Jackie worked in the same place for 12 years. It’s a well known, large organisation.
Unionised, plenty of workplace policies and procedures.
She liked her job, was good at it, and had a great attendance record.
For about 3 years, however, she was constantly bullied by a man who had a well deserved reputation as being a nasty piece of work, a relentless, sneering bully.
After such a long period of time she had had enough and decided to take action. She summoned up her courage and made a formal complaint. She also went to her union representative and he helped her submit a Workplace related claim to the Workplace Relations Commission.
Jackie was not looking for compensation. All she really wanted, if the truth be told, was that she would be given a chance to tell her story to an impartial listener-the WRC adjudicator- and for the bullying to stop.
As is usual when a claim is submitted to the WRC she had to wait nearly six months for a hearing date. But she was happy as the time elapsed and her big day approached.
The day before the hearing, however, she received an email from her union representative. He had pulled her case. Withdrawn.
Jackie could not believe it.
After all this time, after all the waiting, after 3 years of bullying and now she was going to get to tell her story to an official body, and the claim was withdrawn.
She demanded to know why it was withdrawn by the union rep; he told her they did not have sufficient evidence or the evidence was out of time, too old. Or something like that. She’s still not sure.
Jackie had her suspicions, though, and began to wonder about the union’s position in relation to her complaints. Was there a ‘political’ reason for pulling the case?
Was the fact that Jackie and the bully were members of the same union a factor in the decision to withdraw? Was there a conflict of interest for the union given that the union represented both employees who were in conflict?
Jackie is unlikely to ever get a definitive, credible explanation for the withdrawing of her case, but friends and ‘sources’ have no doubt about the reason.
Jimmy and Svetlana were cleaners in another large institution in the south west of the country. They are agency workers. They enjoyed their work and were hoping that one day the place where they worked (‘the hirer’) might one day open up their recruitment and employ cleaners directly, rather than through an agency.
This would give them more security for the future, and more certainly over the location of their job as they would not be shoved around from one place to the other by the Agency who employed them.
After a couple of years, this is exactly what happened: the institution decided to employ cleaners directly.
Jimmy and Svetlana were looking forward to applying for the positions, and hoping for the best. But no formal advertisement or notice was ever given to them.
They only heard about the jobs ‘on the grapevine’ and informally. They couldn’t understand why, and then they began to get onto their union representative.
It transpired that the union had an old agreement with the employer that should jobs become available those jobs would be filled from a panel. The panel just happened to comprise members of the same union but the problem for Jimmy and Svetlana was that they were not going to have a chance of getting one of these jobs.
Why? Because they were not on the panel. Why not go on the panel? They were not allowed to because they were agency workers. It was a vicious circle with Jimmy and Svetlana feeling very much on the outside, even though they were in the same union as the panel members.
It was a Kafkaesque nightmare that saw both Jmmy and Svetlana lose their jobs, which were then filled by panel members.
Jimmy and Svetlana began to think about the unenthusiastic representation they received from their union rep, and began to think about conflicts of interest. How, they wondered, was the union to square the circle of getting 50 people into 10 jobs?
Why did the union represent the workers on the panel to the exclusion of other union members who were agency workers, and not on the panel? Jimmy and Svetlana felt very hard done by and went to a solicitor to see had any of their employment rights been breached.
I have spoken to Jackie, Jimmy, and Svetlana and we came to certain conclusions. I have seen many situations similar to these involving other workers.
When unions represent their members in relation to working conditions and rates of pay in a workplace, for example, it is to the benefit of all workers. There is no conflict of interest as the unions can represent the employees with all the vigour and professionalism and experience they can muster and they represent the interests of the workers.
The movement in Ryanair for pilots, for example, to have union representation is an example of this and the threat to strike coming up to Christmas, 2017 demonstrates the power of workers acting collectively, in concert, with common interests.
Where things get tricky, however, is where workers are in competition or conflict. Then the interests of employee ‘A’ and employee ‘B’ are diametrically opposed.
For example if an employee is alleging that another employee bullied or harassed or sexually harassed him and both employees are members of the same union whose interest does the union represent? One of them? Both of them? Neither?
I very frequently see these types of situations in the workplace, where the representation of one or both parties to a dispute or conflict is hopelessly compromised. It is simply not possible for one person or body to represent the interests of both parties who are in conflict.
It would be like asking the Gardai, or a particular solicitor, to prosecute and defend persons accused of crimes. Just not possible.
No matter what you think of lawyers you will have to admit there is a certain useful clarity and simplicity arising from the relationship where you pay a lawyer and she represents you.
She has your interests, and only your interests at heart.
She cannot entertain a conflict of interest for fear of ruining her professional reputation, being sued for professional negligence, and being reported to, and reprimanded by, her professional body. If she does a good job you might tell a friend.
But the critical point is she has a strong motivation to do her best for you and represent your interests solely, no matter how the dispute pans out.