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Constantly criticised, undermined, undervalued, unattainable targets, climate of fear, feel threatened? Read this

Bullying and the political dimension
Bullying in the public sector and the failure of trade unions to support members

Identifying the best trade unions and the worst trade unions

This information is based on cases in the UK, although patterns are similar in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, and elsewhere.

Since 1996 Tim Field's UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and Bully OnLine have helped thousands of people deal with their cases of bullying. The largest groups of callers and enquirers have consistently been:

1) teachers and lecturers and those working in support of teachers and lecturers
2) nurses and healthcare workers
3) social services and local government workers
4) workers in the charity / voluntary / not-for-profit sector especially organisations close to local government and to the NHS such as those offering services in the areas of mental health, the elderly, the disadvantaged and disabled, and social housing

The number one complaint of those contacting my UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and Bully OnLine and similar organisations including DAWN, OXBOW, Andrea Adams Trust and Freedom to Care has been the refusal of trade unions to support their members in cases of bullying and stress. The trade unions in the UK whose names most commonly crop up are:

1) National Union of Teachers (NUT)
2) Unison
3) Amicus-MSF
4) Royal College of Nursing (RCN)
5) NATFHE
6) To a lesser extent, most other trade unions, especially public sector

Sometimes the local (unpaid) trade union officer is helpful and supportive, but once the case moves up to a paid union official, the member finds their case frustrated. Many people report that their paid trade union official appears indistinguishable from the management and that their trade union, despite the rhetoric, appears to be more interested in maintaining its good relationship with the employer than meeting the legally-binding contractual obligations to its members. Some trade unions encourage personnel officers to join the union in the full knowledge that their members are or will be in conflict with the same personnel officers. The National Union of Teachers (NUT), for instance, openly boasts its "delight that LEA [Personnel] Officers are in membership of the Union". The notion that trade unions exist to support, protect and fight for the rights of their members seems to have fallen by the wayside - especially if bullying and stress are the core issues.

There are many reasons why trade union representatives fail to support their members, including lack of resources, weak law, disinterest, fear of retaliation by employer, fear of loss of rep's own job and career, lack of training, lack of support within the union, contempt for members, complicity, fraternal obligation and more. All play their part. I'm convinced that given the scale, consistency and time this has being going on (over a decade) that there are other reasons, which I explore here.

Labour Party and Trade Union interdependence

Despite public disagreements, the Trade Unions and the Labour Party are mutually reliant. The Labour government is dependent on financial and political support from the trade unions in order to remain in power, and the trade unions are reliant on the Labour government to fulfil the needs and interests of the trade unions and to keep the Conservative Party (the Tories) and other political parties out of power.

Despite repeated lobbying, the UK government has done little to tackle bullying in the workplace. Any letter to the Prime Minister or a government minister is passed to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) who reply with a standard paragraph "The Government takes bullying at work very seriously and believes that employees should be able to work without fear of being bullied or harassed from employers, fellow employees, or anyone else." I have a collection of letters with this paragraph dating from 1996. Sincerity can be gauged from the consistency between words and actions, and the government has taken little substantive action to deal with the issue or workplace bullying. In March 2004 the government announced the award of 1 million to the trade union Amicus-MSF for a study of bullying although it remains to be seen what Amicus will do with this money. Given that the direct, indirect and consequential costs of bullying in the UK may amount to 30 billion every year, the government's disinterest and tardiness for over a decade suggests a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the subject. Perhaps it's too close to home.

The DTI standard reply continues: "The Government believes that the best place for bullying to be tackled is where it happens within the workplace - new laws may not necessarily help people clarify their behaviour towards each other." This naivety belies the fact that in over 95% of cases the sole concern of the employer seems to be to get rid of the target of bullying and to protect the bully - whatever it costs. In a THES survey in 2005 most respondents said they believed University HR departments protect institutions and help bullies rather than victims. The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy, and behind most cases there's a can of worms, so the employer's response is not surprising. Occasionally an employer with integrity comes to me for advice on dealing with a case, which restores my faith in humanity, temporarily.

The DTI paragraph concludes: "Bullying would be very difficult to define in a legal and workable context". Anything you don't understand is difficult to define. The same arguments were used in response to proposals to introduce laws on discrimination and harassment.

