Why Unison is wrong to seek the sacking and arrest of Jeremy Clarkson

The public sector trade union scores a spectacular PR own goal.

The trade union Unison is seeking "urgent legal advice" about what to do regarding Jeremy Clarkson's comments about strikers being "executed in front of their families. The press release -- the words are put to the mouth of Dave Prentis, Unison General Secretary -- is worth reading carefully.

Clarkson's comments on the One Show were totally outrageous, and they cannot be tolerated. We are seeking urgent legal advice about what further action we can take against him and the BBC, and whether or not his comments should be referred to the police.

In fact, the comments were the sort of thing one expects from Jeremy Clarkson. In their way, they are neither more nor less outrageous than, say, the Scottish comedian Limmy wishing Margaret Thatcher dead. In neither case were the comments particularly funny.

And complaints to the BBC or Ofcom are one thing, but the possible referring to the police is quite another. Should someone -- even Clarkson -- face arrest, charging, prosecution, and even conviction, in these circumstances? Is it not clear that Clarkson's comments were at least intended to be a joke?

Anyway, the press release continues.

Public sector workers and their families are utterly shocked by Jeremy Clarkson's revolting comments. We know that many other licence fee payers share our concerns about his outrageous views. The One Show is broadcast at a time when children are watching -- they could have been scared and upset by his aggressive statements. An apology is not enough -- we are calling on the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson immediately. Such disgusting statements have no place on our TV screens.

So, won't somebody, please, think of the children?

More seriously, here we have a trade union calling for someone to be summarily sacked. No disciplinary procedure, no due process, no contract rights: the man should be fired immediately.

And there's more.

Jeremy Clarkson clearly needs a reminder of just who he is talking about when he calls for public sector workers to be shot in front of their families. Whilst he is driving round in fast cars for a living, public sector workers are busy holding our society together -- they save others' lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins -- they deserve all our thanks -- certainly not the unbelievable level of abuse he threw at them.

There is no doubt that this sentiment is correct.

But it avoids the question of whether public sector workers are well served by their trade union using scarce resources to pay lawyers for advice on getting Clarkson arrested or sacked on the spot. It is also odd that Unison is risking its credibility - which is vitally important for all its members - in deploying such a misconceived and illiberal PR move. And it is sad that all this has achieved is to make Clarkson the story, and not Unison's members and their demands.

So I put many of these concerns to Unison:

1. How much money is Unison proposing to spend on this "urgent legal advice"?
2. Is this a good use of Unison 's scarce resources?
3. Which law firm is supplying the advice?
4. Is it illiberal to call for police involvement? Should someone really face arrest, prosecution, and conviction in these circumstances?
5. Has Unison scored an own goal with this press release?

Their reply to these detailed queries?

All we can say at the moment is that "We are standing up for our members, it is an outrageous comment to make on early evening programme.

And then they just referred me back to their press release.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.