond to the allegations. He was believed. And was given the opportunity to give his side of the story to the assembled delegates of UCU Wales Congress and ask for support.

The difference between the way UCU handled the complaint against me compared to that against my colleague could not be more stark. The only difference is that one of the members has a mental health condition – and therefore all accusations of deranged and threatening conduct, no matter how bizarre or unlikely, and believed by UCU without question. Because that is the way people with mental health conditions generally behave.

Liza needs some help

My argument with PCS as the convenor of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales was an entirely rational one, and was moreover a position that had been democratically arrived-at through debate within the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales. I did not, in fact, “need some help”, as the positions I was advocating had nothing to do with my mental-health condition.

Nor was my challenge to the PCS national vice president a manifestation of mental ill-health in any way. I challenged him over the fact that PCS in Wales was refusing to work with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales, in breach of its own DWP Group Conference motions.

It is disturbing that criticising PCS on a matter that profoundly impacts on myself and hundreds of thousands of other disabled people is so strongly considered by UCU’s leadership (I believe this email comes from the General Secretary herself) to be incompatible with holding elected office in UCU. If fighting for the interests of disabled people is considered incompatible with holding elected office in a trade union, then we seriously need to consider what the purpose of trade unions is. Particularly given that higher and further education, where UCU’s members work, is considered by the Health and Safety Executive as being one of the most dangerous industrial environments in terms of people becoming disabled as a result of intolerably high levels of workplace stress.

It is also disturbing that, while my employer (a university) is required by Statute to respect my academic freedom, including freedom to advocate positions that may cause offense, UCU does not appear to respect the right of its elected officers to challenge others in the trade union movement, no matter how legitimate that criticism may be.

The comment about the focus needing to be on my health and well-being made me smile. If finding me unfit to hold trade union office without any semblance of due process, treating me according to the most ignorant of discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions, and colluding in setting the police on me, is how UCU focuses on my health and well-being, then I’d rather go without that kind concern for my health.

Disabled people are used to hearing the “we’re concerned about your health and well-being” justification when they’re being discriminated against, disadvantaged or excluded, or otherwise treated in a way that non-disabled people are not. In a similar way women were previously (and sometimes still) excluded from jobs in engineering or hazardous (but exciting and high-paying) professions. For a long time women were prevented from working in parts of the chemical and nuclear industries because of “concern” that chemicals or radiation could harm any potential children they have.

Excluding someone from elected office in a trade union out of “concern” for their health and well-being when one has made zero attempt to ascertain what the person’s actual health condition is, is discriminatory. A quarter of our members in UCU have mental health conditions. A core principle – possibly the core principle – of trade unionism is “nothing about us without us”. People like us should be represented by people like us: people with mental-health conditions should be fully able to participate in the union and its leadership structures.

grave concerns re fitness to hold office

This is a truly extraordinary email. Remember, I was Wales Vice Chair. And yet my colleagues are speaking about me as if I’m a criminal. The extent to which they have allowed their ignorant prejudices of mental health to “otherise” me is a case-study in discriminatory practice.

At no point does it occur to anyone to speak to me. The way UCU has handled this reminds me of an incident many years ago under the Apartheid Regime in South Africa, when the government set up a commission to look into tightening the law on abortion (there was concern that too many white babies were being aborted). Responding to criticism that there was not a single woman on this commission, the government’s response was, “If we appointed a commission to review criminal sentencing, we wouldn’t appoint criminals to it.”

Whenever there is any concern about a disabled-person’s condition, the person best-placed to give input on the subject is the disabled person themselves. Whenever a disabled-person’s condition is discussed (and there are very few legitimate reasons why it should be in a trade-union context), the disabled person in question must ALWAYS be involved in the discussion. We have lived with our conditions for many years and are generally quite adept at living life, being university lecturers, organising anti-cuts campaigns, and holding trade union office.

I wish to submit the final paragraph of the email above for the Most Hilarious Patronising Comment About A Disabled Person Prize 2013.

My mental health has been widely discussed among my union colleagues and in the wider trade union movement in Wales. At no point has anyone sought to ask me to give input into these discussions. So it might be useful if I briefly summarise my condition.

I have clinical depression and adult ADHD. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (manic depression) on the basis of a single manic episode 20 years ago, but have not had one since. I have had these conditions all my life, and have been on medication for these conditions most of my life. Despite these conditions I have been able to work in high-pressure jobs, and work to a very high standard of professionalism. Until recently (3 years ago) I never had to take time off work as a result of these conditions. Three years ago a series of extremely stressful traumatic life events triggered an episode of severe clinical depression from which I am slowly recovering.

Until I decided to “come out” as someone with a mental-health condition a couple of years ago, no-one in my professional or social life guessed that I have a mental-health condition, or that I’ve been taking medication every day for all my adult life for clinical depression and ADHD. Had I not chosen to be open about my mental health, most people would still not guess that I have a mental health condition. However, being open about my condition has resulted in many people in the trade union movement interpreting everything I do or say as a manifestation of mental ill-health. People choose to see the label, not the person.

