There’s a lot of heat but not much light in the debate about the EPMU’s suspension of Shawn Tan.
What we know from the media is that Tan was told he had to seek approval from the union’s national executive in line with his collective agreement and the rules of the union and then failed to do so. Subsequent to this he was suspended with pay while the EPMU investigated the situation. It’s likely in this case “investigated” meant putting things on hold while they figured out what to do about such a strange situation, because as one of our commenters notes it is very odd for someone who works to enforce the work rights of union members to then campaign for a party that desires to remove all of those rights.
Some are arguing that this constitutes a suppression of freedom of political expression. These people obviously don’t understand what suspended with full pay means. A suspension with pay is effectively a holding pattern move designed to freeze a situation until it can be resolved or until facts are available to make an informed decision. It is not a presumption of guilt or a sign of inevitable sacking. If they had sacked him for standing for ACT it certainly would have been a suppression of political freedom. But they haven’t.
Tan would have known this as he is an organiser and, you’d assume, an employment expert. But instead his party and his advocate have spent their time making public statements about political discrimination and even, absurdly, racism. It also looks like this has been done with Tan’s approval as can be seen in his comment on Kiwiblog directing people to the NBR story about his situation. The word is that he has not exactly been shy about talking to journalists either, which is very strange behaviour for someone who has not even had his first employer meeting to discuss the issue. It could certainly be argued that by doing so he has unwarrantably brought his employer into serious disrepute which would be clear grounds for dismissal. Tan and his advocate would realise this in which case it’s likely Tan has no interest in being employed by the EPMU but does have an interest in attacking them for political gain.
But that doesn’t mean the EPMU has played a particularly smart game either. When they suspended Tan they would surely have been aware that it would go straight to the media as his party is well known for their media-whoring and opportunism and in my opinion they should have allowed him to continue to work there but not have made any concessions to his second job (which is what a serious candidacy effectively is).
The EPMU is now in a position where they would be reasonably expected to fire Tan (if they did not they would be providing a situation in which “disparity of treatment” could enable other staff to attack the reputation of the union in the media with impunity) but in doing so they will open themselves up to the unfounded accusations of political bias we are already seeing from people who don’t understand (or more likely don’t wish to understand) the nature of suspension. They could possibly put him back on duty but with a final written warning for his media stunt but again that then sets a pretty high dismissal threshold and would make it hard to deal with similar situations in the future.
So the basic choice it seems the EPMU has is to:
A) fire Tan and expect to be attacked in the media
B) keep him on and effectively open themselves up to other attacks like this in the future.
It is highly likely there’s more to the situation than the small amount of information we have indicates. In which case there is likely to be an option “C”, as it is so often with employment issues, only time will tell.
[UPDATE: Some excellent points from Jafapete, a dude who knows more than a little about employment law.]