Monday, April 27, 2009
SOAS sacks key union activist posted by Richard SeymourEmployers have a number of ways of getting back at successful strikers, and one of them is to target militant trade unionists. Recently, after a high-profile campaign by SOAS Justice for Cleaners, which was ultimately victorious in its demands for decent pay*, the SOAS Unison Branch Chair, Jose Stalin Bermudez, was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing. This was presumably good news to the management at my alma mater, Birkbeck College, where Bermudez was supporting the Living Wage campaign by cleaners there - a campaign that continues to this day, and which involves staff and students at Birkbeck.
The charge against Bermudez was that he had made a "death threat" to a colleague in 2007. The charge has not been substantiated, and was rejected by an earlier grievance hearing, but nonetheless Sharon Page of the SOAS directorate resuscitated the charge in order to justify his sacking. This was the same Sharon Page who had, in 2008, conceded that there was "no evidence or witness to substantiate" the claim that there was "any verbal threat" to the life or safety of the complainant. This was subsequently confirmed in correspondence from the Human Resources manager Charles Perry.
Following the initial decision to sack Bermudez, an appeal was launched. SOAS selected a panel to hear the appeal, rejecting the arguments from SOAS Unison, UCU, NUS and several members of the Academic Board for an independent review. That panel, under the direction of the HR advisor, affirmed the original decision. The basis of the decision was the perception of the complainant. But there was an independent witness, Pablo Grisales, who - instead of being given the opportunity to testify - was brought before three managers, who read to him a prepared statement and asked him to confirm it. He was given no chance to read the statement, or qualify it in any way. He was prevented from offering his own independent version of events. And the statement, never signed, became the official "witness statement".
Grisales subsequently attended the disciplinary hearing earlier this year, and supported Bermudez's recollection that there had been no threat of any kind. However, Sharon Page dismissed the evidence as a fabrication, declaring that "on the balance of probabilities" she would prefer to believe the managers' claim that Grisales had "verbally confirmed" the unsigned "witness statement". Further, the complainant's version of events was deemed "far more credible" than that of either Bermudez, the accused, or Grisales, the sole independent witness. This absurd judgment reeks of prejudice. In their statement on the decision, SOAS Unison and SOAS UCU, say: "To say that this borders on downright racism would be an understatement. Sharon Page made her decision to dismiss Stalin on her perception of the complainant's perception. One white manager's perception of a white complainant's perception of a black employee. No contest in SOAS."
*The SOAS Living Wage campaign successfully sought to raise cleaners' wages to the modest London Living Wage level of £7.45 per hour, set by the Greater London Assembly to account for the high costs of living in the city. This campaign continues at the other Bloomsbury colleges.