I am informed that many people in the trade union movement describe me as “mentally unstable”, and indeed too “mentally unstable” to hold elected trade union office, or to be involved in campaigning against the ConDem cuts, or to organise a disabled-people’s movement against the Welfare reforms.

Thing is, I am not mentally unstable. I’ll say that again, because I know that folks will have difficulty grasping this: I’m not mentally unstable.

My condition is in fact very stable, and I can say this objectively because this has been repeatedly confirmed by my psychiatrist. (Given that such a great many people in the trade union movement insist that I am mentally unstable, I naturally worry that this may be true. But unlike my trade union colleagues, I seek an opinion on my medical condition from competent qualified professionals.

Neither am I deluded, psychotic, a fantasist, nor paranoid – all diagnoses that the amateur psychiatrists of the trade union movement have made of me. It is also not true that “my opinions are determined by my mental state”, as asserted by a Unison officer in Cardiff: my capacity for rational thinking and ability to articulate an argument on merit remains unimpaired – and remains unchanged despite what “mental state” those who disagree with my arguments may perceive me to be in on the basis of whatever discriminatory stereotypes of mental ill-health they hold.

Another Unison officer (and Socialist Party branch secretary) recently responded to a view I expressed that he disagreed with by telling me to “Fuck off Liza, you psychotic bitch.” There is nothing in my medical history that remotely hints that I am psychotic.

Far more damaging than these clear-cut cases of disability hate speech has been the “When Liza’s well, she’s a brilliant campaigner/ organiser/ trade-unionist” argument which has done the rounds in Cardiff for several months. Those times when I’ve been diagnosed by assorted members of Cardiff Rancid Left as “not well”, and therefore not only unfit to be involved in campaign organising or hold union office, but also such a serious risk to the safety of other people that the police need to be set on me, have in fact been misdiagnoses of other pathological conditions I suffer from. Pathological conditions which, sadly, unlike my mental health, I am not able to control nearly as well and which are on public display far more frequently than my mental health. Pathological conditions such as Expressing Opinions While Female, Disagreeing With The SWP, Getting Really Angry, Criticising PCS For Not Complying With Its Own Conference Motions Re Working With Disabled-People’s Anti-Cuts Groups, and Being Foreign.

Before I “came out” as someone with a mental health condition, these other pathological opinions tended to be be diagnosed by folks in the trade union movement as PITA – pain in the arse. But it has been extraordinary how quick trade unionists have been to ascribe absolutely everything I do or say to their own stereotypes of deranged unhingedness, when in fact I have simply disagreed with them or they with me.

Interestingly, the most vocal proponent of the “When Liza’s well, she’s a brilliant campaigner/organiser/trade-unionist” argument is a member of the NUJ, which has a clear Code of Conduct and excellent Hacked Off Disability Guide (here) committing their members not to use damaging stereotypes of disabled people and particularly those with mental ill-health. The person concerned also served a prison sentence for armed robbery, so one would have thought he’d have an appreciation of the damage that ignorant and discriminatory stereotypes can do.

apologised on behalf of UCU

I organised a disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Cardiff that held very successful high-profile protests, that drew in many people who had never previously been involved in activism, and which significantly raised the profile of the impact on disabled people of the Welfare reforms. If this is “not behaviour that UCU Wales condones”, then perhaps UCU Wales needs to have a good hard think about what its purpose is.

In the email there is a worry that my “behaviour”, of which the UCU official has “significant experience”, will damage UCU Wales. The “behaviour” referred to is my unfortunate habit of fighting for the interests of the UCU members I represent. When the union fails to safeguard the collective interests of a section of its membership, I fight just as hard on my members’ behalf as when management fail to safeguard their interests. This is in no way a manifestation of mental ill-health. It is simply what good trade unionists do. If this kind of behaviour is problematic (to some, but not my members), then perhaps UCU Wales needs to have a good hard think about what its purpose is.

But no matter how much of a pain some of the union’s officials (but not the members I represent) may find my “behaviour”, nothing in my “behaviour” has ever involved threats of violence against anyone. Not even remotely. This email seeks to conflate my “behaviour” as a trade unionist who makes a Big Fuss when the union fails to safeguard her members’ collective interests with the stereotype of a mentally unhinged violent lunatic who is a threat to public safety.

PCS involving police

The above appears to be an exchange between UCU and PCS officials in which it appears to have been determined that the only possible course of action is to set the police on me. Do they never, at any point, consider whether the allegations against me hold water? Do they never, at any point, consider contacting me?

