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RSA Found to have Wrongly Fired Staffer for Union Organising

The RSA said it disagreed with the decision and criticised the IWGB trade union for pursuing the case against it

The Royal Society of Arts in London. Photo: SFL Travel/Alamy

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A charity that praised the work of a trade union has now been taken to task by a judge for unfairly firing a member of that same union.

In 2019, the Royal Society of the Arts awarded the IWGB trade union with a Future of Work Award for making “an impact where traditional unions have struggled” by “placing decision-making power directly in the hands of workers”.

But just four years later, when RSA employees tried to form a branch with that same union, a bitter fight with management ensued.

Staff felt angry about low pay that left some unable to afford rent, but despite getting almost half the workforce to join the union, the RSA wouldn’t engage.

After three failed attempts to be formally recognised by RSA management and chief executive Andy Haldane, who himself praised the positive economic impact of trade unions, frustrated organisers went to the press.

One staffer, Ruth Hannan, told the Observer last year that the RSA was “telling the world one thing, and doing another” on workers’ rights and “letting down” former RSA members, like Nelson Mandela and Karl Marx.

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But she came into work the next day only to be told that she now had to leave the charity. That was despite the fact that she only had four days left on her contract before she left for a new job anyway. “It felt like they were being spiteful,” she told Byline Times.

The RSA argued that she had made “unauthorised, misleading and potentially damaging statements” – even though speaking out about your employer as a trade union member is a protected form of activity and not grounds for dismissal.

In the weeks that followed, other RSA staff were told that they too could be found in breach of contract if they engaged with content that could bring the organisation into disrepute.

But this month a judge came down on the IWGB’s side on all counts, dismissing the RSA’s argument that the move was just it suddenly deciding to pay her in lieu of notice and directly saying that the charity breached trade union law. None of the statements made by Ruth Hannan, according to the ruling, qualified as wholly unreasonably or malicious – the bar for them not to be covered by union protections.

In a statement, the RSA said it disagreed with the decision and criticised the IWGB at length for pursuing the case against it for breaking labour laws.

It was something, according to the RSA, that had caused “considerable cost to our charity” and stopped it “making investments in our social impact work and our staff, at a time of considerable financial pressures”.

Byline Times contacted the RSA for comment.

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