Organising 101 - Dave Smith

A series of workplace organising tips, with a particular focus on health and safety, by Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group. This series was first published by Hazards Magazine.

01. Using flower power at work

On a TUC training course I was running, a union rep told a story about one of her members who had reached the final stage of the company sickness monitoring procedure. There was no denying that the woman had a poor sick record but her absences were due to ongoing hospital treatment following a workplace injury two years earlier. Despite the rep quoting employment law, the managers were not impressed. The worker had gone over the trigger levels and it looked certain that she would be dismissed under the capability procedure.

The final stage hearing was to take place on Friday. The rep spent Wednesday and Thursday going round to all the co-workers, explaining what was happening and asking if they would put in a pound to buy a card. The rep bought a bunch of flowers and an oversized ‘Get Well Soon’ card, the kind of the thing that your lovestruck teenage son buys his first girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.

On Friday, five minutes before the hearing was to take place, all of the workers turned up outside the HR office. There were hugs all round as the sick woman was presented with the giant card and flowers, with the managers who were hearing the case forced to wait in the corridor until the impromptu ceremony was over. The meeting finally started five minutes late, the manager’s opening remarks were: “OK, we get your point.” The appeal was granted and the member was referred to occupational health, with reasonable adjustments to her job implemented a few weeks later.

You know all the co-workers who had signed the card or put in their pound told the story to whoever would listen about how they had saved the worker’s job. Not the rep but them - the workers. Now that is what union organising is all about.

02. A walk in the park

Some time ago, I was training safety reps on how to carry out workplace inspections. It was a sunny day, so we took a short walk to a local park to put the theory into practice. In a five minute inspection the 12 new reps identified some low hanging branches and a pile of dog's mess on a section of uneven paving slabs.

I was sceptical and asked if anyone had talked to any of the ground maintenance workers. The answer was "no". So we wandered over to the Tudor Lodge where the park keepers were based. When we asked if there were any safety issues worth reporting the response from the keeper was, “no, not really.”

After we persuaded him that we were not from management, he reconsidered. “Well, except that I get assaulted about twice a day, usually when we have to get people to leave the park late at night.” He then pointed to an axe mark in the Tudor door frame where he had been attacked the week before.

We looked inside the medieval building crammed full of gardening tools and a rep asked: "It's much smaller than I imagined, where is your toilet?” The answer was: “There isn't one. I have to use McDonald’s across the road.”

By now he was opening up. “My first job every morning is to walk round the park benches picking up the syringes which appear overnight.” After a few minutes we found out that he was employed via an agency, worked a 14-hour shift during the summer and had no way of communicating with his office because the walkie-talkie had been broken for months.

A short conversation with a park worker, uncovered issues around potential needlestick injuries, training needs, excessive hours, welfare facilities and assaults. Without any input from the workforce, the safety report was useless. What is the most important thing to remember when becoming a union safety rep? Make sure you spend most of your time talking to people!

03. If you want to win, you better listen

I was working with a union branch where the council housing stock - and 300 of its members - were being outsourced to a private housing association. The union had been in consultation to protect the terms and conditions of affected workers, as required by the TUPE regulations. But everyone knew examples of privatisations where, down the line, contracts and safety conditions had got much worse.

Contractors could get away with it because unions and reps were unwilling to take a stand or were ineffective. Here, a union ‘Know Your Legal Rights’ meeting addressed by a renowned lawyer attracted just a handful. The branch committee had all but given up any hope of fighting the privatisation or having any reps in place post-transfer.

At the next the branch committee meeting we set every rep one simple task - go back to where they worked and sound out what workers were moaning about. The clear winner… car parking.

Everyone got free car parking. It was safe and cheap. Would they have to pay a fiver a day to park? Or would it mean parking in the street about a mile away and walking to work through a poorly lit, less salubrious part of town? This was a genuine safety issue – safer access and egress is the legal responsibility of the employer. It was also an issue of their contractual rights.

Did we then rely on the negotiators to quote the law and sort it out? Like hell! The reps organised another meeting: ‘Defend your car parking from attack’. One hundred and twenty people turned up. Before the next consultation meeting, management was falling over themselves to reassure the union that the car parking was safe. It was what the union did outside the negotiations that was critical.

