Marcia Lewis (above, third from left) was commended for her work during COVID-19, organising the mass delivery of packed lunches to school children
In 1991, Marcia Lewis was hired by Caerphilly County Borough Council on a contract that included 33 days of annual leave. Over the subsequent years, the council employed staff with 28 days’ leave entitlement. In 2012, they set about trying to harmonise all workers’ conditions.
Marcia and a group of fellow chief officers were approached by council management to give up their additional five days of leave in exchange for compensation. While some accepted the payment, five didn’t. Marcia was one of them. The council agreed to let them keep their leave.
But, three years later in 2015, the council reneged on the agreement, seeking to remove the additional leave from Marcia and her colleagues. This time, it took a different approach.
“We were more or less told that we either had to conform to the new conditions and let the leave go, or we’d be fired and rehired on new contracts”, Marcia says.
“It was daunting and frightening. It was a pay cut. We’d seen pay freezes at the council over the years, and this was a further erosion of our terms and conditions with the strike of a pen. I felt very strongly at the time that this wasn’t fair.”
Standing her ground
Marcia refused to engage with the council’s ultimatum, leaving her as the only worker willing to fight for her original employment conditions. The council wrote to Marcia to give notice that it would terminate her contract, providing her with a new one that only had 28 days’ leave. She did not sign it.
“I made a commitment to myself to fight this. I watched the others around me fold, but I said no, I’m not doing that. I felt isolated and pushed into a corner, and I don’t like that feeling. It goes against everything I’ve been taught.
“I didn’t feel I was being treated fairly”, she continues. “When you’re told you’re going to be fired, and you’ve done nothing wrong, it feels like your rights are being taken away from you. It makes you wonder what power an organisation can have and, alright, there’s a system you follow, but then they can take your rights away anyway.”
Marcia continued to work at the council as though nothing had happened and requested leave based on her original terms. In 2020, she was denied three days of leave on the basis that it would exceed her new entitlement, so she filed a grievance. The grievance wasn’t upheld by the council. But with the support of UNISON, Marcia took the authority to a tribunal, where she won.
Daunting and emotional
Working with her local branch secretary and UNISON’s lawyers, Marcia identified that her employer hadn’t given her correct notice of the changes in her contract. The judge sided with Marcia, making a judgment that provides indefinite protection for her leave.
“The whole experience was very daunting and emotional. I never thought I’d find myself in such a situation. It was the advice from UNISON that gave me the courage to stand and take it further.
“I’d paid my union membership for many years and never had to use it. But I’d never have been able to have the representation I had without UNISON, and I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to represent myself.”
The preparation for the case was extensive, and Lianne Dallimore, branch secretary for UNISON Caerphilly Council, says she “has the grey hairs to prove it.”
Lianne adds: “Marcia was in a battle with her employer for almost two years. That’s a significant length of time to be under constant stress. It takes a certain person to do it, and it’s not easy, but she was stalwart.
“She was a senior member of staff with a high profile, and she stuck her head above the parapet for what she believed to be right. That takes a lot of guts.”
Fighting for others too
Since Marcia’s success, all 8,400 members of staff have had their annual leave entitlement increased from 28 to 33 days.
“In the end, they brought everyone in line with me,” Marcia says. “It’s bittersweet. But it’s good that everyone else has benefited from this.”
Fire and rehire is a hostile employment practice that UNISON members are increasingly having to fight. Lianne observes: “Employers seem to think that as long as they use the words ‘termination’ and ‘re-engagement’, it’s a totally different thing. It’s not. It’s fire and rehire.”
UNISON legal officer Bruce Robin, who represented Ms Lewis, adds: “Fire and rehire is an area of employment law that is under scrutiny because of the unfair way in which it can be used by employers. UNISON legal services has a strong track record in highlighting these strategic issues and resolving them to support our members. The fact that all staff later obtained the higher annual leave entitlement, after Marcia’s successful tribunal case, shows why this is important.”
Reflecting on her battle, Marcia says: “I was true to myself throughout. It was hard, and there was a high cost for me emotionally. But when these things happen, you’ve got to fight. Not only for yourself, but for others too.”