It seems quite extraordinary that trade union officials with many years of experience can act in this way when the entirety of their evidence against me is an exasperated comment I made in a Facebook thread that perhaps PCS will only begin to take notice of the plight of disabled people (73 of whom a week are dying when PCS stops our benefits) if we all go down the Jobcentre and set fire to ourselves. In the context of the Facebook thread, this was very obviously a rhetorical device and was in no way a threat: it was simply an expression of exasperation after I and other disabled activists had been bombarded on Facebook for two days with accusations (from Trotskyists not in PCS) that by advocating that PCS organise a boycott of implementing the Welfare reforms, we were “dividing the working class” and “distracting PCS from its role of leading the build-up for a general strike”.

If that Facebook comment had been made by someone without a mental health condition, there is no way union officials in PCS or UCU would have taken it as a credible threat or a matter for the police. But because I have a mental health condition, it is obvious that I’m a danger to the public.

Yes, I should not have allowed the Trotskyists to wind me up. But I’m not the first trade unionist who’s lost their temper in an argument with Trotskyists, and I won’t be the last. If the police were to be set on every trade unionist who says something unfortunate out of frustration with Trotskyists, then the Metropolitan Police would be spending an awful lot of time at the home of the UCU General Secretary.

officers of council believe she has

At around the time this email was sent (10th January) was the deadline for nominations for UCU Wales Council officers. I had always intended to stand for re-election as Vice Chair, so I was really puzzled and profoundly concerned that none of my Wales Council colleagues was prepared to support my nomination. At the time I was completely unaware of the ludicrous allegations against me, or that my fellow officers of Wales Council believed I had brought the union into disrepute and that I was unfit to hold union office.

This is another reason it is really important to involve disabled people in discussions concerning them: it gives us a sporting chance at re-election for trade union office. My response to my Wales Council colleagues not being prepared to support my nomination was an excess of self-examination and self-doubt as to my abilities as a trade union officer. Had I known that my colleagues’ reasons for not supporting my nomination for re-election was nothing to do with any failings on my part as a trade unionist and entirely due to their ignorant, offensive and discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions, it would have been a great relief. I would have known then to seek nominations from folks in UCU Wales whose attitudes toward people with mental health conditions is less antediluvian.

GS TUC comment

This email, which appears to be from UCU’s General Secretary Sally Hunt, refers to someone at TUC Executive (presumably Mark Serwotka) saying that PCS members were being threatened. She assumes this is a reference to me. It is not. I did not, and would not, ever threaten PCS members (or anyone else) with physical harm, or with setting myself alight. One would have thought that trade unionists and colleagues who work with me would know this.

keep it quiet

This appears to be an email from the UCU Wales President. What he describes as “clearly being a major issue” only became a major issue because of my colleagues and fellow trade-unionists’ assumption that because I have depression, a very common mental health condition, I am also a risk to the safety of others. That such levels of ignorance of mental-health conditions, and such prejudiced assumptions of those of us with mental-health conditions, exists among the leadership of a trade union whose members have a very high incidence of mental ill-health, is quite extraordinary. UCU members would rightly question whether such a leadership is able to safeguard their interests.

Statistically, having a mental-health condition does not make one any more likely to be violent or a risk to others than the general population. This is true even for those conditions which can present with violence. People with depression are certainly not a risk of violence.

Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination: the discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses stem in part, from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public (DHHS, 1999, Corrigan, et al., 2002). Trade unionists should not be perpetuating these damaging stereotypes, let alone applying them to their trade union colleagues.

Recommendations

In summary, how should trade unionists (and members of the wider Left, for example in anti-cuts movements) deal with their colleagues with mental-health conditions if a situation arises that they think is related to the colleague’s health condition?

1. DON’T PANIC! And in particular, don’t call the police. It is horrendously unpleasant to be on the receiving end of an aggressive midnight visit from the police.

2. Before doing anything else, speak to the colleague with the mental health condition. They are better placed than anyone to give input about their disability. And it may well turn out that what was initially mistaken to be a manifestation of unhinged deranged lunacy may not be a manifestation of mental ill-health at all (it might, for example, be the expressing of an entirely legitimate view that you disagree with).

3. Cut out the amateur psychiatry. You would not make diagnoses on the basis of zero evidence of someone’s fitness to hold elected office if they had cancer, diabetes, or were Deaf. Do not assume that a person is “very ill”, or “mentally unstable”, or “is a brilliant trade unionist/ campaigner/ organiser when she is well”, just because some twit from the local anti-cuts movement, trades council or the SWP pronounces it so. When you hear such “diagnoses” being imparted about your colleague, ask yourself, from where did the twit uttering the diagnosis get the information? From a psychiatrist who clinically assessed your colleague and made a professional medical diagnosis? Or is it more likely to be an ignorant, prejudiced comment based on discriminatory stereotypes of people with mental health conditions?

4. Likewise, terms such as “deluded”, “fantasist”, “paranoid”, “unstable”, “unbalanced”, etc, are medical diagnoses, and should not be used by trade unionists unless they are an actual medical diagnosis (and even then, there would be few legitimate reasons why such terms would be used.