The 120 people angry about their car parking elected a group of new reps prepared to act as ‘temporary TUPE reps’ in the run up to the transfer. We didn’t just win the issue, we found out what workers were angry about, mobilised the membership and built the union. Quoting the law was secondary.

04. Blocking roads and turning a corner

Junior doctors closed the road outside Downing Street. Firefighters brought traffic to a standstill in Parliament Square. Construction workers with a giant inflatable rat shut down Park Lane. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, explains why blocking roads has become a great way to make bad employers change direction.

On a cold wintry day in 2015, a young electrician was sacked on the Crossrail project after he had raised complaints about unsafe access routes on the building site. His union, Unite, attempted to negotiate his reinstatement but the Bond Street station contract was run by two of construction's notorious blacklisting companies and they didn't want to know.

At short notice the Blacklist Support Group called a protest outside the site entrance. When around 30 people had turned up, one of these concerned members of the public pressed the button on the pedestrian crossing and we waited for the lights to change. Once the traffic was safely stopped, we walked into the road, taking our banners with us. And stayed there. This was Oxford Street. During evening rush hour.

In less than a minute, one of the most famous shopping roads in the world was in total gridlock. Suddenly everyone wanted to know us. Shoppers cheered our speeches about taxpayers’ money being paid to firms that mistreat their workforce. Bus drivers stuck in the jam took our flyers apologising for the delay but explaining about the major safety issue on a London transport project. Importantly, people were instantly posting photos of our banners and placards to Twitter and Facebook. We were trending within minutes.

The Met's finest finally arrived half an hour later - the police vans couldn't get through the traffic. Were we nicked? No. We have a democratic right to protest in this country and blocking a road does not result in instant arrest. Instead police officers are required to ask everyone present a series of questions, known as the 'five steps'. “Can we assist your protest? Do you realise that there are consequences if you continue?”

During the few minutes it takes to talk through the series of warnings, we continued to entertain the ever increasing crowd of shoppers who were now watching the spectacle unfold. We were peaceful and polite throughout and just before the 5th and final warning, we took a democratic vote whether to finish our protest. It was unanimous. Partly because we had achieved our aims of raising publicity and partly because it was absolutely freezing cold. Not a single person was arrested.

The whole thing was caught on video from start to finish and uploaded to YouTube, appearing on media websites almost immediately. Civil disobedience is all about publicity, it is pointless if no one knows about it.

The outcome of our mischief? The employer rang the Unite union official even before we took the vote tosuspend the protest and the electrician was immediately reinstated on full pay pending further negotiations. We went to the pub to celebrate our 30 minute victory.

Somewhere in that episode there is probably a few lessons to be learnt. Be bold but act collectively. We're not looking for martyrs. We don't want anyone arrested or to lose their job. But done properly, low level civil disobedience can have a huge impact on a dispute and give a big morale boost to union members.

One person standing in the middle of the road risks getting run over. When an organised group takes to the tarmac, it can quickly set a campaign on the right road.

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Be bold but act collectively. We're not looking for martyrs. We don't want anyone arrested or to lose their job. But done properly, low level civil disobedience can have a huge impact on a dispute and give a big morale boost to union members.
Dave Smith

05. Getting bugged by hot-desking

Hot-desking – where do I start? The latest money saving idea that means office workers are not allowed their own desk anymore but everyone has to fight over the communal computer monitors in a big open plan workspace. Goodbye family photos and postcards that make work a little bit more bearable. Hello soulless corporate mono-culture. As for having a place to store all your paperwork (or even your favourite tea bags), forget it.

Of course, workers hate it. As well as dehumanising the work environment, there are health and safety issues. If no one is guaranteed the same computer every day, is a brand new DSE risk assessment supposed to take place every single day? If workers now have to carry all their documents with them wherever they go, is this a new manual handling hazard? And as anyone who has had to share a public computer with hundreds of other people will testify, what about communicable diseases? That keyboard you are tapping away at isn’t just used by you, it’s been sneezed over and had food crumbs spilled on it by god knows how many people. Oh and by the way, the cleaners are under strict instructions not to clear rubbish from the desks.

As is often the case, lots of people are moaning but what is the union going to do about it? One of my favourite tactics was from a group of safety reps in a north London council who decided to get their members involved by using an idea from off the telly. Who remembers that reality TV programme, ‘How clean is your house?’, where Kim and Aggie used to do a deep clean of someone’s home. Most weeks seemed to involve taking swabs of the built up grime from a manky cooker in student digs. The swabs would then be sent to a lab and the cultures grown in a petri dish. In the last scene of the programme a list of harmful germs and spores would be revealed – all of which would be potentially lethal. We did ‘How clean is your hot-desk?’.

