A fake union playing on fears

Matthew Collins discovers the conspiracy theorists and far-right politicians behind the Workers of England Union. In normal circumstances, it might appear unusual if a trade…

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Chapter : A fake union playing on fears

Matthew Collins discovers the conspiracy theorists and far-right politicians behind the Workers of England Union.

In normal circumstances, it might appear unusual if a trade union received an endorsement from the Eurosceptic Brexiteer think tank, the Bruges Group, who count amongst its past and current presidents union busters Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit.

But that’s the situation with the Workers of England Union (WEU), a union that has become increasingly popular with anti-Vaxx activists and even the far right self-declared ‘migrant hunters’. With the WEU heavily dominated by the English Democrats, the endorsement of the Bruges Group is not such a strange endorsement after all.

The Bruges Group has commended the WEU’s campaign to recruit care home workers affected by the November 2021 mandatory vaccination law, which made it mandatory to get a COVID-19 vaccination before entering a care home in a professional capacity.

According to the Bruges Group “the large trade unions and professional associations have failed to protect their members from the threat of dismissal. In fact, Unison and the Royal College of Nursing support vaccination in the belief that it protects patients and staff. This is despite mounting evidence that infections occur as frequently in the vaccinated as in the unvaccinated.”

The Bruges Group produce no hard empirical or scientific evidence to back this up this claim, though there are of course plenty of faux scientists on social media that espouse similar views.

The Bruges Group has found likeminded fellow travellers in the WEU and this is most definitely not in the long term interests of working people, as both it and the WEU are invested in attacking and trying to undermine the established and Trade Union Congress (TUC)-recognised unions.

Followers of WEU on its Facebook page claim they have been encouraged by the vaccine ‘exemption certificates’ distributed by the union. The WEU is at pains to point out that this is a ‘self-certification’ certificate which doesn’t actually state why the certified person is exempt. It is therefore unclear what actual legal rights they carry, if at all, unless the employer feels forced to accept it.

There are health authorities who are currently refusing to recognise these self-certification certificates. One authority in particular has refused to bow to the WEU: Rotherham Doncaster and South Humberside NHS Trust. The Trust employs some 3,700 people in mental health and learning disability services, as well as district nurses and health visitors – frontline staff confronting the reality of COVID head on.

The WEU claimed in late January that the Trust had “consistently failed to state why WEU members Self-certificate [sic] isn’t compliant” and even suggested that the its refusal was evidence enough to show “it [their self-certification certificate] is compliant” (with government legislation).

However, it is in the sections of the health industry without strong legal and scientific guidance where the WEU appears to have been most active. It has issued threats to employers in care homes with small numbers of employees, often working under conditions and contracts established with recognised unions such as Unison, GMB and Unite.

In the run up to and post-the government legislation last year, the WEU issued a standard DIY warning letter for “NHS Trust employees and those in the health sector but not employed by an NHS Trust” to send their employer a warning they would not enter into discussions about being either vaccinated or about their future employment.

The caveat is of course in the small print from the website where these letters can be downloaded: “neither the above nor any information posted on this website constitutes legal advice. It must not be relied upon as such and specialist legal advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances” .

This is in stark contrast to the larger trade unions, which do offer verified legal and health advice. Much of WEU’s advice, it declares, simply comes from “non-clinical” NHS staff.

The WEU has thrown its weight behind an increasingly unstable and bewildering anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown movement. Much of this movement is anti-scientific and driven by fear, conspiracy and confusion. The WEU has even taken out advertisements in such places as The Light Paper, whose founder is an exponent of the Flat Earth conspiracy theory.

As well as baffling employers and others with a myriad of faux science and legal jargon, the WEU has pushed the idea of non-existent rights of employees under spurious notions of “common law” which, according to the WEU’s General Secretary Stephen Morris, has been around for “1700 years”.

Our own advice, from a proper employment law solicitor, is that this is a dangerous and harmful tact. Common Law is simply a development through procedure and has absolutely no precedent over laws passed by Parliament. Neither do “English law”, the Magna Carta or “Roman Law”, all of which the anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown movement, to varying degrees, rely upon to intimidate and confound vulnerable people.

Conspiracies are nothing new here

Conspiracy and far-right extremism are nothing new to either the WEU or the English Democrats, its alma mater.

The WEU first came to our attention more than a decade ago, as the sidearm of the English Democrats (ED). The ED had gone from the absolute fringe of the far right to become the bolt-hole for former British National Party (BNP) members. Some 400 former British National Party (BNP) members, including Eddy Butler and Chris “I don’t hate Hitler” Beverly, a former BNP councillor from Leeds, took up prominent positions in the ED after leaving the BNP.

Writing in May 2012, HOPE not hate noted the ED had “recently established a trade union-wing, the Workers of England Union (WEU), which was originally conceived in 2005 but eventually launched on 7 September 2009.”

The WEU claims not to be related to any political party or movement, stating its aim is to protect, support and represent all working people in England. It pledges to campaign for English workers against cheap foreign labour and to represent the “indigenous” English.

