Tips for union reps

Tips for union reps

A great list of tips for union reps coming from a workplace militant with years of experience organising in the public sector.

This appears to have got lost in the great board switchover....

This list of tips for union reps comes out of six years experience of union organising in the public sector. Some of the items are practical, others are more personal. Some of them are things I tried, and which worked. Others are things I wish I’d done better. The basic principle that guides these tips is that a union is its members, not its officials, whether elected or full-time.

Is there a workplace or branch newsletter? If not, start one. See here for more information. Your newsletter is the place to report any small (or large) victories the union might have had, as well as for keeping your co-workers up-to-date on what’s going on in the workplace and in the union. It’s vital that the members see how you spend your time as a union rep – it’s them you’re accountable to, not the union full-time officials, and certainly not your employer. A newsletter is one way of making yourself accountable, and of inviting discussion and comment on how you’re doing your job as a rep.

Circulate the minutes. It’s important that members see what goes on at union meetings. You’re supposed to be doing the business for them, after all.

Make union meetings open to all members, not just reps. Your branch Annual General Meeting (AGM) should be open to all members. Think about extending this to other meetings. If a meeting is open to all members, then it should be relevant and interesting -- and the challenge of making this happen is part of what keeps you accountable. Because if your meetings are not relevant to the members, they don’t deserve to be called union meetings.

Don’t take the piss. If members only get an hour for lunch, you only get an hour for lunch, even if you’re spending the day on union business. If members only get one smoking break in the afternoon, so do you. It’s vital that you don’t use your position as a union rep as a “perk”, even in small ways. If a union meeting finishes early, go back to work until your normal finishing time to see how people are doing.

Make links with other workplaces. Perhaps your members are facing a problem that has cropped up elsewhere in the past. Or maybe something is being tried out in your workplace that could have an impact elsewhere. With recent union mergers, the chances are that there are other workers in your union in the area. Your union headquarters or regional office should be able to give you a list of workplaces where your union has a presence, along with the name of the local union rep. You might think about inviting reps from other workplaces to your meetings, and getting invites to theirs, or about meeting informally. Some unions have “area meetings” for reps. These can be dull, but there’s nothing to stop you trying to liven them up a bit. And if that doesn’t work, there’s nothing to stop you trying to start something yourself.

Be prepared to deal with individual grievances. If you’re a new rep, especially in a newly-unionised workplace, the chances are that a fair few people will come to you with their individual work-related problems. In my experience, these are most commonly to do with levels of sickness absence! You are legally obliged to represent any member who comes to you for assistance. Workers have successfully sued their union when they have been refused representation. However, you are not obliged to represent someone who joins the union because they want help with an already-existing problem. Of course, they’re welcome to join the union, but whether you represent them or not is your call. If in doubt, consult a more experienced rep. The same goes if you feel out of your depth in dealing with a particular grievance. If two union members have a grievance with each other (and it does happen), then you can’t represent both of them. One of them needs to be referred to another rep. It goes without saying that your dealings with an individual member are absolutely confidential.

From individual grievance to collective action. Dealing with individual grievances is a big part of being a union rep, but since you’re reading this on libcom, I’m guessing that’s not why you wanted to be a rep. Keep an eye out to see if a lot of members with the same problem are coming to you. For instance, could the number of people getting warnings for having too much time off sick have anything to do with poor health & safety? Does it seem to be one particular manager who is the problem?

Don’t try to sort everything out. Not only will you drive yourself nuts in the process, it’s not what being a rep is about. People will often talk about “going to the union,” as if it’s something outside themselves. A union is all its members, not just its reps. The only power a union has comes from its members’ preparedness to act.

Don’t agree to anything without consulting the members. It’s not down to you to reach agreements with management, it’s down to the membership. Don’t be railroaded or pressured into accepting anything if you haven’t run it past the members first. If you do, you’re not being very “representative.” Anarcho-syndicalist unions like the CNT don’t have “representatives” at all, they call them “delegates.” This makes it clearer that the only power that a rep has is given to them by the members, to whom they remain accountable at all times.

And lastly… try not to get fired. A decent union rep does a lot more good in their workplace than they would do out of a job. Management will try and wind you up. Don’t rise to it. If you’re tempted to kick off with management, ask yourself, “Who am I doing this for? Is it in the members’ interests, or to make me feel better?”