5. Terms such as those in point 4 above should never be used to counter arguments with colleagues with mental-health conditions. If you disagree with your colleague, or are of the strong opinion that she is talking out of her arse, then say “I disagree”, or “You’re wrong”, or “Your argument is bollocks”, and explain why. Do not say “you’re deluded”, or “you’re paranoid”, or “Your views are determined by your mental state”. The latter are medical diagnoses, which you are not qualified to make, and which have no place in robust debate. Even if the person you’re arguing with is deluded, or paranoid, or their views are determined by their mental state, you should still engage with their argument on its merits: play the ball, not the player.

6. If you are ever in doubt as to how to deal with a colleague with a mental-health condition, conduct the following thought-experiment: say to yourself, “let’s imagine, hypothetically, that this person does not have a mental-health condition. How would I deal with the situation then?”

7. If recommendation 6 above doesn’t work and you are really, really flummoxed as to how to deal with a colleague who has a mental-health condition, ask yourself, “how would I prefer to be dealt with, if I were on the receiving end of the treatment/attitudes/assumptions that I’m about to apply to my colleague.”

8. And finally, always remember,

Some trade unionists have mental health conditions. Get over it.

If any UCU member, officer, or official, (in particular those who have written the emails featured in this blogpost), would like to make a formal complaint against me for publishing these emails or for the assertions I make here, the Procedure for the regulation of the conduct of members can be found in the members’ area of the UCU website. You will need to make a case that I am in breach of the union’s Rules 13.1/6.1/6.1.1.

Colleagues, the elected leadership structures of our trade union are absolutely RIDDLED with lunatics!!!

Oh. My. God. Colleagues, the elected leadership structures of our trade union are absolutely RIDDLED with lunatics!!!

 

After I emailed the Trade Union Lunatics Association newsletter (https://loonylefty.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/newsletter-of-the-trade-union-lunatics-association-issue-1/) to the UCU Activists List and to every NEC member and rep for whom I have an email address, I received the most extraordinary response. I got the most wonderful, moving replies – some from some of the really terrifying Independent Broad Left people who I thought really hated me! – telling me that they too have mental health conditions, and agreeing that there is a real problem in the trade union movement with regards stigma and discriminatory attitudes toward us.

 

There was also an extraordinary response to the newsletter’s Call for Consultation re lunatics being required to carry leper bells so as to warn Congress delegates not to accidentally elect them to trade union office. Several high profile NEC members who I would never have guessed had mental health conditions have said that they’ll carry a leper bell at National Congress in Brighton and dress entirely in rhubarb. Just goes to show how easy it is to mistake lunatics for normal people – I can’t imagine why no-one never thought of the leper bell initiative before!!

 

One issue for debate appears to be whether lunatics at Congress should also be required to shout “unclean! Unclean!” while ringing their leper bells whenever they go up to the podium to speak. Or alternately “fire hazard! fire hazard!”

 

Perhaps we could ask PCS to advise? They must have a very effective system indeed for purging their union of lunatics, given that the position being put out by PCS delegates at TUC Women’s Conference last week (or possibly only by their SWP contingent, it’s not clear) was that PCS had set the police on me for campaigning against the Welfare reforms because “they’d had no experience of activists with mental health conditions before and they didn’t know what to do. They just panicked.”

 

There has been much discussion on the dark side of the internet and in the bourgeois media recently about the SWP’s outstanding contribution to the field of gender equality. They’ve made quite an outstanding contribution to the field of disability equality in Cardiff too (which I shall blog about soon – I have more time on my hands now that I’m no longer deemed fit to hold trade union office on grounds of having a mental health condition).

 

What is rather odd though, is that while the SWP has no faith in the bourgeois police and the bourgeois justice system with regards people making rape allegations against their senior leadership, they’re strong advocates of setting the bourgeois police on disabled activists who advocate positions democratically-decided-upon by legitimate grassroots disabled-people’s movements when they don’t approve of those positions (the SWP knows what’s best for us and get a bit miffed if we’re too stubborn to listen).

 

The General Secretary and the SWP have much common ground with regards their concern about the dangers of lunatics in trade union office (https://loonylefty.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/ucus-sally-hunt-sides-with-the-trots/). The endless dispute between the GS and the SWP is immensely trying for all those of us caught up in the crossfire of it who simply want to try to progress our members’ interests as best we can. Perhaps the GS and the SWP can unite to fight a greater enemy (lunatics in elected office) and herald a new era of peace and co-operation in the Union from which everyone in UCU (except the lunatics of course) can benefit.

 

I made a Data Protection Act Subject Access Request to the Union recently. And finally learned, for the first time, 5 months after PCS had set the police on me with UCU’s collusion, that I had threatened physical violence against two PCS members and intended to set myself alight outside Wales TUC and PCS HQ Transport House in Cardiff. This came as a considerable surprise to me. I had absolutely no idea I’d done these things.

 

Colleagues, the General Secretary is going to have purple kittens when she learns just how widespread lunacy is in UCU elected office.