Every rep got trained up in how to correctly use the swabs and the week before the quarterly safety inspection, an email was sent telling members that the union would be conducting a safety sampling exercise. All on the same day, the safety reps went out and people were queuing up to get their desks swabbed. Everyone was talking about it. One of the safety reps was a lab technician in a 6th form and the swabs were taken back for the A-level chemistry students to practice with. This is all perfectly legal under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations, and if your workplace does not have access to a chemistry lab, then the regulations require the employer to provide facilities and assistance in this kind of thing.

It takes a while for the cultures to grow but as you can imagine, the union was being contacted by their members almost on a daily basis to find out what the results were. It’d been a long time since publication of a report by safety reps had generated quite so much interest amongst the workforce. Full colour photographs of bacteria are not a pretty picture. Alongside a list of long Latin names and their possible health effects, the next union safety newsletter caused uproar. At the next meeting of the safety committee, hot desking was the first item on the agenda.

06. Something for the weekend

On building sites, long hours and weekend working are the norm. I've lost count of the times I fell out with a site manager, arguing that if they only paid me single time on a Saturday morning, I’d barely be making any money after paying for train fares, breakfast and tax. But in a casualised industry where most of the workers are employed via agencies, the response was often, “if you don't want to work Saturday, don't bother coming in on Monday.” Even if I did cut a deal, the foreman would say keep if to myself - he was doing me a favour. This never sat well with me.

On one site, the foreman came into the canteen on Thursday morning and announced a big concrete pour was scheduled for Sunday and everyone was expected to work all weekend. I'm halfway out of my seat ready to have a row when this old carpenter next to me grabs my arm and whispers “sit down young 'un.” Nothing is said and the foreman leaves the hut. Over the next 20 minutes, I watch this fella go round and quietly chat to the 20 other workers on the job.

When the foreman came back into the hut at lunchtime, the old hand casually says “sorry, but me and most of the others are on a stag do and won't be able to make it.” The foreman looks straight at him and then asks everyone else, “is that right?” Most nod. One or two say, “yes, it's been planned for a while.” The foreman knew it was all bollocks but after he couldn’t bully anyone into agreeing to work all weekend, he left the hut.

By Friday morning, we’ve all been offered double time for Saturday and Sunday, with a guarantee that we'll be given more notice in the future. No need for shouting and hollering, no need for one person to be a martyr. Lesson learned: Being prepared to challenge the manager is important - but getting all the workers to support you is often decisive.

07. Find a friend

A workplace may be seriously unhealthy, but it’s frequently only budgets, deadlines and margins in the must-do column for senior management. A solitary union rep quoting Hazards magazine is unlikely to change that. A lone voice is easy to ignore, particularly when the company board is more fixated on a healthy profit than a healthy workforce.

When it comes to organising around workplace health and safety, the key to success is recognising that unions are collective organisations. That means individual reps can’t do it all on their own, we need support. But where to start?

My suggestion for new reps is to get a big piece of paper and draw a plan of the workplace divided into different departments.

Take retail workers. I have done a lot of work with the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, organising in the major supermarket chains. The very large superstores employ up to 1,000 people, with a 24/7 shift pattern. A rep has to consider the aisles, warehouse, deli counter, bakery and tills but not forgetting the canteen, office, car park or security. Don’t worry if it’s not to scale – identifying the different sections, locations or shifts is the important bit.

Next, ask yourself two simple questions. What are the issues? And do I have any friends?

What are the safety issues people working in each department complain about? If the rep works on checkout for example, common issues are lack of breaks, broken seats, RSI and abuse from customers.

We tend to know everything about areas we work in ourselves but much less about other parts of the business. Are there different issues affecting night shift workers in the warehouse? Blocked fire exits? Faulty roll-cages? Cold temperatures? What about the admin workers based in the office?

Then, work out who your friends are. Is there anyone in each department who is particularly sympathetic towards the union? Not just a union member, but someone who is always prepared to chat with the rep or who has raised concerns in the past.

