The Ethics of Obeying Orders

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Amidst the various news stories I came across yesterday were two that caught my attention. The first was a ‘note‘ written by a successful suicide and published by the family because they thought the information contained within it needed to be shared with others. Given that their decision came from one of the most painful experiences known to people, I acknowledge and respect the courage of both the author and his surviving family.

 

The second article was this: UNISON instructs its members to enforce the bedroom tax. As a former shop steward from one of the unions amalgamated into UNISON, I’m going to comment on this latest ‘advice’ to members, not only because I think this instruction is wrong but also because I believe the impact of it has the potential to cause very great harm to the ordinary  membership who are going to have to comply with it.

 

Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for his outstanding art work

 

But let’s begin with the bigger picture.  I make no bones about my opinion of our present incumbents in the Houses of Parliament. With the exception of a very few, no MP of any party has yet to earn the epithet they award themselves; ‘Honourable’. The UK Government, with its now daily offerings of cronyism, corruption, personal profiteering and ideological tyrannyin all walks of life – makes it all but impossible to conclude that these elected/appointed officials have any interests over and above their own career path. As the suicide and death rates rise, it is also becoming easier to believe that the results of Austerity presently being experienced by ordinary UK people are exactly the outcomes our government is seeking. To put it bluntly, the UK government is presently pursuing murderous policies against the wider British public; employed or unemployed, healthy or not,  and there has been a stark increase in people dying unnatural early deaths as a result of government policy. Whilst it is true that not everyone lives to a ripe old age, when death is caused by the intentional actions of other people, our law is inclined to call it murder. When such murder is being inflicted on a people by a government, our law has also been known to call this genocide.

 

One of the problems we face – those of us on the sharp end of these policies – is the apparent lack of comprehension from decision-makers in all trades/professions because those involved are frequently directly unaffected by what is happening on the ground. The UNISON decision falls within this remit. From my perspective, it is as though the leaders have forgotten some very basic Trade Union wisdom about solidarity with ordinary people. They are disconnected from reality in a way that is likely to prove extremely BNVz2o2CUAEFaXxharmful to their members and it is one of the reasons why I currently place no faith in traditional ‘working-class’ solutions to our collective problems. I am not alone in this opinion but mine is based on understanding the impact our involvement has on the psyche of each and every TU member party to implementing these government policies.

 

It would not be fair to single out UNISON alone – many of our public service trade union members face exactly the same problem – but let’s use my old TU’s ‘advice’ for the sake of this blog. The mythology that public service pays better than the private sector is now just that – a myth. Decades of public sector wage restraint has eaten away any advantages that might have once existed and our services now stagger from one crisis of service to the next. These services are provided by employees who are frequently low-paid, which means that when sanctions for non-payment of bedroom tax are applied to those who simply cannot afford to pay, UNISON members are likely to be sanctioning their own colleagues – something that is already occurring within the Department of Work and Pensions. So much for solidarity amongst the membership;  indeed, I cannot think of anything more divisive to workers’ organisations. The Unions apparently seem to be unable to support their own membership, which makes any declaration of their support for other social groups highly suspect.

 

UNISON claims the following:

It is… vital to ensure that UNISON members are advised, that if they are employed to administer part of the arrears recovery process, that they should follow the instructions of their employer and that they should be advised that they are placing their continued employment at risk if they choose not to fulfil their contract of employment.

This applies whether that is the sending of reminder letters, issuing possession proceedings, applying to the Magistrate’s Court for a possession order, attending Court, instructing bailiffs or attending with bailiffs in order to secure possession.

 

It is interesting that this advice centres on the Contract of Employment, not least because there are other legal interpretations that could be made had the union been willing to contemplate them. Whilst the reader can find more details here, I want to focus on what has happened to the ‘heart’ of this Contract, bearing in mind that there exists, in law, something known as an ‘Unfair Contract’.

 

I’m going to look at this from the perspective of civil and crown servants simply because the heart of the contract between Crown and Servant has been made explicit. Please bear in mind that these are only my observations. My opinion may carry no weight in law and therefore needs to be checked.

