By Andy Neatham
One of the most difficult tasks faced by local trade union reps is succession planning and recruiting other members to take an active part in trade union organisation. Why this should be so is often puzzling to those of us that are active and committed to these roles. In over ten years as a Branch Principle Officer for Connect I had many conversations with individual members that I’ve either been trying to persuade to take on some branch activity or role, or who’ve come to me because they’re considering volunteering for the same. Whilst similar themes are discussed, no two conversations were ever the same, largely because the individual motivations of members considering an active role vary widely according to a broad range of factors.
There is usually a catalyst or moment of realisation that has either put the idea into their head or mine – the resolution of a dispute, a grievance or disciplinary hearing, or the conclusion of a performance management process perhaps.
Two of the personal case handlers in my old branch both acted as my line manager at different points in my career. I knew them both to be fair managers, hard working and professional, but I hadn’t thought of asking them to take on a more active role in the union until I sat opposite one of them in a grievance hearing. The impartial and fair performance of those individuals as managers of those processes put the idea into my head that they would be superb case handlers for the union, though persuading them of this was obviously a more difficult task! These two have both developed into excellent case handlers and supported by the unions head office and National Officer, provide a service to members in which they are very fortunate.
Other members have volunteered following successful negotiations, resulting in improved pay or terms and conditions, and another rejoined the committee after receiving the unions support through a difficult period in which he was bullied and mistreated by his line management.
Once members become active they do not necessarily remain in the same role. I know a branch treasurer who started out as a case handler but actively disliked that role, finding the sometimes confrontational nature of the role too stressful for him. Rather than simply give up, after few discussions, he chose to stand for the role of treasurer. This type of change is a fairly common experience for local reps, filling one role, taking on extra responsibility as experience grows, then standing for election for roles that involve negotiation or leadership, or simply finding and changing to a role that best suits them. One of the positive benefits of being a union rep is the availability of a wide range of training courses that help to develop skills that will help both perform the union role, and provide benefits in whatever career an individual is pursuing.
The main theme running through the examples above is really the simple realisation that local union reps in the workplace make a very real difference, both on a day to day basis, and in the long term, to their fellow members, the company in which they work, and the union which they serve, although ordinary members often don’t realise this until a particular personal event brings this into focus for them.
I was involved, through some massive changes in the company in which I worked and had the opportunity to negotiate directly on TUPE transfers, pay, terms and conditions and company policies. I always had support and advice from Connect’s National Officers and I think that we made a real and tangible difference which made the working lives of our members better in many ways. We developed a positive relationship with the company and many of the managers with whom we negotiated grew to appreciate our input and contribution, to the point where we effectively wrote some policies for them.
Having effective workplace reps often has positive benefits for a company as well as members. Local union reps that know the local politics of a workplace can highlight problems before they become major issues, they can provide a conduit through which members may express concerns or dissatisfaction anonymously, thereby providing an effective early warning system for a company. They can mitigate and advise members on a range of HR issues and may often alleviate the need for formal grievance or disciplinary proceedings by providing a calming influence in potentially heated disputes. This can have the dual effect of a happier and more productive workplace and real cost savings in the avoidance of expensive formal proceedings involving employees, line and HR managers, and union reps. This was something that some, though not all, HR managers that I have dealt with fully appreciated.
If the contribution of local union reps across the country could be measured the finding would surely be that they make a considerable and positive difference to working environments in this country. Certainly, there are those that will argue that union reps are disruptive trouble makers, but in my experience this is only usually cited by poor managers that don’t like to have any constraints, however reasonable or sensible, placed upon them. With this type of individual a union rep, with the collective weight of the union behind them, provides protection for weaker and less confident members, from overbearing, bullying and harassing management practices. Fortunately, most companies do not subscribe to this management approach, but the fact that some do, and will continue to, means that the role of unions, and particularly local reps remains, and will remain, an important part of our industrial relations environment.
Whilst, for a small number of workplace reps their role is the start of a career that might end in on the TUC or in parliament, for most of us the reasons for taking on the roles that we do are many and varied, but boil down to the desire to make a difference for the better, however small. But, with each and every local trade union rep making a small difference it all adds up to a great big difference to our working environment, and that’s something that feels good to be a part of.