If you don’t immediately know the answer, don’t make it up, just leave it blank. Whenever safety reps try this for the first time, there are inevitably gaps in knowledge. Don’t worry, that is the point of the exercise, to highlight where we need to do more work.

Over the next few weeks, wherever a gap exists, make a point of visiting that particular department or shift. Introduce yourself and get a few pointers about the ongoing health or safety concerns that only workers on that section would know about.

By patiently chatting with people over a period of time, the rep raises the profile of the union and its likely that that will lead to them recruiting a few new members in the process. But it will also uncover workers’ concerns. This means when reps talk to management in the future, they are talking about issues their members are really interested in.

Just as importantly, the process will identify a few people who are real allies. An informal network of union members a rep can discuss ideas with, who might be prepared to help out at a big staff meeting if the rep needs someone to back them up. Remember, it’s easy for management to ignore one person, it’s more difficult to ignore lots of people all making the same point.

In union organising, we call this process ‘mapping’. If you were training to be an army officer at Sandhurst, they would call it reconnaissance. It’s simple, it’s non-confrontational but it really pays dividends in the long run. Give it a go.


Hazards mapping webpages.
Hazards organising webpages.
TUC health and safety organising guide.

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08. Just ask what workers want

I was working with a union branch that had completed a detailed online safety survey. It started with about 10 standard personal information questions. Followed by 30 questions that asked members to grade from 1-10 how they felt about every possible safety issue. Followed by another 30 questions about options for solving the problems. The survey was certainly thorough. But barely anyone filled it in.

It needed a rethink. Firstly, anything that takes up more than one page of A4 is usually too long. Secondly, only ask questions that are going to be of some use in your negotiations with management. I asked the branch committee: ‘What safety issues do your members regularly come to you complaining about?’ Once we had identified 15 issues, that was effectively the survey form finished.

At the top of the form was the union logo and a short introduction: ‘In the next 12 months, the union will be negotiating with management on the following safety issues: please tick the three that are most important to you’. Below this we listed the 15 issues that the reps had identified. It is important to limit the choices or workers may tick every box and the survey becomes pointless.

At the bottom we asked people to tell us the department they worked in. A small number of complaints about a hazard becomes more significant if they all come from one part of the workplace.

Finally, workers wanting more information had the option to add their name. This is a great way of spotting workers who might be prepared to help out in the future.

I asked reps to personally hand out the survey forms. The forms took no more than 20 to 30 seconds to complete. One week later, we had over 300 responses. Because the reps had done this face-to-face, the union profile had been raised. Collating the information was simple and the union was able to identify concerns members were really angry about and that required action. Union organising needn’t be complicated.

09. You gotta fight for your right to safety

The 40th anniversary of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations (SRSC) is a time to look back at what has been achieved. We should take pride that fatalities and accident rates have reduced significantly over the past four decades. Back in the 1970s, one building worker was killed in an industrial accident every working day. Thankfully that figure has now been cut by around 75 per cent.

But just as anti-discrimination laws did not eradicate racism or sexism, workplace health and safety did not automatically improve because of a change in legislation. Amending the statute book is one thing, making progress in the real world is quite another. We had to fight for everything that has been achieved. It took hard work by an army of volunteer safety reps who have worked tirelessly to improve the working conditions on behalf of their fellow workers.

The sight of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and employers patting themselves on the back for the improvement in workplace safety is therefore more than a bit galling. Some employers recognise the value of a reality check and have been willing to collaborate with unions: We thank them for it and hope that others will follow their lead.

Bloody ignorance

But after 40 years, far too many employers still haven’t seen the light and the result for working people can be devastating. As well as the memorable disasters that have stuck in the public consciousness such as Grenfell, Kings Cross and Piper Alpha, there have been countless smaller tragedies that shattered families. When things go wrong, time and again, coroners’ courts or official reports flagged up where employers deliberately cut corners to save money or completely ignored repeated complaints by the workforce.

Safety reps were not just ignored; we were ridiculed by politicians and the mainstream media and in some cases vindictively targeted by big business. The blacklisting of safety reps in construction is so well documented that it has become part of union mythology, but victimisation was not restricted to the building industry. Teachers, carers, train drivers, dinner ladies, engineers and factory workers have all been unfairly dismissed after complaining on behalf of their fellow workers.