 

In the pile of emails I got through the DPA SAR, there’s an email from the Gen Sec that mentions that at a TUC Executive meeting Mark Serwotka mentioned that PCS members were saying that people going to Jobcentres were threatening them with physical violence and threatening to set themselves alight. She writes, “No names but I think [this] may well have been a reference to [Liza]. My issue is whether this has brought the union into disrepute and whether Liza has any responsibility for that?”

 

The answer, had anyone ever bothered to put the question to me, is No. And as it happens, through a quirk of circumstance, I was actually in a position to prove this conclusively. A disabled activist had recorded the entirety of a meeting at which it was alleged I made the threats attributed to me. Er, or rather, attributed to my mental health condition. Er, or rather, attributed to my UCU and PCS trade union comrades’ ignorant discriminatory offensive and utterly ludicrous stereotypes of people with mental health conditions.

 

Dr Liza van Zyl

Lunatic

 

 

 

Please sign and share: make our movement safe for women

Thanks for your support.

And can we please make our movement safe for those of us with mental health conditions too: Please repost, reblog, retweet UCU, PCS, SWP & Socialist Party FAIL re disability equality http://wp.me/p37pAD-Z

Update: PCS trade union sets police on disabled activist for campaigning against the government

Update: I am amazed at how widely this blogpost is being shared. Despite being live for just 3 days it is being read on every continent apart from Antarctica. Evidently trade unions everywhere are anxious to learn from PCS and UCU’s outstanding good practice in how to treat disabled trade unionists. I’m being completely inundated by comments, which overwhelmingly are positive and supportive, and I haven’t been able to keep up with managing and moderating them, sorry. There have been several requests for more information. I am preparing responses which I’ll post in another blogpost as soon as I am able. In the meantime, most of the answers to comrades’ questions can be found in the sister blogpost to this one here.

I am also aware of the “welfare visit” defense being circulated by PCS’s defenders. I don’t know whether this defense has originated from within PCS, but as the union’s never contacted me with an explanation for its actions I’ve no idea what their defense/justification is. I would encourage all the PCS folks who’ve contacted me to share their disgust at their union’s behaviour to ask for an explanation. And if someone could share that explanation with me I’d be much obliged. 

One night in October I was awakened near midnight by the police, who told me they had come to ask me some questions relating to my “criminal Facebook posts”. They proceeded to question me very aggressively about my activities as convenor of DPAC Caerdydd, a Disabled People Against Cuts direct-action campaigning group in Cardiff.

The full complaint to South Wales Police over the incident was published by the political blogger Tom Pride, and the police’s actions attracted a great deal of condemnation from MPs, Welsh Assembly members, the disability activism community and the wider Left, and there was much concern about whether the police were deliberately targetting disability activists.

But it turned out that the police had been set on me by none other than PCS, the trade union that has been in the vanguard of the fight against the ConDem government.

No. I couldn’t believe it either. Let me try say that again. PCS set the police on me for organising a peaceful direct-action campaign against the Welfare Reforms.

Cheers comrades.

PCS also made a complaint to my own union, UCU, of which I am Wales vice chair. UCU knew that PCS were intending to set the police on me before the arrival of South Wales Police at my door. And yet no-one in UCU deemed it necessary to inform me that (a) PCS had made a complaint of a very serious nature against me, and (b) that they had also gone to the police.

Cheers comrades.

I’m not sure which is more unforgivable. That PCS set the police on me as a means of shutting down a line of argument they didn’t like, or that my own trade union colluded in this.

Because of UCU Wales’ concerns about the possible damage my disability activism may do to our relationship with PCS, I have agreed to stand down as convenor of the disabled-people’s movement in Wales and have no further involvement in disability activism. This does not appear to have been sufficient reassurance that I will not get up PCS’s nose again, as I have been manoeuvred out of the Wales Vice Chair position. I will have no further role in UCU Wales.

Cheers comrades.

Keeping a promise to a policeman

South Wales Police have a disastrous track-record when it comes to the policing of peaceful protest. And it is undeniable that there are very serious problems with regards the way the police across the UK handle complaints or are held to account for their actions – one only needs to remember Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan.

But in this case, South Wales Police turned out to not be the Bad Guys. The offices who arrived at my door that night handled things appallingly – but they were being used as pawns to further a political objective, namely shut up that annoying campaigner who’s criticising us. They were acting on information given to them by PCS: a cynical use of comments extracted from a lengthy and highly adversarial Facebook comment thread and taken completely out of context, that I was a “threat” to DWP employees.

The South Wales Police’s handling of my formal complaint against them has been outstanding. I am fully satisfied with the steps that will be taken to ensure that the officers in question understand why their conduct on the night (and subsequently at protests when I was identified and labled a “ringleader” of protests I had not organised) was unacceptable. The Chief Constable will be sending out a brief to all officers about their duties to facilitate peaceful protest by disabled people against the DWP’s barbarity, with particular reference to facilitating lawful protest and campaigning activities carried out by those of us with mental health conditions.

