Analysis Breaking

Unite attacked for ‘disgusting’ treatment of senior Irish officer returning from cancer treatment

Union’s top management accused of attempting to push cancer-survivor into a sidelined demotion, behaviour that would trigger a strike in another employer – and of making union miserable place to work by ‘mafia’-like take-over

A personal statement by the author of this article

I am a Unite member of long standing. I am also aware that publishing this article will lead to me being attacked by some in the union and outside of it. But if similar allegations were made against senior management of a union, but instead involving racism or sexual harassment, nobody would condone silence. Suffering cancer is a protected characteristic under equality law in this country and not to report on these allegations would be just as gross a dereliction of journalist’s duty. Publish though the sky fall.

The wife of one of the Unite union’s most senior officers in the Republic of Ireland has accused the union’s management of gross abuse of her husband in attempting to railroad him into a demotion on his return from intense treatment for cancer.

Mandy La Combre published the allegations on her Facebook account earlier today, accusing the union of turning a standard ‘back to work’ interview into an ‘exercise in coercion’ to force Brendan Ogle, Unite’s Senior Regional Officer for the Republic of Ireland, out of his roles – and freezing him out after he declined the ‘offer’ of the job the management wanted him to take:

This is a long post, and in some ways I don’t know where to start but I have to get it off my chest nonetheless. I’ve been a trade union activist for decades, and have also been representing workers for 26 years. I have rarely come across such despicable treatment of a worker, especially a worker who has just returned from recovering from a near fatal illness. What makes this even more surprising is that the employer is a trade union. What makes it extremely personal to me are two things; one, I am a member of this union, and two, the employee being treated despicably is my husband, Brendan Ogle.

The union is Unite the Union, a union that is supposed to be a progressive union, one that has built its reputation on fearlessly taking on bad employers – including a bad trade union employer in 2008.

Now however, things appear to be very different. Brendan returned to work from a very serious illness, cancer, in July of this year. After bravely fighting the illness and suffering through the strongest radiation available in conjunction with the harshest chemotherapy treatment, it beggars belief that any employer would treat a worker so callously. His treatment had devastating effects on his body and he lost four and a half stone in the process. At times even watching him suffer through this illness was almost too much for even me to bear. So you can imagine when his health was starting to improve and the outlook was looking brighter how getting back to work was always something we were both striving for him to do. To my great relief now he is healthy. But what I have sadly come to learn is that Union the Union don’t appear to be as happy as I am that he recovered.

It is important to note that before getting sick Brendan was the head of the union in the Republic of Ireland. On his return to work the first blow was Unite attempting to turn informal discussions that had taken place while Brendan was very, very, ill into an alleged ‘agreement’ to force him to move to a reduced role in Dundalk.

Instead of the ‘back to work’ interview being the required informal event to aid him, it was an exercise in coercion to force him to accept an offer he respectfully declined. That was bad enough but things soon got much worse. Since his refusal to just step out of his current role he has been frozen out of staff and activist meetings and key communications on major issues. I can personally attest to the fact that he actually got more emails when he was out sick with cancer than he does now. This is clearly a deliberate exercise in isolating him from any of his normal union duties and an attempt to keep him away from others in Unite who respect him and are wondering where he is now that he has returned. He has now been told he is not allowed to have access to shop stewards through education which is one of his roles. Recently he was not allowed to help with resolution of major difficulties in ESB where he is one of the most experienced officials in the country and definitely the most experienced in Unite.

Extraordinarily, he has even been told that he is no longer involved in Right2Water, which as everyone will know he has been the National Co-Ordinator and spokeperson for since the beginning. I laughed when he told me that as I thought it was a joke! Especially given that there isn’t anyone else in Unite leadership that actually really understands the campaign, or the referendum process on public ownership that Unite are supposed to be leading.

In addition to causing him great embarrassment internally he has had to explain to long-time friends and comrades in the water movement and ESB, that he is powerless to help current serious and fundamental issues. It is hard to see him being approached, and blamed by some, for issues that he could fix better than anyone, but that he has been frozen out of.

I deal in my own job with a lot of anti-union multi-national employers and I have not seen behaviour like this towards someone returning from illness who according to their doctors is more than capable of carrying out their normal duties. Whatever this is about it is not about his welfare. Most of us would simply call this bullying from a bad employer, and I find it particularly hard to stomach.

I am Chair of the Tom Stokes Unite Community Branch and we do great inclusive work in communities so this is completely at odds with what I have believed Unite stood for. But unfortunately even in recent times I have witnessed Unite trying to hamper our work, and can only put that down to my involvement with Community and my relationship with Brendan.

Unite leadership outwardly challenge other employers for bad behaviour. As trade unionists we must hold all employers to the same standards and that includes our own unions. Brendan has always done so, and others have benefitted as a result.

Some people may ask why I feel the need to post this, but I believe the fundamental reason I am a trade unionist is to call out bad practice from employers, and to ethically always do the right thing. Why should I stay silent when one of the most prominent unions in the country is silencing theIr most prominent trade unionist? You would have to question their motives for doing so. It makes me really uncomfortable that a big part of our movement has shifted to this type of behaviour.

Brendan has fought for workers and the working class all of his adult life, he has literally put Unite in Ireland on the map for the work he has done, and I don’t think anyone would actually argue with that, yet this is how he is treated by that very union. It’s simply disgusting.

It is sad that the only way I have of shining a necessary light on this behaviour is through this post, but unfortunately that is what this has come to and I genuinely feel that those enquiring about his silence on his return to work deserve an explanation.

I hope my friends and comrades understand.

Ms La Combre’s post saw a string of furious responses, of which a sample is below:

A Unite insider told Skwawkbox that the union’s behaviour would lead to strike action if it had been done by an industrial or commercial employer. Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, ran for the role on a campaign of greater militancy in fighting bad employers.

‘Like working for the mafia’

But it seems that the treatment of Brendan Ogle may be part of a wider phenomenon in the union under the new regime. A UK official told Skwawkbox:

It’s an awful place to work at the moment. It’s like working for the mafia, promotions appear out of nowhere for those loyal to Sharon, they’re not advertised or if they are, they are advertised in such a way that only one particular person could fit all the criteria. Nothing is ever done in writing or officially, instructions are cascaded from the top but never by email or in written documents. l used to love my job but it’s unbearable at the minute.

Unite’s management has also been criticised among the wider movement for its ban on representatives getting involved in, or even using the slogan of, the ‘Enough is Enough’ movement that has seen mass rallies of resistance across the country.

The union was contacted for comment but did not respond by the time of publication.

Update: more than an hour and a half after the deadline for publication, Unite’s press office responded with a threat. See details here.

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