This week, bus driver and former BNP councillor Arthur Redfearn won an unfair dismissal case against Serco in the European Court of Human Rights. I can’t really say that I’m sorry.
So there’s no misunderstanding: I don’t agree with Arthur Redfearn, or think that any of the BNP’s views are defensible. I’d support just about any action that anti-racist protesters might take against him; I’m glad that he lost his seat after two years (although my satisfaction on that score is slightly undermined by the fact that Wibsey Ward is now represented by a Labour councillor – that is to say, a representative of another party with a long record of attacking immigrants). I’d be happy if his coworkers made his life so uncomfortable he felt he had to quit his job.
But the big question is, can we trust the bosses of a company like Serco to decide what opinions are acceptable? After all, Serco’s anti-racist credentials are slightly undermined by the fact that they also run detention centres where they imprison immigrants waiting to be deported. In a hilariously grim bit of corporate PR, strongly reminiscent of the Israeli Defence Forces’ boasts about how easy it is to be vegan in the IDF, Serco are currently boasting about how excellent the recycling and waste management facilities at Colnbrook and Yarl’s Wood detention centres are – it’s a shame that the care Serco show for the environment isn’t extended to the human beings they imprison, as conditions at Yarl’s Wood are so notoriously terrible that they provoked a hunger strike in 2010.
To understand why Arthur Redfearn’s victory is a good thing, it’s worth looking at the case of another West Yorkshire man who’s got himself in trouble for his unpopular opinions: Azhar Ahmed, who was recently prosecuted for a “racially aggravated public order offence” for having an unpopular opinion on British troops on facebook. A law that was introduced as a way to crack down on racists ended up being used as a way to punish someone for being outspoken while being Asian. As any serious anti-racist has to admit, racism is not just confined to the EDL and BNP: it’s a major feature of our society, and so giving bosses of companies like Serco more power to discipline employees who hold controversial opinions, no matter how anti-racist the justification is, is likely to end up having a disproportionately harsh effect on Asians and Muslims.
From an anti-racist perspective, it’s also worth remembering that, at the start of this year, there were still a number of comrades in prison for their involvement in militant anti-fascist activity. It’s likely that others will be jailed in future. Being part of the same movement as them makes us extreme and unacceptable in the eyes of the state – which also means that, if Serco’s sacking of Arthur Redfearn had been upheld, we might also be found to be a threat to co-workers or the public and sacked from our jobs. Looking at the extent of blacklisting in the construction industry – including, most recently, the mass sacking at Crossrail – we should be very grateful for any protection that workers have against unfair dismissal, and not let employers use a few extreme cases to chip away at this right as a whole.
Ultimately, the fight against fascism and racism can only be won as a struggle from below. We shouldn’t rely on state bans on protest to defeat the EDL, and equally, we shouldn’t rely on corporate bosses – especially not the bosses of companies like Serco, who make their profits from repressing migrants – to stop the BNP. Of course, it’s also the case that we can’t rely on judges to protect our rights, but it’s no bad thing when they make decisions that give us a bit more breathing space.When we want to fight back against sackings, the best methods to use are the kind of wildcat actions that saved the job of a union rep at Ratcliffe Power Station earlier this year. At this point, some readers might wonder whether I’m arguing that we should organise wildcat strikes to defend racists, so to be clear: the great thing about rank-and-file direct action is that it keeps the power in our own hands, so we can decide whether we want to fight for a coworker’s job or if we think they deserve to get fired. Any other approach relies on trusting the bosses or the courts to make the right decisions for us.
Snarky post-script: the cluelessness of the Popular Front approach to anti-fascism is underlined by the fact that, while doing some research for this article, I found the Guardian had published two letters about the case. One uses the case as a starting point to discuss the wider issue of unfair dismissal, and the shocking fact that employees now have to wait two years before they’re protected by this basic right. The other is co-signed by Weyman Bennett, a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers’ Party, and reads like it came from an automated Unite Against Fascism outraged statement generator – the authors of the letter couldn’t be bothered finding a single offensive statement made by Mr Redfearn, so they just repeat that BNP leader Nick Griffin was convicted of an offence in 1998. Apparently, to be a leading member of a revolutionary Marxist party, it’s not necessary to think about the fact that workers might need some protection against their employers, or to consider the possibility that Serco bosses might not be the good guys.