Railman sacked on word of handwriting expert

Strike threat as union rep denies writing abusive notes over 'wash in bucket' dispute
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A railway shop steward has been sacked on the controversial verdict of a handwriting expert in a dispute that yesterday prompted charges of "19th century behaviour" against a privatised rail company.

The dismissal of 33-year-old Joe Morrison, a track chargeman, in a row over rail maintenance workers being asked to wash in buckets, threatens to bring train services in Scotland to a halt. Ballot papers for a strike by 1,200 track workers go out later this week.

Mr Morrison was fired on the evidence of a graphologist, John Macintyre McRea, a former member of Strathclyde Police forensic science department, who was brought in by newly-privatised First Engineering, a pounds 27.5m management buy-out of a British Rail infrastructure company. Mr McRea contended Mr Morrison was the author of scurrilous notes sent to colleagues who did not wish to join in the dispute over facilities.

Mr Morrison denies that he wrote the notes and his union, the RMT, has retained its own graphologist, John McLean, a former Chief Inspector of Strathclyde Police Identification Bureau, who is said to have trained Mr McRea, his rival expert. He subjected Mr Morrison to tests, and concluded that he was not the author of the "harassment" notes.

The extraordinary saga began three weeks ago, when First Engineering withdrew personnel carriers with washing and messing facilities.

The company says it had no alternative, because as a private firm it no longer enjoyed exemption from EU rules requiring the fitting of a tachograph. Vans and pick-up trucks with buckets for washing were substituted, but most of the men refused to use them on health and safety grounds. "We refused to dine in the pick-up trucks or wash our hands in a bucket of water, especially me, I have a bad skin condition," said Mr Morrison. First Engineering said it would withdraw weekend working from the protesters, substantially reducing their earnings.

As some men "put their earnings above washing facilities" (in the words of an RMT spokesman), an unofficial dispute broke out at the Mossend, Lanarkshire, depot. The allegation against Mr Morrison is that he "wrote notices and put things on paper" which the company regarded as harassment of his colleagues who did not join the protest.

The notes, placed in lockers or at men's seating places, allegedly read "Enjoy your weekend. I hope it's raining," and similar messages. One, however, bore the legend: "Joe Morrison is a scabby bastard." Mr Morrison, who is also the RMT health and safety representative, suffers badly from psoriasis.

First Engineering hired Mr McRea, who identified the handwriting as that of Mr Morrison, despite his repeated denials. The track chargehand was summarily dismissed on 16 May. His sacking outraged the RMT, whose general secretary Jimmy Knapp was a railman in neighbouring Ayrshire. He accused the company of "moving back to the dark ages" and promised: "We will not stand by and let individuals get blackmailed and brow-beaten."

Mr Morrison's appeal will be heard and adjudicated upon by a senior First Engineering manager on Tuesday. The RMT is confident of the verdict of its own handwriting expert, Mr McLean.

First Engineering would not comment on its use of a handwriting expert, but a spokesperson said: "A First Engineering employee, who is an RMT staff representative, was summarily dismissed on 16 May 1996. The discipline is confidential to the company and the employees and is subject to an appeals procedure. The disciplinary hearing had nothing to do with the employee's trade union activities and was on an entirely separate matter."

Mr Morrison protested his innocence last night: "I have never been disciplined before in seven years' service with British Rail."

Ironically, his suggestion that the company could meet its EU obligations by welding the back doors of the personnel carriers and reducing their weight to below the 3.5 tonne threshold has been taken up by First Engineering, at a cost of pounds 500 per vehicle.