Fighting the fear

Attacking safety reps creates a climate of fear in which other workers are less likely to raise legitimate concerns. The result has been the continued plague of hidden, long-term occupational diseases from cancer, respiratory problems and musculoskeletal disorders to stress and other mental health conditions. Workers’ Memorial Day acts as an annual reminder of the devastation caused when profit is considered more important than the safety of workers.

We should remember that nothing in the world ever changes for the better just because it should. Progress happens because human beings make a fuss. Over 100 years ago, Victorian factory inspectors identified that asbestos was killing people; scientists confirmed this time and again throughout the twentieth century. But it took construction workers on the Barbican refusing to install the deadly fibre, libel cases and staff in schools across the country to collectively decide to refuse to work with asbestos, before the politicians took notice.

It was only in 1999, after a high profile campaign by trade unions and safety campaigners, that the UK finally banned the importation of asbestos. During the intervening decades, hundreds of thousands of workers suffered slow painful deaths.

Despite 40 years of the SRSC regulations, in some ways we are now going backwards. The complete lack of legal rights for the ever-increasing precarious workforce is a regression to the conditions of early industrial capitalism, turning those forced to work via employment agencies, on zero hours contracts, false self-employment or in the gig economy into second class citizens when it comes to employment rights and workplace safety.

On my desk at work I have a purple sticker that reads ‘casualisation kills’. It was produced by the Simon Jones Memorial Campaign in 1998 after a young student was killed on his first day at work in Shoreham docks. Nearly 20 years later, the deregulation of many of the functions previously carried out by the HSE, means that the docks are now considered a low risk sector where the employers effectively police themselves.

Collective power

We need to remind ourselves that we are not just safety reps: we are union safety reps. Our strength comes from working collectively with our co-workers, not from our ability to quote the law. The more we see ourselves as an integral part of the trade union movement and concentrate our energies on consciously involving workers in safety initiatives, the more likely we are to achieve fundamental change.

At our best, unions are part of a wider movement to improve the living conditions for working people by bringing about fundamental change in issues such as fairness, equality and the environment. Every trade union safety rep, the Construction Safety Campaign, Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), the asbestos victims’ networks, all those who participated in the Hazards movement; every single one of you have played a part in improving the society we live in.

On the 40th anniversary of safety reps, take pride in what we have achieved together but never forget in boardrooms profit counts and gets counted, not bodies. You don’t get given health and safety, you fight for and win it.

10. 'Imagine you're a tree'

I recently attended a workshop on tackling stress in the workplace. Half way through, the trainer asked everyone to stand up and close our eyes. “I want you to imagine you’re a mighty oak tree. Hold your arms in the air as if they are branches and slowly sway them from side to side. Can you feel the wind rustling the leaves?”

After a couple of minutes of listening to a CD playing birdsong, the punchline of the session was that whenever we felt stressed at work, we should take some time out and practice this relaxation technique. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a quirky one off, only worth mentioning when cracking a joke, it’s part of a developing pattern.

For the past few years there has been a growing trend amongst health and safety professionals to promote ‘well-being’. This movement claims to improve workers’ health by encouraging a series of lifestyle changes, often with the explicit support of employers who provide financial incentives. Well-being and mindfulness have almost become a crusade with advocates zealously claiming that illnesses such as cancers and especially mental health conditions, can be significantly reduced by workers making a few relatively minor alterations to how they live their lives.

Just to be clear, every union I know is in favour of more fruit in the staff canteen, keep fit sessions at lunchtime or programmes that encourage quitting smoking or cycling to work. However, to claim that these well-being programmes can eradicate the death toll caused by occupational diseases or are the silver bullet that will defeat the huge increase in stress and associated mental health conditions in the workplace is a dangerous fantasy.

Workers develop occupational diseases because of the work they carry out. Musculoskeletal disorders and cancers do not occur in a random distribution across the entire population, they tend to appear in clusters. And in the vast majority of cases they are based upon what individuals have been exposed to either in their working lives or local communities.

Those who are forced to work in dusty environments have a greater incidence of respiratory problems; the same is true for working class children who live close to busy pollution filled roads. Workers who carry out heavy lifting or bend over all day as part of their job are much more likely to have a bad back. Ask any teacher how a proposed OFSTED inspection affects the mental health of the staff in a school.

The way to reduce long term ill-health in the workplace is by correctly identifying the hazards that are causing the problems and then systematically tackling them at source. That is the essence of the risk assessment process.

