October 15, 2021   4 mins

Nobody familiar with the behaviour of public-sector unions will have been surprised at the University and College Union’s betrayal of Kathleen Stock. In fact, when it comes to defending freedom of speech, TUC-affiliated unions are a major part of the problem. Just ask the RE teacher who was suspended from Batley Grammar School this year. Or UnHerd’s Paul Embery, who was unjustly dismissed from standing as an FBU official for two years for speaking at a pro-Brexit rally.

I have worked in a government department for the past 33 years, but it was only in 2008 that I became aware that the unions not always on the side of their members. HR had sent round an intimidating email urging us all to complete our online diversity data: if we didn’t complete it by a specific date, we were told that out names would be added to “a list of non declarers”. That list would then be passed on to senior management. “In addition,” it said, “HR may contact non declarers by phone to update their details on the system there and then.”

Many of us immediately forwarded the email to our union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), both to complain about the threatening tone of the email and to ask why the department needed to know such things as our “sexual orientation” or “religious belief”. Many of us also logged into our online HR profile and removed any existing diversity data we’d already completed.

The majority of us heard nothing in response. But one regional union rep in our building not only received a reply — that essentially this was voluntary data management which then union would also like us to complete — but the message also contained some of the disparaging emails being sent between senior union officials.

One exchange read:

“Clarification does need sending out as soon as possible. The members who have raised this with me are, at the moment, quite adamant that they will not supply this information especially given the way the e-mail was worded. This attitude will obviously soften with time especially when the “non-compliants” are interrogated over the phone by HRS.  If a reasoned argument can be provided by us as to why they should freely give the required information, but explaining that you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, then HRS will still get their answers. But at least we don’t look like we are supporting the way they’re carrying out this caper which is the impression people are getting

Once the email came to light, our HR department apologised and emphasised that the data grab was voluntary. But in many ways, that was only the start. Fast forward to 2014 and the roll-out of unconscious bias training (UBT) throughout the civil service. This, as with the supplying of diversity data, wasn’t mandatory, though many were led to believe it was. Again I contacted my union to complain that management was forcing some kind of Orwellian thought-training upon us, that I was refusing to do it, and to ask them if they would back me if I faced pressure to complete it or was threatened with disciplinary action for refusing.

In response, a PCS official phoned to tell me that the union backed the introduction of UBT. I was told the union’s officials had completed it, didn’t see my issue with it and would not support me if I faced any action from management. To which I replied: if that was the case, then he and the union were part of the problem.

But it was only after searching through the PCS website that I realised how much of the problem the union really was. I quickly came across several articles and even a conference motion from 2013 that demanded UBT be made mandatory for all staff. In effect, PCS were demanding intrusion into our very thought processes and, in the process, handing employers a means of disciplining us based on highly politicised, subjective and flawed evidence of “unconscious bias”.

Then, fortunately, in December last year it was announced that that UBT was to be scrapped throughout the civil service in England, after a Government Equality Office investigation found that it can actually “backfire” and reinforce stereotypes and biases. In any normal world, the scrapping of UBT would have been praised by those who value freedom of thought and conscience in the workplace.

Not so the deputy general secretary of Prospect, a union for civil service professionals, who told the Guardian: “While there is a debate as to the effectiveness of unconscious bias training, simply scrapping it without setting out alternative ways to combat discrimination in the work place is not acceptable.” His concern was shared by the assistant general secretary of the senior civil service FDA union, who told the BBC’s Politics Live that “to remove it without replacing it with anything seems absolutely illogical”.

But the story doesn’t end there. Perhaps in anticipation of UBT being scrapped, or aware of its discrediting, the civil service unions were busy behind the scenes collaborating on a replacement — in the form of a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) eLearning module, which was rolled out to us in September 2020. However, unlike with its predecessor, at least this time the collaboration between the unions and management was stated openly; we were informed that we had until the 31 December 2020 to complete it. (I am yet to do so.)

No doubt HR thought that highlighting the unions’ collaboration would give the training greater credibility. But to me it was evidence of our unions’ insultingly low opinion of their members and the wider workforce. That is, rather than seeing us as a collective solution to workplace problems, including in tackling discrimination, we are made to feel like would-be bigots who need to be saved from ourselves.

So, to return to the UCU’s disgraceful lack of support for Kathleen Stock, I would have been more shocked if her union had supported her right to think what she likes and express those opinions freely. But until the unions overcome their own conscious prejudices against the workforce, and stop collaborating with management to impose increasingly discredited diversity initiatives upon us, don’t expect them to defend freedom of thought and conscience in the workplace anytime soon.

Paul Thomas is a government employee and co-founder of The Leeds Salon