Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monkey Business

IT sounds like one of the stories our Tory tabloids love making up. A major trade union with members in every town hall has decided to discipline four of its members for criticising a union committee in a leaflet, and for using familiar figures in a cartoon to illustrate the leaflet.

Their leaflet featured the "Three Wise Monkeys", originating in Buddhist lore, which can be seen around the world, from a Japanese temple to a bar in Sydney and a theatre group in San Francisco, and as ornaments on many a mantelpiece, including my old Auntie Ada's when I was a little kid. One has its hands covering his eyes, the other covers its ears, and the third has a hand over its mouth. "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil", was the saying, and in Japanese the ending of each punned with a word for monkey. Originally meant as good advice not to see the worst in things, it has come to be used more ironically to describe people who prefer not to recognise what they should.

The "guilty" Unison members no doubt intended the familiar figures to add an eye-catching touch of humour to their leaflet two years ago complaining that the union's Standing Orders Committee had ruled out some key resolutions from being debated at conference.

But because the chair of the committee happened to be a black person, some people apparently interpreted the cartoon as offensive, and "racialist". No need to ask what monkeys have to do with black people, no doubt they were thinking of those racist lumpen who made "ape" noises and threw bananas if a black footballer got the ball. Trouble is, they not only appeared unaware of the three wise monkeys' international significance, which has nothing to do with racialist morons, but unaware that one of the four whom the union has effectively accused of "racialism", Greenwich branch secretary Onay Kasab, as his name suggests, is also one of the union's black and minority ethnic (BME)members. Shouldn't he be just as entitled to protection as the chair he criticised, protection for instance from false and hurtful accusations of racialism?

Incidentally, in some versions of the three wise monkeys story there are four of them, the last being "Do no evil". And it seems that when the Unison investigation began there were five accused, not four. Could it be a coincidence that the four now facing discipline are all members of the Socialist Party, and the fifth person isn't
? The Socialist Party ('Militant Tendency' as was) is keen to point to that. It may be exaggerating the significance. But it is up to the Unison leadership to prove it is not picking on the Left, and using the "racial" accusation as a pretext. As we have seen, this case is not isolated..

Here is what the Socialst Party says: "The first charge against the four Unison members is that they produced a leaflet at the annual conference of Unison in 2007 which questioned why the Standing Orders Committee had ruled out key motions from being debated. Simply highlighting this on a leaflet resulted in the first charge of an "attack on the integrity of the members of the Standing Orders Committee."

The second charge relates to the use on the leaflet of a well known Buddhist proverb and cartoon of the 'three wise monkeys' (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.)

The four have been charged with "Failing to show due care in not anticipating that someone might take offence [from the leaflet]'"

On 17 July Unison's disciplinary panel delivered their verdict and then scuttled off to consider the sentence. The result should be known in a couple of weeks.


See also

Unison executive member Jon Rogers, a member of the Labour Representation Committee, has a fair and objective discussion of the leaflet and the sensitivities it aroused, from which it emerges that some black members of Unison were genuinely upset over it, but that the Four accused did make a real effort to apologise for any unintended offence they had caused, only for the mike to be snatched from one when he tried to make a statement at the union's conference: :

I can't help wondering whether union members and anti-racists feel their union has its priorities right in having held a two year investigation of this leaflet and cartoon, at a time when low-paid union members, many of them black and minority members, are having to fight to get even the minimum living wage, and when their children, even with qualifications, are finding it increasingly hard to enter the labour market. A time when the two major parties are sparring over who will make the bigger cuts in public service jobs. I wonder if their sensitivities might be aroused over union representatives being victimised, or 'border police' arranging the deportation of migrant workers who joined the union. I see the BNP and other Nazi groups are having a good laugh at the news that Unison is discuipling four left-wingers, one of them black, for supposed racialism.

As a union member I don't want to single out another union for criticism. But there is something wrong with Unison, even if its not alone. I'll leave the last word as to what I feel on this sort of thing to another Charlie:



At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Emil said...

What good fellows the three wise monkeys are! Messengers of the “hear, see and speak no evil” attitude. What can be wrong with that? Read about their origin and meaning in http://three-monkeys.info/, a comprehensive website totally dedicated to the three wise monkeys.


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