While there were failings on the part of the police (not insignificant failings – and they had consequences in terms of the impact on my health), these failings are minuscule compared to the disgraceful roles played by PCS and UCU in this saga. In addition, in complete contrast to PCS and UCU, the police’s handling of my complaint against them has been simply outstanding.

I really appreciate the amount of time they took to deal with matters and to really listen to me with compassion, and their willingness to acknowledge that the officers’ conduct fell short, and their bending-over-backwards to address my concerns.

I therefore wish to set the record straight publicly by publishing the letter below to the inspector who dealt with my complaint against the South Wales Police, and will ask Tom Pride to update the original blog post accordingly. In the letter below, names have been removed.

Dear Inspector X,

I apologise for my long delay in responding to you. I am happy to sign off the paperwork and confirm that I agree for South Wales Police to resolve the complaint through Local Resolution, with the steps you outline in the document you sent me with regards the advice that will be given to the officers concerned.

The reason for my delay in responding to you is that I have come upon more information about the original report made to the police that led to the incident of October 26th. This information raises further matters which need resolving and which I need to bring to the attention of the police. I am unsure how best to take these matters forward. I would be very grateful for an opportunity to meet with you again to discuss these matters and the issues they raise, and to explore the options available to me to proceed.

I now know why the police were approached with regards the concerns that I was a danger to DWP staff, and I also now know who raised these concerns.

In terms of Who: I have been informed by my own trade union, UCU, in which I hold office as Wales Vice Chair, that it was the trade union PCS that approached the police with a concern that I presented a danger to DWP employees.

In terms of Why: there were no reasonable grounds for PCS to genuinely believe I was a danger to their members working in the DWP. The decision to go to the police was a political decision, namely to do with the internal politics within PCS, and was motivated by a desire to shut down legitimate debate about PCS’s campaigning priorities with regards opposing the Welfare Reforms. The South Wales Police had no option but to act on the information presented to them by PCS. The police were used as a tool in pursuit of a political objective by an internal political faction of the union, namely to shut down criticism (through intimidation) that by refusing to engage with the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales (of which I was the leader) PCS was breaching its own DWP Group Conference motions and policy, and was failing to take seriously the deaths of 73 disabled people a week that are dying after having their benefits stopped.

I therefore believe that those who made the decision to set the police on me acted maliciously and are guilty of wasting police time.

The Facebook quote that PCS cited in their complaint against me (that perhaps if more disabled people were to go set themselves alight in front of DWP staff, that might facilitate PCS taking the plight of disabled people more seriously) was taken completely out of context: it was an expression of exasperation that came at the end of a lengthy thread in which disabled activists were being given a really hard time by elements of the ultra-left for campaigning against the DWP (which is felt by some to be an attack on PCS – disabled people are being accused by some elements of the ultra-left of “dividing the working class” and “attacking rank and file workers” for campaigning against the Welfare Reforms, because it is felt by some that focusing on what’s happening to disabled people will take PCS’s focus away from leading the build-up to a general strike).

PCS had absolutely no grounds for their “concern” that I was a risk to DWP staff:

  1. As the convenor of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Cardiff I always made it very clear (there’s plenty of evidence of this on Facebook) that we never target individual DWP staff. I had on several occasions had to stop disabled people from targetting DWP staff (slashing tyres, bullying DWP employees on Facebook, etc) and I’ve twice had to spend an entire night talking a desperate disabled person out of going down the Jobcentre the following morning and committing suicide in front of DWP employees in some horrific fashion.
  1. I repeatedly made the above very clear in the same Facebook thread in which I made the exasperated and furious comment that it would need disabled people to go set ourselves alight in front of jobcentre staff before PCS would take our plight seriously. It is very clear to anyone reading the thread in its entirety that my comment was an an expression of exasperation against those who were accusing disabled people of “dividing the working class” by distracting PCS from its job of leading the build-up for a general strike.
  1. Our Facebook forum contained some 700 members, mainly disabled people whose lives are being destroyed by the DWP, but also all of the PCS reps in South Wales who’re on Facebook, including most of the PCS Wales Council and PCS Wales Office staff. The forum was used by many disabled people to sound off, and we frequently had to deal with very desperate people expressing very desperate views about the DWP and its employees. The PCS officers and officials were well aware of the numerous times I articulated the principles in point 1 above. Many disabled people made far worse comments about DWP staff, and far more overt threats against them (which I dealt with robustly), than I did in the comment PCS cite in their complaint against me.
  1. My commitment to ensuring that DWP employees are not targetted, as well as being well-documented on Facebook and elsewhere, was also well known to the PCS Wales office. I met with them in September to discuss the campaign and to impress upon them that while the DWP was a legitimate target for peaceful direct action (given that it is the arm of the state that is responsible for the deaths of 73 disabled people a week), we were in no way targetting DWP employees and would make that very clear to all our activists and supporters. I asked PCS at that meeting to phone me on my mobile at any time of night or day should any disabled person threaten or attack DWP employees so that I could persuade the person concerned that there are more constructive ways to protest. People are desperate: hundreds of thousands of disabled people are having their lives destroyed by the DWP and 73 of us are dying every week after our benefits are stopped. People are understandably being driven to desperate acts. But such individual acts of desperation are negative and destructive; it is the aim of the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement to channel such energies into more positive and constructive forms of protest, namely peaceful direct action.
  1. Earlier in October the PCS Wales General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, was the invited speaker at a Merthyr Tydfil Trades Council meeting, the president of which is a senior PCS officer on the PCS Wales Council and TUC Wales General Council. Serwotka had to return to London that same night and there was no convenient train from Merthyr to Cardiff. So during the planning of the meeting, I was asked if I would mind giving Serwotka a lift from Merthyr to Cardiff [in the event I didn’t need to do so as an alternative was found].

