Saturday, 27 August 2011

Workers need to fight back against Facebook sackings

In the aftermath of the riots, a number of people were arrested for nothing more than comments on Facebook. Two men were jailed for four years for "inciting a riot" that never happened, a teenage boy was named and shamed for similar - despite the tactic seeing an innocent man's home burnt down, and it seems they were just the first. But it is not just the state punishing people for words on Facebook.

Employers have long been using workers' statuses as a way to sack them. Most recently, Argos sacked warehouse worker David Rowat for making general comments about his work. His Facebook profile does not mention where he works, and his comments didn't either. He said "Had a great day back at work after my hols who am I kidding!!" and "Back to the shambles that is work." Hardly a scathing attack on the bosses, and yet he was sacked for gross misconduct because those few words - the grumble of nearly all workers having to go back to the grind after a holiday - could "damage the reputation of the company."

Indeed, I know that when I'm about to go to a shop, I seek out members of its staff on Facebook to see if they've moaned about working there. Or maybe not, since such a thing is fucking ludicrous. More damaging to the company's reputation, in my eyes, is that after "an extensive internal investigation" they deemed somebody expressing opinions on the internet to warrant the same punishment as theft, harassment, racist abuse, fighting, or being drunk on the job.

David's case is far from the first of its kind, and indeed it is commonly accepted that companies have the right to dictate what is and isn't acceptable for their staff to say on the internet. The unions' approach to the issue is generally to warn people to be careful about what they say and their security settings and of course to represent them at procedures, but not to challenge the practice itself.

For that is definitely something which needs to be done. Of course, it is good practice to take precautions against the risk of getting sacked or disciplined for any action. But that doesn't automatically predicate not doing the thing that you could be punished for. As a more obvious example, despite it being illegal, there are still a great many workplaces where trying to organise workers will get you sacked - but this doesn't mean that you shouldn't try and do it, only that you shouldn't be open with the act and risk management knowing before you're in a position to challenge them.

Obviously, having a rant on Facebook isn't in that category. But everybody moans about their job, and it's only natural to want to vent when something is pissing you off. If that takes the form of saying "work is a shambles," or "I hate my job," or (further along the scale) "this place sucks fucking balls and my manager is a worthless piece of shit," then so be it. It may not be the most eloquent way to express your feelings, but it's also not akin to racially abusing someone or fighting, and so shouldn't be met with a sanction by the employer. If the target of the rant becomes aware of it, then maybe some clearing the air is in order, but I wouldn't go further than that. If we're not talking about systematic bullying, which is a whole other matter, having someone pissed off with you or thinking you're a twat is hardly a great affront to your dignity.

So how do we challenge this? The first point to note is that this is a decision that has to be taken by those affected, first and foremost. It is no good parachuting in to protest on behalf of someone whom you've not been in touch with and who wouldn't know you from Adam. But, alongside pursuing whatever appeals or proceedings are open to you, I would advise anybody in this situation to contact groups who can offer practical solidarity.

The Solidarity Federation ran just such a campaign for an agency worker who wasn't paid their full wages, and was able to win. As a revolutionary union initiative, providing support and solidarity to workers in the fight against the bosses is our modus operandi. The Anarchist Federation takes a similar stance to Solfed, and indeed was also part of the Office Angels campaign. The IWW also supported the campaign, and has won its own victories such as a recent strike by Guildhall cleaners. There are also bound to be plenty of individuals locally who will be more than willing to support any pickets and other actions.

Rather than recommending any one organisation, I would say the best approach would be to get in touch with whoever is active locally, whilst making national organisations aware should the employer be part of a national chain and the campaign need to be taken beyond the workplace where the dispute occurred. Such campaigns also provide a good opportunity to organise workers, not only improving their lot but also creating further headaches for the bosses.

But the important point, as Solfed have noted, is that we are not simply moaning about an injustice but actively fighting against it;
Direct action works. We achieved what we achieved without lawyers, courts, industrial tribunals, or even union reps. And we won. We planned and strategised and, despite some inevitable hiccups, we orchestrated an escalating campaign against the largest employment agency in the world. We didn't even play all the cards in our hands and we still forced Office Angel to pay up out of pocket mid-way through our National Week of Action. After all, they still haven't been paid by their client. In the process we strengthened our class confidence. Everything from giving demand letters to managers to speaking to the public to co-ordinating activities, we're better at that now than we were three months ago. 
If we want to stop cases like David Rowat's - and the countless others that have gone before - simply becoming an accepted reality of employment in the social media era, we need to fight it. Not just individual cases, but the very concept that criticising or just being pissed off with our jobs is an offence worthy of punishment.