The second episode of the new podcast series UnionDays is out now. We have employers refusing to let staff serve on juries, sacking a woman because she was on maternity leave, and facing an ultimatum from their own workers.
The cast also includes spooks, nuclear weapons and the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
You’ll need to listen to get the full story, but there is a common theme, a golden thread if you like, running through all of the issues in the show – the importance of local branches and local activists.
Local branches, local reps
The building blocks of unions, and of many many membership organisations, are local branches and local reps, usually built on workplaces (and sometimes on functions or shifts within those workplaces). The local reps are crucial – the mortar in the bricks you might say.
It’s the local reps who understand best what is happening in their workplace and their communities. The self-same reps will be motivated by being employed in those self-same workplaces and living in the self-same communities. The local rep is best placed to be the members’ first point of contact, to represent, recruit, organise, advise, negotiate, agitate, explain. They are hugely important.
That’s the theory. But sometimes, there is no local rep. Then, many of those functions fall by the wayside. That’s not ruinous in the short-term, but there still needs to be a first point of contact for members needing assistance. On the Fringe Bodies pitch of the union I was working for, at that time, that was me.
“NGL,” as my teenage son would say – it was a bit stressy at times, effectively being a super-branch secretary for many different and disparate groups of members.
The proof-positive of the importance of, and load carried, by local reps was never more evident than when, de facto, you had to cover for them. Sometimes I felt busier than the apocryphal one-armed juggler with crabs. And about as comfortable.
That’s why for practical reasons, you just have to have a team, a network that is well organised and well supported. Web based systems, call centres and AI will all help, of course – but research shows, still, that it is a combination of that support with face-to-face engagement that members find most effective.
Getting the right balance
And these local activists of course have all sorts of competing demands to try and reconcile. These are essentially voluntary roles. Sometimes there will be an agreement giving paid time off (“Facility Time”) and very occasionally, a modest stipend will be paid by the union. But frequently neither of these supports will be present.
And it’s not just getting the balance right between union activity and the rest of their life. Sometimes we inadvertently put avoidable pressure on our own reps. Because a good local rep is the union equivalent of gold dust. From a headquarters perspective, we’d love them to do more, get more involved, progress up a developmental pathway. From workplace rep to branch. From branch to region, From region to national level. Along the way, there are industrial or geographical co-ordinating committees, conferences, and the possibility of political involvement. And before you know it, the local rep is too far away from where they started, and why they decided to get involved, and a goodly number of them simply withdraw.
In this talent-spotting process, it’s certainly difficult to get the balance right, to be sufficiently sophisticated to know when and what to encourage.
In fairness, I feel unions are increasingly recognising this. Union education programmes will include courses aimed at those who do want to progress, do aspire to taking on increasingly senior roles. Mentors, which have always existed informally, are being more formally included in development pathways. Equality networks are great for unions’ EDI work, but are also a chance for under-represented groups of activists to get familiarity with (and exposure to) different types and levels of union involvement.
I say again that local reps are the mortar in the bricks of union structures. So it is incredibly valuable for activists to say “thanks, but no thanks” to getting more involved. We need talent at all levels in unions. (An as I’m sitting here tapping away on my keyboard, I wonder – has any union actually conducted a skills audit? And if so, did it look at its activist base as a whole or just head office? I see a great UnionDues special featuring any union for whom the answer is “yes”!)
The best structure ever?
One of the best structures I ever worked in was at the National Communications Union and known colloquially as the “5 + 2” – one lay union rep, on facility time, from each of the 5 geographical regions the business was divided into, and 2 from union headquarters. Clearly being a rep for, say, “Midlands, Wales and the West” is a significant thing, but nevertheless it meant that relatively local reps had a seat at the negotiating table – and the head office duo could consist of one nationally elected rep and one officer, which is an important balance1. Kudos to colleagues and counterparts like John Starmer and John McGinley for coming up with the idea.
That sort of approach is not just good for Industrial Relations – it also is a game-changer for internal union structures. Now part of Prospect, the former Connect union (and Ben Marshall in particular), developed the principle of “indigenous representation” – so members in each employer were represented by a team of lay, local reps supported by one or two national reps. It was a practice imported into the Telecoms side of the CWU despite merger talks between the two unions failing (but that’s another story!)
Next time on UnionDays, we dive into the legal case that outlawed computer-based working practices that were literally crippling our members. How could the employer not take action? And what happened after the media scrum outside the court room died away? Out on 8 June.
Access this and also episode 1 at bit.ly/UnionDays. Thanks for in anticipation for listening, sharing , reviewing and rating!
1 At national level there will be elected representatives sitting on a National Executive (or equivalent) Committee, and there will also be Officers, or full-time officials. Crudely speaking, the NEC make policy, and the officers are the civil servants who carry it out and otherwise advise.