Unfortunately, rather than tackling the underlying causes of ill-health, the current fad for well-being leaves all the workplace hazards exactly as they are. On their own, however well meaning, these programmes appear to shift the responsibility for a worker’s ill-health from the employer to the worker. In many cases these initiatives are part of a concerted campaign by employers to blame the workers rather than spend money by tackling the health and safety issues at source.

If austerity means that staffing levels have been cut and workload has increased, that has an entirely predictable negative effect upon workers’ health. By all means promote healthy eating - but if the supervisor is constantly chasing you to get something finished by a completely unachievable deadline, thinking you’re an oak tree isn’t going to make an acorn’s worth of difference.

11. How to stress-test your workplace

A management preoccupation with budgets, deadlines, targets and profit margins means every safety rep will sometimes come into conflict with their managers. Highlighting safety issues that bosses would prefer to overlook is what being a conscientious safety rep is all about.

Our ability to improve conditions in the workplace is not reliant on the support of a benevolent employer but the backing of our co-workers. So, it is vital that safety reps continually spend time talking to the members. It is too easy to over estimate how much support we really have. It is one thing for workers to agree with their safety rep, it is quite another for them to stand up to management when it counts. It is worth periodically checking our level of support.

Following the financial crash of 2008, the big banks that have operated for decades and remain profitable are now required to undergo periodic ‘stress tests’ to check the viability of what they were doing. Union safety reps wishing to find out to what extent their fellow workers are prepared to stick together should carry out stress tests of their own, especially when you think that management are refusing to deal with a serious safety issue.

One of the most basic tests is an open letter. First, set yourself a target to test how much backing you can muster: 75 per cent of the workers in a particular department within a two-week period is a useful benchmark. Then come up with a simple, easily understood demand. I’ve seen safety reps call for the reinstatement of a kettle and microwave in the staff restroom. Keep it simple.

Once you hit your target number of signatures, the next step is to publicly deliver the message. My preferred option is to ask all the workers to join the safety rep in handing the open letter to a senior manager. The mere act of walking together as a group to the manager’s office and standing alongside the safety rep when presenting the letter helps to cement that sense of collective cohesion. It also sends a big message to the management about the strength of feeling on the issue.

12. Unreasonable behaviour

As trade unionists, we don’t want any workers to finish their shift any less healthy than when they started it. Regrettably when employers think about health and safety, they’re largely concerned with what they need to do to comply with legal minimums and how much it will cost.

We are clearly coming at it from different angles. We want to save lives; they want to save money. It’s hardly surprising that safety reps and managers regularly disagree. It’s at this point that reps often resort to quoting the law. Unfortunately, much of health and safety law is riddled with the words ‘suitable’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘reasonable’. What workers consider reasonable is often completely at odds with what their manager thinks.

The Health and Safety at Work Act doesn’t require an employer to make the workplace as safe as possible. Instead employers only have to make it as safe as ‘reasonably practicable’. They weigh up how much a safety measure will cost them against how much they consider it will improve the safety of their staff. Workplace safety is effectively a cost/benefit analysis for employers. It always comes down to money.

A few years ago, workers toiled on the new Wembley Stadium through a really hot summer. Without any shade down at pitch level, temperatures rocketed and the construction workers on site were suffering in the heat. The union asked for additional breaks and clean drinking water points to be set up around the site, even calling in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) at one point.

But as some water taps already existed on the site and there is no legal maximum working temperature, there was nothing in the law that explicitly required the contractors to put any new measures in place, so they didn’t. The workers’ response was to down tools and refuse to leave the site canteen until the safety issue was resolved.

The cost/benefit analysis calculations had suddenly changed. Compared to the loss in production, the cost of clean drinking water was now considered to be extremely reasonable by the employers. Workers acting together got results that relying on the law couldn’t. It’s something we should all remember.

13. Check your make-up

I recently worked with a group of union safety reps at a large distribution depot who ran a campaign for cheaper tampons in the women’s toilets. Night shift workers were not allowed to leave the premises and even if they could, there were no shops open for miles, leaving women needing to shell out £1 for a single tampon from a workplace vending machine. Workers had moaned about it for ages but nothing was done until the election of a female safety rep.

