RMT AGM 2009: Stop the Sickness Bullies!

At RMT’s 2009 AGM, I proposed this resolution on behalf of Stratford no.1 branch. Lots of delegates spoke in favour of the resolution, telling stories of management abuse of sick staff in their company and/or area. This relates strongly to one of the three issues of our current Jobs Pay and Justice dispute. The resolution was passed unanimously. This is the text of my speech.

Across our industry, employers are clamping down on sickness absence.

Your company may call its policy Attendance At Work (as London Underground does), Managing for Attendance (as most mainline railway companies do) or something else – but we can call it a Bullies’ Charter.

On London Underground stations alone, we have seen:

  • A CSA sacked on medical grounds who was not even off sick.
  • A member of station staff sacked for being sick while pregnant in case she did it again.
  • A member of station staff sacked for thinking he might have Asperger syndrome.
  • A member of staff off sick visited by managers without notice who, when he did not answer his doorbell, rang his neighbour’s doorbells and when they still failed to gain access, interrogated staff at local shops as to whether they had seen him.
  • A ticket seller who had multiple sclerosis sacked after a new manager took away his reasonable adjustments.

But as well as the extreme cases, we have management’s everyday actions:

  • warnings handed out like confetti
  • contact with sick staff so frequent that it amounts to harassment
  • stopping of sick pay on spurious grounds And none of this because the worker has done anything wrong, but just designed to bully and starve you back to work.

So why do the employers do it? They have a constant drive to exploit us – to get us to do more for less. This drive does not ease but intensifies during recession.

We even now have the phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’ – people coming to work when they are sick and should be at home recovering.

This is partly because of employers’ obsession with money – they resent paying you sick pay, and resent paying overtime to other workers to cover your shift.

But it is not just about money. Research has shown that harsh sickness absence policies are cost netural – employers spend as much money implementing them as they save.

So it is about more than money. It is about creating a regime of fear. Making you come to work with your head down and keeping it down all day. Asserting the idea that they are the masters, we are the servants. And so we get a regime of daily indignities and humiliations dished out to our members by managers.

We must stand up to this. It is not enough just to deplore it and pass a resolution. We have to act. This resolution sets out a series of proposals for what the union should do:

  • provide top-quality representation to members
  • take industrial action – and at this point, I’d liek to pay tribute to those members who have already done so
  • link up and co-ordinate action so that we don’t leave members in one area to fight alone
  • demand that sickness not be treated as a disciplinary issue – because being sick is not the same as being naughty
  • take advice on the legality of the employers’ tactics – with due caution, recognising that many aspects of employers mistreating workers are perfectly legal, becuase employers exploiting workers is the very basis of the capitalist system – but some of these sickness clampdowns go so far over the top that they might breach the law
  • look beyond out own union and our own industry to other workers also suffering under this clampdown – ask your mates what’s happening where they work – whether they are posties, teachers, shopworkers or whatever, they will tell you similar stories.

We must stand up to the sickness absence clampdown – central to that is to give our members the confidence to stand up for themselves.

Being sick should get you sympathy not persecution. Sickness absence is not a crime. Staff who fall sick are not criminals. What is a crime is the systematic bullying and humiliation of workers by managers using these policies as a weapon.

Issues and Campaigns:



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