The use of threats, fraud and intimidation are hardly foreign concepts to the parent party, the English Democrats. As well as being linked with the dubious former BNP fundraiser Jim Dowson and his ‘Midas’ fundraising enterprise, in 2017 the deputy leader, Steve Uncles, was jailed for electoral fraud after submitting fake nomination forms.

The English Democrat leader, Robin Tilbrook, is also the in-house solicitor for the WEU. He has 15 directorships listed with Companies House in London, including Trade Union Congress for England, Confederation of English Business, and ‘Lawyers for Liberty’, for which only Tilbrook is listed as Director and is also listed as ‘dormant’.

Lawyers for Liberty was cited by Private Eye as last year as being behind an anonymous campaign to encourage parents to fill in complaint forms about schools that required students returning after “the great lockdown” to wear masks. These complaints were then followed up by legal-looking letters from the aforementioned Lawyers for Liberty, where the small print once again was far more revealing. “Lawyers for Liberty are not a law firm” it said, and the legal-looking letter of complaint “should not be construed as legal advice”.

Other legal ventures launched by Tilbrook have included ‘The People’s Brexit’, which in 2020 crowdfunded £80,000 in an attempt to overturn the Coronavirus Act 2020 and all lockdown rules. While Tilbrook’s own legal firm owned the case, the QC who signed off some of the legal letters was Paul Oakley QC, the former immigration spokesperson for the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

The WEU laughingly claims it is “not affiliated to any political party”. And although it is true that the English Democrats – like Workers of England Union – rarely function in the manner their name should suggest, it is disingenuous bordering on dishonest to even suggest WEU is not another front for the dishonest activities of the ED.

Who’s behind it all?

The General Secretary of the WEU is Stephen Morris, a perennial losing candidate for the ED in Greater Manchester. A former branch official for Unite, Morris has based the WEU in a tiny office near his home in Bury, Lancashire.

It is concerning that Morris and the WEU have targeted the health sector while it is already under great duress, not just from government cuts, overwhelming COVID admissions to hospitals, but also the constant threat the NHS faces from private profiteers. 

In a 2017 flash interview for the BBC as part of his candidature for Manchester Metro Mayor, Morris stated he wanted “social health care with a business strategy”, among other things.

The WEU 2019 returns to the certification officer showed the union had only 1197 members and an income of £116,000. Over £89,000 of that income was spent on administrative costs, just under half of which was salaries. It showed a mere benefit to members of £6,000.

Earlier this year, the Press Association news wire service won an injunction against the WEU, after complaints from HOPE not hate and the National Union of Journalists, for issuing press cards to “citizen journalists” – a social media phenomena of untrained and unregulated ‘news gatherers’ who were attempting to use and abuse the privileges afforded to those with properly accredited press cards.

The use of these fake cards came to the attention of anti-fascists when a number of far-right activists produced WEU press cards while attempting to antagonise real journalists and trade unionists covering far-right demonstrations and gatherings.

The fake ID cards were issued by the WEU under the guise of the ‘English Press Association’, which does not exist except under the auspices of the WEU. The card could be considered solely for the benefit of people who spread conspiracy theories and fake news on social media.

The High Court heard the cards were “instruments of deception” which allowed WEU members to “misrepresent themselves as being affiliated with or employed by PA”. Seventeen members of the union had bought these cards, despite there being no evidence that any were engaged in professional journalism.

The WEU was represented in court by Robin Tilbrook, who described himself as the “Chairman of WEU”, even though it had “no party political affiliations”. The court heard the WEU was considering using the name ‘English Media Group’ in future. Interestingly, though not entirely surprisingly, the ‘English Media Group’ surfaced late last year when far-right fellow travellers Alan Leggett, Nigel Marcham, Steve Laws and Tracey Wiseman were in court in Dover for their activities related to refugee arrivals. Laws is better known as “the migrant hunter” and Marchman as the foul-mouthed reprobate “the tiny veteran”. Again, the WEU described all four as “journalists”. They are not.

People who are members or supporters of the WEU appear to be either delighted by being represented by self-certification and common law, or frustrated by their inability to contact either the union or representatives.

The WEU is part of a concerted conspiracy to confuse workers, bully vulnerable care home employers as well as working to undermine the sanctity of both journalism and the trade union movement. It is no surprise it is not a member or affiliate of the TUC, where it would be open to scrutiny, regulation and proper legal and employment training. Instead of inconvenient or unpalatable facts, it relies upon the strength of fear and conspiracy and sadly, the patronage of racists.

Anti-union friends

The Workers of England Union is also affiliated to the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA), another libertarian, anti-union organisation, which supports the slashing of public services and massive tax cuts for the rich. Amongst the policies of the TPA are freezing all welfare benefits for two years, scrapping national pay bargaining in the public sector and abolishing the pensions ‘triple lock’.

By supporting, or having the support of, such organisations as The Bruges Group and TPA, the WEU is no friend of public sector workers.


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