Hackney Council bullying row: Unite rep loses employment tribunal over ‘racist, sexist and disability discrimination’

Natasha Johnson.

Natasha Johnson. - Credit: Archant

A former union rep at Hackney Council has lost her employment tribunal in which she accused bosses of racist, sexist and disability discrimination.

Hackney Service Centre.

Hackney Service Centre. - Credit: Archant

Natasha Johnson, an ex-customer service adviser at the Hackney Service Centre near the town hall, was told all of her complaints were unfounded this week – six months after the court hearing began.

The Unite shop steward’s case is at the centre of the ongoing bullying row between the council and unions Unite, Unison and GMB, which between them represent thousands of council workers.

As revealed by the Gazette in November, the unions wrote to councillors outlining a host of allegations of bullying, racism and discrimination and demanded an independent investigation, as well as Natasha’s reinstatement. The council agreed and commissioned a probe, but earlier this year the unions pulled out after losing faith in the council’s commitment.

They have now threatened to strike, and Unite regional officer Onay Kasab has suggested a London-wide unions meeting over similar abuses across local government.

Natasha Johnson.

Natasha Johnson. - Credit: Archant

Natasha had been suspended in November 2017 and was eventually sacked a year later, in the middle of the tribunal. She was suspended while going through a disciplinary, and shortly before she was set to appeal over a grievance she had made about “management victimisation, harassment, bullying and racial and sexual discrimination”.

The Hackney South and Shoreditch Labour party “overwhelmingly” backed unions’ bid to reverse Natasha’s dismissal, but an appeal was dismissed by the council in February.

At the tribunal, attended by the Gazette, the judge heard Natasha claim one manager would make unsolicited comments on her appearance in front of other staff, and would do so to other black women as well.

She also accused a manager of saying to her while she rolled a cigarette: “I hope you are not smoking marijuana in work time.”

Hackney refuted the claims and under cross examination Natasha was told the marijuana comment, in 2015, was “nothing more than a feeble attempt to be funny”.

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“At worst, it was a poor joke,” said the council’s lawyer Catriona MacLaren.

“It was not just the marijuana comment,” replied Natasha. “He made comments about my hair, what I’ve got on, my shoes, all these types of things. I didn’t see it as just a one-off comment – I felt like he had a stereotype about black people.”

Miss MacLaren replied: “His comment was not race-specific, was it? He didn’t say anything that linked it to your race or anybody else’s race. The use of cannabis is widespread.”

Natasha again insisted the manager did not make similar remarks about white colleagues and said she felt harassed. She raised the issue with HR but no action was taken.

“It is not reasonable to have felt harassed by a remark as benign and anodyne as that,” Miss MacLaren concluded.

Natasha, who included the examples in a formal grievance more than a year later, was also told by Miss MacLaren: “You can’t have been so very upset about them [the comments] if you didn’t say anything for over a year.”

On another occasion, Natasha claims a manager told all of the staff: “If you haven’t got childcare you shouldn’t be working here.” The comment was listed under a complaint of sexism but Miss MacLaren said the female manager who made the comment was simply implying it was a demanding job.

In the decision report, the tribunal judge addresses the allegation by saying there was no “contemporaneous record” of the marijuana complaint, nor any issues of racism in Natasha’s complaint about the same manager on a different occasion.

On Natasha’s accusations of a lack of support relating to her dyslexia and global learning disability, the judge added: “The evidence referred to above showed that the [council] did not ignore the need for adjustments in the course of [Natasha’s] employment.”

Unite has been contacted for comment.