I have spent quite a few years as an elected union representative (a shop steward as it is more commonly known) and, in that time have been involved in numerous industrial actions, been elected to more senior roles, assisted members achieve tens of thousands of pounds (at least) in compensation for employment tribunal and injury at work claims, and assisted hundreds of workers in trying to solve problems they encounter at work.
A union is a collective endeavour, I wholeheartedly support that and agree that the atomisation of workplace relations is a problem and collective responses by unions are essential, and not just on matters of remuneration. The sad reality is that experience has taught me that whatever ‘zero tolerance’ platitudes an employer bandies about regarding bullying and discrimination they will rarely take action against a manager even after a manager has been found to have engaged in such conduct by independent persons (by an employment tribunal, for example). I fully support a collective approach to such issues but, truth be told, I am personally much more at home assisting members on individual issues (or personal cases as the union parlance puts is) – give me a disciplinary hearing over a members’ meeting or collective consultation any day (most reps, to be fair, take a different view to me)!
That is all by way of preface to me having cause to think about what is, with hindsight, one of the stand-out moments of my union representative experience (so far). It is not the usual subject matter of this site, so I hope you forgive the departure from talk of unfair dismissal, trade union detriment, discrimination and the like which is this site’s ‘bread and butter’.
Instead, I want to introduce you to Esther. Esther (name and some other details changed for privacy reasons) was a quietly spoken women of 60 years of age who immigrated to the UK some twenty years previously. She was what we call a good union member, always voted in elections and ballots, attended meetings, responded to questions etc but, individually, she was introverted and shy, so not a person who would ever raise a complaint meaning she could be taken advantage of by her employer.
For many years Esther worked steady hours of 9.30-5.30 every day, this suited her and allowed her to provide care for her disabled spouse in the mornings when he needed to be dressed/washed and have breakfast prepared. The fact that Esther was a carer was not generally known (she is a quiet soul after all). In the midst of a large restructure (along with many colleagues) her role was lost but, after consultation with me and other union comrades, redundancies were avoided and those who were surplus were to be moved to other roles in a managed move process.
Esther was told she had to move a different role with different working hours, starting at 7.30am every day. Naturally, Esther was upset by this given the effect it would have on her ability to care for her husband. In an unusual (for her) show of resolve Esther spoke to the senior manager about the problem only to be brushed away.
Two weeks later on a Monday morning Esther came to see me to explain her problem, and this was the first time I was aware of the move or the problems this was posing for Esther. I reassured her I was hopeful the union could assist, and a few emails later Esther had had her managed move revoked and replaced with another role in which the hours of work allowed her to continue to care for a spouse. It was probably fifteen minutes work on my part in total, entirely routine and in itself entirely forgettable. And yet here I am many years later still writing about it, why?
Esther took on the new job, everything was problem free, and I did not give the subject a second thought. A little under a year later Esther send me a thank you card for my help. In it she explained how 6 months after my involvement her husband had, completely unexpectantly, died. And then she said how grateful she was for my help – it had, she explained, given her precious additional weeks with her husband every morning. Time that, but for my assistance, would have been taken from her.
The work I did was entirely mundane, the type of work a union rep does frequently and probably on a daily basis. Maybe the issue was potentially a legal one but that it was a million miles from becoming that at the time but was more a case of the soft power of a union I have discussed previously. A run of the mill activity by me, and of the type pretty much every union representative does frequently, and yet a life enhancing impact on a union member. As I reflect on my time as a union representative so far among all the big wins, jobs saved, grievances won, the work I did for Esther is one of my proudest moments.
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