If PCS officers were willing to entrust their General Secretary to me for a 30-mile drive from Merthyr at night and alone, it is ludicrous for them to claim that less than 3 weeks later I’m such a threat to the safety of their members that it justifies involving the police.

  1. The disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement in Wales had only been formed in August, but by October it was the most high-profile of all the disabled-people’s anti-cuts groups in the UK, carrying out high-profile direct-actions on a weekly or fortnightly basis. The Welsh movement also had the most challenging attitude to PCS, and was becoming increasingly vocal in its criticism of PCS Wales for failing to engage with the disabled-people’s movement in Wales and for breaching its own conference policy and motions with regards campaigning against the Welfare reforms.
  1. In addition to going to the police, PCS also made a complaint to my own union UCU. This is not the first time UCU has received a complaint from PCS in relation to myself: earlier this year [a senior elected officer] of PCS (of the same political faction as the faction that believes “the decks should be cleared” of other campaigning priorities to build for a general strike) made a complaint to UCU against me in my capacity as UCU Wales Vice Chair that was found by PCS to have been groundless and an inappropriate use of [PCS elected office] in order to make a political attack. The [PCS officer] was miffed with me because I had stopped her political party, the Socialist Party, from inappropriately – and in breach of UCU rules – using a UCU branch as a platform for political entryism. I was subjected to a good deal of bullying from Socialist Party full-time officials because of this, and the complaint to UCU by the [PCS Officer], who is a senior officer in the Socialist Party, was a political attack on me. I am giving you this example to show that political factions in PCS are not adverse to making malicious complaints against those they perceive to be their political enemies in order to achieve political objectives.

Therefore I believe that PCS had no grounds to go to the police, and I further believe that the action was malicious and an attempt to intimidate me (which was successful) and make my position as UCU Wales Vice Chair untenable (also successful) in order to shut down debate about the most effective way to campaign against the Welfare Reforms and legitimate criticism of PCS.

It is completely unacceptable that a trade union (or more correctly a political faction within a trade union) should seek to shut down legitimate debate and criticism by setting the police on a disability activist with no justification. I am also very aware of what a bad press South Wales Police have had as a result of this incident, which has received the scrutiny of the press and several AMs and MPs. While the officers handled the case badly, it is not true, as many initially believed, that the South Wales Police are trying to intimidate disabled activists. On the contrary, the South Wales Police officers who have dealt with our direct actions have overwhelmingly been outstanding, and have treated us immense compassion and sympathy, even when we have put them in some incredibly unpleasant positions, for example forcing them to arrest us and drag us out of roads during rush-hour traffic.

It is completely unacceptable that the South Wales Police are now widely viewed as oppressing disabled protesters when in fact they were simply used as a tool by a political faction of a trade union. This is particularly unjust given that many of our disabled activists have received much more compassion, sympathy and support for our cause from the police officers sent to deal with the chaos our direct actions cause, than we have from DWP staff and members of PCS.

I am anxious to set the record straight, and with your permission I would like to ask the political blogger Tom Pride to publish this letter to you (edited for anonymity) as an update to his post linked to here, and to send a copy of the letter to those MPs and AMs who offered to pursue the matter on my behalf.

http://tompride.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/police-question-disability-activist-about-criminal-posts-on-facebook-update/

The question I am now faced with is what do I do about the matters above. This episode caused me immense distress and impacted negatively on my health. It is intolerable that a political faction within a trade union should intimidate a disabled activist in this way simply because they don’t like the arguments her movement are articulating. I had hoped to address this matter through my own trade union’s democratic structures, to get UCU to fraternally, tactfully, and in the most constructive way possible, indicate to PCS that the intimidation of disabled activists in this manner is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately this option has been shut down by the UCU general secretary.

My only option therefore is to make a complaint to the police against those who initiated the matter with the police[*], on grounds that it was malicious. I would also strongly urge you to pursue a case of wasting police time against the perpetrators, and when I meet with you I will give you all the evidence I have at my disposal.