At the heart of the psychological contract are the following conditions: respect, compassion, trust, empathy, fairness, and objectivity. At the heart of the Crown contract, a servant must demonstrate the four core values detailed below:

  • ‘Integrity’:  putting the obligations of public service above your own personal interests;
  • ‘Honesty’: being truthful and open;
  • ‘Objectivity’: basing your advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence; and
  • ‘Impartiality’: acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving equally well Governments of different political persuasions.

In addition, if a civil servant believes that that he/she is being asked to behave in a way which conflicts with the code, he/she may now report the matter direct to the Civil Service Commissioners.

It is now clearly specified that the code is part of the contractual relationship between the civil servant and his/her employer.

As an observer, I would wonder whether these legal requirements for integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality also fall upon the employer too. If they do, and there is objective and politically impartial evidence to show that the employer is failing to adhere to these requirements, I would suggest that this may go to the Heart of the employees’ Contract of Employment. It may be that an employers’ breach of the Civil Service Code could be deemed sufficient to render previously forbidden industrial action lawful especially if the action sought to impose ‘fair’ conditions, like integrity and honesty, upon government in this instance. It would probably be necessary to demonstrate that individual members of government were failing to adhere to their own Code of Conduct with objective and impartial evidence.

 

There will be differences between a civil service/local government Contracts of Employment but they will be written down somewhere because this is how public servants function – everything is written down, or should be, because it allows for public scrutiny and the ‘heart’ of the Contract will contain the same standards.

 

Knowing these things, I look at the UNISON instruction and ask how the BMGmmISCcAE1_Mcpsychological ‘heart’ of the contract is being met by asking some union members to cause severe hardship to other union members for the sole purpose of keeping their job? I also ask how well Ministers issuing these instructions are complying with their own side of the Contract. In fact, from where I am standing, it appears that any living, beating heart has been torn from the living body of the British public… that no Heart exists in that realm anymore which, by logical progression, means that public sector staff are being instructed to deliver a heartless service to the people.  That my old union, UNISON, is instructing members to comply is about the worst thing it could do under present circumstances, not just to its own membership but also to the public at large.

 

There is one element that seems to be missing from the union’s thinking and that is the issue of ‘unlawful instructions’. No employee is required to obey unlawful instructions – simple. If an employer starts to issue unlawful instructions, an employee is actually required to disobey them – the reason? Because if we obey unlawful instructions, we become an accessory to crime and are guilty ourselves. Certainly, to take such a path will be fraught with dangers and dismissal may certainly feature within the experience whilst the case is fought through law but that is still no reason to refuse the solution, not least because our refusal will impact upon our psyche.

 

How is an employee likely to feel if, as a result of their unions advice, they become responsible for the prosecution and likely homelessness of one of their colleagues? How are they going to feel, day after day, dealing with the suicidal distress of the public? I wonder how Stephanie Botterill‘s case-worker feels because, in complying with government instructions, they may have violated their own heart and the damage this causes to the pysche of otherwise-loving people is as extreme on the inside as it is on the outside. The suicide note of David Somers describes the effect of treating other people as if they have no instrinsic worth:

 

I really have been trying to hang on, for more than a decade now. Each day has been a testament to the extent to which I cared, suffering unspeakable horror as quietly as possible so that you could feel as though I was still here for you. In truth, I was nothing more than a prop, filling space so that my absence would not be noted. In truth, I have already been absent for a long, long time.

 

This stuff eats away at our very soul until all life is extinguished. We end up carrying, personally, the guilt of others until it destroys everything within us that we value:

 

You must not blame yourself. The simple truth is this: During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity. Though I did not participate willingly, and made what I thought was my best effort to stop these events, there are some things that a person simply can not come back from. I take some pride in that, actually, as to move on in life after being part of such a thing would be the mark of a sociopath in my mind. These things go far beyond what most are even aware of.

 

When I departed my trade union/local government life, I went into the psychotherapy business and learned, sitting with those who entrusted the tender aspects of self to me, exactly what happens to people who face this kind of systemic crime. The harm visits every generation afterwards. What we choose to do now will affect your children, their children and all the children who follow after. The decisions we make today have that kind of power.

 

And I have to ask myself, is this what UNISON intended when it instructed its members to collaborate with a criminal government? If it isn’t, then the union better reconsider its actions so far.

 

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