Hackney bullying row: Strike threat grows as union rep’s appeal over dismissal rejected

Natasha Johnson.

Natasha Johnson. - Credit: Archant

Hundreds of council workers could strike after a union rep at the centre of the town hall’s bullying row lost an appeal over her sacking.

Hackney Service Centre.

Hackney Service Centre. - Credit: Archant

Union bosses have accused Hackney Council of bringing spurious counter-allegations against shop steward Natasha Johnson – such as “chasing up emails too quickly” and making managers feel harassed by accusing them of harassment.

Natasha was told last week she would not be getting her job back. She was dismissed in November, in the middle of an employment tribunal, and after she had already been suspended for a year.

That suspension came while she was going through a disciplinary procedure, and shortly before she was set to appeal over a grievance she had made about “management victimisation, harassment, bullying and racial and sexual discrimination”.

Unite says her treatment highlights the “counter-allegation culture” within the workforce towards staff who make complaints. The town hall “strongly refutes” there is any culture of bullying and racism.

Unite regional manager Onay Kasab told the Gazette a second employment tribunal on grounds of unfair dismissal will now be brought.

He said: “They upheld every single allegation and rejected every one of our arrangements. It’s appalling.

“The worrying thing is if the council is allowed to get away with making these allegations, in the future when people want to complain about bullying or discrimination this is what they will face.

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“They say she only made complaints in order to trip managers up in the future. How do you evidence somebody’s motivation?

“They accused her of chasing up emails too quickly. But probably the worst of it on the allegations is that by complaining about harassment and the union running a campaign against harassment and bullying, the managers felt harassed and bullied.

“Natasha is not doing well. As we keep saying, we are dealing with a human being and the impact on her health has not been good.

“We will be consulting our members. We wanted to give [Hackney Council] a chance to put it right and they haven’t. We will now be consulting about which areas to ballot for industrial action.”

Hackney’s chief executive Tim Shields said: “The decision to uphold the outcome of the original disciplinary hearing was made following an appeal hearing in December. This was held in accordance with the council’s disciplinary policy and procedure.”

For our complete coverage of the council bullying row, click here.

Unite, Unison and GMB, the three major unions within the council, were granted an independent investigation by town hall chiefs in October after an explosive 18-page document was sent to councillors detailing a host of allegations centred around the Hackney Service Centre call centre behind the town hall.

They include:

• A black female worker being called a member of the Taliban by a white, male colleague, who also said he would “start embracing his roots because he was white and whites used to enslave black people”;

• A manager disclosing, in front of another manager, that a black female agency worker had been a victim of domestic abuse, shouting at her: “Your partner is always pulling your hair out and you’re a walking car crash,” and: “There is always drama with you”;

• A senior white male manager making “well-known racist stereotypical comments to black staff”.

Hackney Council prides itself on being a progressive employer and force for good, but aside from a public statement from mayor Phil Glanville no councillors have commented on the accusations.

Members of the Hackney Central ward group became the first to broadly back the union’s campaign earlier this month, however, and MP Meg Hillier has sent a supportive message to Unite.

Mr Shields added: “There is an ongoing independent investigation into allegations of bullying and harassment in one area of the council, supported by the unions, which will report back in due course.

“However, we strongly refute general allegations of a culture of bullying and racism at the council. Those behaviours are not tolerated here, and where there are allegations they will always be thoroughly investigated.”

Natasha’s first tribunal in October centred on allegations against the council of racist, sexist and disability discrimination. The judge still has not delivered a decision.

Onay said Unite is now thinking about calling a London-wide union meeting to discuss racism, harassment and bullying across local government.