Labour government terrified of an avalanche of claims

The House of Commons daily Summary Agenda and Order of Business indicates where the government's priorities lie. Whilst the debates are all no doubt important, very few have the impact or extent of bullying and its consequences to employees and their families in the UK (50% of people bullied, 30 billion annual cost to UK plc). If bullying consisted of a rabid dog denying the Holocaust, there'd be a new law inside a week. I believe the eradication of bullying at work could lead to cost savings and efficiency improvements equivalent to cutting at least 2p off the basic rate of tax. Tax cuts are a sacred objective close to the heart of any government which makes it all the more mysterious as to why the Labour government (as well as the previous Conservative government) should shun the issue of workplace bullying and repeatedly fail to take any substantive action.

In failing to take the issue of workplace bullying seriously (as would be evidenced by substantive action) I have formed the opinion that the Labour government under Tony Blair appears, with justification, to be terrified of an avalanche of employment tribunals and personal injury claims caused by bullying and originating within politically-sensitive high-profile public sector organisations. There's the embarrassment of public exposure of the inadequacy and shortcomings (the main reasons for bullying) of the chief executives and senior managers of many public sector organisations. Civil Service and local government departments fear coming under Parliamentary scrutiny for wasting public funds and for not meeting targets and for not delivering. And there's the bullying at work that government weapons inspector Dr David Kelly endured prior to his name being released to the media.

A holy grail of the Labour Party, and hence the trade unions, is to reduce the number of employment tribunals. Each year in the UK around 1 in every 200 jobs in the UK heads towards an employment tribunal. The government's efforts seem to be focused on reducing the number of cases that make it to tribunal, rather than identifying and addressing the causes of the need to seek redress via the legal system. Bullying, in all its forms, is a major cause.

It's no surprise that bullying, stress caused by bullying, and stress caused by related and other factors including bad management are rife in public sector organisations. The climate of fear is everywhere. On 24 September 1998 Dr Peter Graham, Head of Health Directorate at the United Kingdom Health & Safety Executive stated that "Poor management is a major cause of stress". Surveys of bullying in the NHS regularly produce a figure of 1 in 3 nurses bullied at work in the previous twelve months. Schools, colleges and universities are rife with bullying (between adults), as are county councils. Many charities and not-for-profit organisations work with or for councils or NHS Trusts, or are outsourced public sector departments.

Most cases of bullying are also personal injury cases for stress or stress breakdown. Personal injury cases last on average 5 years, and in rare successful cases the payouts can be around 250,000, with similar costs. However, very few cases make it as far as court. Paradoxically, the more deserving a claim for personal injury arising out of bullying, the less able the sufferer is to proceed with a claim - the symptoms of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder include panic attacks and intense anger at any reminder (however small or seemingly insignificant to others) of the events which caused the injury. These are called "triggers" and can include any tactics that the bully, the bully's HR department or the bully's employer used, such as brown envelopes marked "Private and Confidential" (usually delivered on Friday afternoon and calculated to spoil the target's weekend), yellow stickies all over a person's desk each morning, incompetent investigations, whitewashing and claims of "no evidence", official-sounding phrases of denial, rhetoric, etc. Complex PTSD resulting from bullying is a debilitating condition which includes "clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning" (criterion F) and "recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts or perceptions" (criterion B1). In lay terms it takes twice as long to achieve half as much, with frequent interruptions to suppress the urge to murder folk. It's a bummer.

Whilst it may be tempting to lay the blame entirely at the door of Number Ten, targets of bullying worldwide repeatedly tell me of similar situations in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Workplace bullying and unions' and governments' failure to deal therewith seems to be a global issue and part of the global change in working and living patterns.

When a trade union fails to provide support and access to legal services to a member who is losing their job, livelihood, health and more because of bullying and stress - ie the trade union is failing to meet its legally-binding contractual obligations to the member, for which the member has been paying for years in expectation of support - the sense of betrayal intensifies the symptoms of Complex PTSD. When the trade union official works, or appears to the member to be working, with the employer and against the interests of the subscription-paying member, the sense of betrayal is further intensified. The feeling of emotional and psychological rape is intense. Betrayal and rape produce similarly profound feelings of violation and consequent anger. The unacceptable behaviour of employers, HR departments and trade union officials in colluding with the bully and getting rid of the target fuel an all-consuming sense of injustice to which many people devote their lives to redressing. Most of the 100+ case histories featured at Bully OnLine relate the same experience.

Trade unions exist to fight for the rights of their members, especially in situations where the member is unable to take action for themselves, whatever the reason. Whilst many grass roots local trade union representatives work hard - sometimes with risk to their own careers - for the benefit of members, the same level of commitment is often not reflected by some paid trade union officials and some trade unions.