It is, however, very important to me to not cause trouble for PCS employees. I do not know who exactly from PCS went to the police, but the chances were that it was a PCS employee acting on the instructions of an elected PCS officer. It is the elected officers and the political faction they are a part of who are guilty of this cynical use of the police to intimidate me and shut down a line of argument they didn’t like which was gaining public momentum  not the PCS employee who carried out their instruction. Could you outline for me what the consequences would be for the person who went to the police initially should I make a complaint?

Please let me know when would be convenient for us to meet again. I am free all week this week.

I would like to say how impressed I am with the way my complaint over the conduct of the police officers has been handled. I very much appreciate the time you and your colleagues have put into investigating this matter. I also very much appreciate the way I was listened to, and the way all my concerns were taken seriously and addressed. As a trade union officer experienced in representing members in grievances, I can honestly say that the South Wales Police’s handling of complaints, and complainants, is considerably superior to the way complaints are dealt with in the workplaces I’m familiar with, and within our trade unions.

Yours,

Loony Lefty

[*] In the end, and after discussion with the police, I decided not to make a complaint to the police against PCS. As a trade unionist I do not feel it is appropriate to set the police on other trade unionists. Even when they do so to me.

Welsh disabled-people’s anti-cuts campaign’s response to DPAC-PCS-Black Triangle Joint Statement

Presented to PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka by Wales disability activists on 19th November 2012 in Cardiff.

DPAC Cymru badge

Note: we called ourselves DPAC Cymru – Disabled People Against Cuts Wales – but a few days after we published this statement, DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) expelled us from the organisation.

Disabled People Against Cuts Cymru response to DPAC-PCS-Black Triangle Joint Statement

on Campaigning Against Welfare Cuts

Presented to PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka by DPAC Cymru on 19th November 2012

Disabled People Against Cuts Cymru welcomes this Joint Statement as a crucial first step towards a united opposition to the Government’s social security cuts. However, we feel that there are still some issues which need to be resolved.

We greatly regret that disabled people in Wales and their anti-cuts groups (e.g. DPAC Caerdydd, DPAC Cymru) were not consulted and thus had no opportunity to contribute to the Joint Statement.

  1. According to the DWP’s own figures, 73 disabled people a week die after having their benefits stopped by the DWP. The Joint Statement contains no action plans or strategies for preventing this inhumanity.

  1. Many of the people affected by the welfare “reforms” are ex-service personnel who became disabled as a result of their military service. We are concerned by how many Appeal Tribunal Panels are finding that DWP and Atos staff are breaching the DWP’s own policies and rules by not taking into account letters from the Serving Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA) when making decisions on awarding benefits. DPAC Cymru believes this is a fundamental breach of the government’s much vaunted Military Covenant.

  1. DPAC Cymru believes that PCS as a union and disabled people’s anti-cuts organisations should work together to boycott implementation of the Welfare reforms.

  1. We are not advocating that individual members of DWP staff refuse to stop disabled people’s benefits without the backing of their Union; we believe that PCS as a union should boycott the implementation of the Welfare reforms, in the same way that the teaching unions in Scotland organised a successful boycott of SATS. Government policy cannot be implemented without workers to implement it.
  1. We acknowledge that that the DWP is a brutal employer whose staff are poorly-paid and badly treated, and we recognise how distressing it must be to have to make decisions which may contribute directly to a person’s death. DPAC Cymru believes that, as the effect of making such decisions cannot be ‘left at the office door,’ a mass refusal to implement these cuts would result in a significant improvement in DWP staff’s morale and well-being both in their work and in their personal and family lives.

We therefore do not accept that a Union-led campaign to boycott the stopping of disabled people’s benefits would inevitably result in them losing their jobs.

That being said, we do not believe it is reasonable to minimise the all too real effects that these cuts have on the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, which include destitution, homelessness and the deaths of 73 disabled people each and every week.

  1. DPAC Cymru has serious concerns that while the Joint Statement supports peaceful direct action against politicians who have supported these policies and against those companies that stand to profit from them, there is no clarification as to whether PCS respects the right of disabled people to take peaceful direct action against the DWP. This is particularly concerning given that several vulnerable disabled activists were harassed by police, including in the middle of the night, over Facebook posts critical of PCS and DWP.

  1. DPAC Cymru would like to see a revised Joint Statement that includes the voices of disabled people in Wales since responsibility for health and social care is devolved to the National Assembly, and that commits PCS to an action-plan to campaign for a boycott.

 Notes

Disabled People Against Cuts Cymru (DPAC Cymru) is an autonomous sister organization to DPAC and Black Triangle, committed to working together with them and with PCS in unity against the Cuts.

The original DPAC – PCS – Black Triangle Joint Statement can be found here: http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/pcs_comment/index.cfm/id/9D5169BA-F1FA-40AF-B03E6904B252800B