Why won't my trade union support me?

It seems that some trade unions could be seen as putting political expediency ahead of the interests of members whose subscriptions are accepted in the full knowledge of the likely subsequent disavowal of the union's assurance to fulfil legally-binding contractual obligations to those members. You pays your money and you don't get the support. It goes without saying that trade unions and trade union officials who fail repeatedly their members bring trade unions into disrepute are also betraying those trade unions and whose officers, representatives and members are committed to working to preserve the rights of workers.

It seems to me that a decade of successful denial and frustration of cases of constructive dismissal and personal injury arising out of bullying in the public sector (especially education) is now jeopardised by the work of my UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and web site Bully OnLine and by those who have become empowered by these and other resources. It would be hugely embarrassing for an already-embattled Prime Minister Tony Blair to be confronted with the true cost of his public sector targets, and for TUC general secretary Brendan Barber who has recently announced the trade union's achievements in reducing the number of cases taken to employment tribunal and how unions are good for you but who must now answer allegations of why some trade unions appear to limit their interest in cases to cherry-picking those members with interesting cases which, if successful, can be used in press releases to trumpet alleged trade union achievements. What this means in practice is that any trade union member with a run-of-the-mill everyday case of bullying and stress resulting in loss of job, career, income, livelihood, health and detriment to home and family life will, regardless of how many years they've being paying subscriptions in expectation of services in time of need, be rejected in favour of the few sexy cases. Whatever happened to original trade union principles?

Education is a government flagship but the political claims of "standards" (read - academic exam results) hide the truth of a stressed-out, burned-out and bullied profession. Teacher suicides and pupil suicides rarely make the news. Suicide is the Number One cause of death for 18-24-year-old males. For the real picture of education in Britain today, click here. Despite the vocational attraction, teaching and nursing are coming to be regarded as the least desirable professions with more people leaving than joining - a situation compensated only by a stream of endless supply staff and the flying-in of temporary workers from around the world, including cherry-picking and depriving poorer nations and third-world countries of their most valuable staff. [More]

Articles of interest

The Standards Board for England is responsible for promoting high ethical standards and investigating allegations that members' behaviour may have fallen short of the required standards.

GMB no longer to give 750,000 to the Labour Party: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3870337.stm

Council workers bound to behave: http://www.workplacelaw.net/display.php?resource_id=4872&a_id=1317

ASLEF barbecue ends in crawl: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3811175.stm

Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson accused of jibe at Jews: news/mail060205.htm

Amicus officials under the spotlight: http://www.amicus.cc/

Unison Welsh regional secretary Derek Gregory steps down after 90,000 bullying case: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/1875507.stm

The Disability Discrimination Act and the lessons learned in a case against the NUJ: http://www.ju90.co.uk/nuj.htm

FBU general secretary charges expensive meals and clothes to expenses: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/03/16/nfbu16.xml and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/07/06/ngil06.xml and puts football above union duties: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/06/20/nfbu20.xml

GMB secretary suspended amid claims in ballot rigging inquiry: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4352037.stm

Never mind the boss. Meet the union fat cats by Daily Telegraph Home Affairs Editor Philip Johnston.

John Clare, Education Editor of The Telegraph writes, Welcome to the virtual reality world of the NUT.

Conor Ryan in The Independent asks Can the NUT be saved from itself?.

Have you taken your trade union to court for unjustifiable discipline of a trade union to a union member? If so, see this request.

What can I do?


Where now at Bully OnLine?
How can I recognise that I'm being bullied?
What is bullying and why me? | Definitions of bullying
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about bullying
Overcoming myths, misperceptions and stereotypes
The answer to Why don't you stand up for yourself?
Bullying and vulnerability
Why have my colleagues deserted me?
What's the difference between bullying and mobbing?
What is harassment and discrimination?
Why grievance procedures are inappropriate for dealing with bullying
The difference between bullying and management
Facts, figures, surveys, costs of bullying | Cost of bullying to UK plc
UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line statistics
Profile of the serial bully - who does this describe in your life?
Antisocial Personality Disorder | Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Paranoid Personality Disorder | Borderline Personality Disorder
Bullies and attention-seeking behaviour
Munchausen Syndrome and MSBP
Information for nurses | Information for voluntary sector employees
Information for teachers being bullied
Bullying of lecturers in further education
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Bullying in the social services sector
Bullying in the public sector - the political dimension and
why trade unions fail to support their members

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