Different groups of workers have different health and safety priorities, that’s pretty obvious. So for unions to genuinely articulate staff’s safety concerns, we need to ensure that we represent the full diversity of the workforce. Yet the 2018 TUC survey of safety reps found that they were overwhelmingly white men over the age of 35 who have worked for the same employer for a number of years.

There are a number of issues that specifically affect women such as the menopause or lactation breaks for breastfeeding mothers. Last minute changes to shift patterns can be a nightmare for anyone with caring responsibilities. Sexual harassment of young female staff was one of the key complaints of the McStrikers (Hazards 143). All of these are safety issues that unions should be raising with employers.

Safety is improved by working together collectively, which means recognising that union safety structures need input from the full range of workers voices. We can all identify certain groups of workers who are underrepresented.

Be honest, does your safety committee reflect the make up of the workforce? Not just in terms of gender or racial balance – are young people, shiftworkers, migrants workers or temps represented? What about workers who have English as a second language?

Ideally unions would like a safety rep for different groups of under-represented staff in a workplace, or at least a network of ‘contacts’ that could feed into our safety procedures. But nothing happens spontaneously, safety reps need to make a deliberate effort to talk to our co-workers, especially those whose voices are not often heard. The process starts by being conscious that equality and diversity have safety implications for trade unions.

14. Pilot study

When the airline pilots’ union BALPA carried out bodymapping exercises with flight crew members, neck and shoulder pain was highlighted repeatedly in bright marker pen splodges on the body maps. What was striking was the direct correlation between rank and the side of neck that was painful. Captains suffered pain on one side of the neck and First Officers in the other. What was the cause?

Aviation rules changed after 9/11 and flight deck doors are now locked during flights, only opened once the pilot has looked at a video screen to check who is asking to enter the cockpit. The video screens are placed by the door, which is behind the pilots, forcing them to twist in their seats whenever they check the video screen. As Captains always sit in the left-hand seat and the First Officer in the right seat, they twist in different directions, resulting in the pain occurring in different sides of the body.

The evidence is compelling and obvious – and importantly doesn’t require the safety reps to have any kind of specialist medical expertise. In some airlines, BALPA has already negotiated successfully for the screens to be moved to a position in front of the pilots, removing the hazard causing the health problem altogether.

Safety reps are legally entitled to paid time off to carry out regular inspections of the workplace, to proactively identify health and safety issues. There is absolutely no reason why bodymapping cannot be carried out as a form of inspection. If you’ve never done a bodymapping exercise with the workers you represent, give it a try.

See the full ‘Pilot study’ photofile.

15. 'All together now'

One of the main strengths of union safety reps is that in the workplace we are the genuine voice of the workers we represent. Whether through regular inspections, investigations after accidents or raising concerns at safety committees, union safety reps are a reality check, bringing issues that affect workers directly to the attention of the employers.

The system works because we are part of the workforce and responsibility for the problems with health and safety at work lies with the employer. If a company boss reduces staffing to dangerous levels or refuses to provide adequate welfare facilities, organising workers to collectively apply pressure on their boss can result in immediate tangible improvements.

But in many situations, the underlying reason for the safety problem does not only lie with a particular employer. If laws need to change, we need to influence Westminster, not a manager in our own firm. That means union safety reps need to link together with others across an entire industry, exerting pressure and organising meetings to build a network of activists able to mobilise both inside their own workplace but also collectively across multiple employers.

This is nothing new. In 1988 following the Piper Alpha tragedy in which 167 offshore workers were killed due to Occidental Petroleum cutting corners to boost profits, safety reps across the North Sea organised the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) to demand proper safety on oil rigs. In the same year, rank and file building workers set up the Construction Safety Campaign (CSC) as a response to the three deaths a week taking place in the industry.

There are many other examples in the docks, railways, amongst postal workers and in the campaign to get asbestos banned. All these campaigns started with a small group of safety reps talking to each other about organising some kind of joint protest, which developed into bigger collective mobilisations.

So, whether at conferences or training courses, on the phone or via social media, I’m challenging safety reps to start talking to each other again and set up new initiatives for this generation. I’m looking forward to seeing direct action over safety back in the news.

16. Bright Sparks

Health and safety wasn’t handed to us on a plate by benevolent employers or far-sighted politicians, says Hazards organising expert Dave Smith. For centuries, workers fought for safer workplaces. ‘Builder’s Crack’, a newly rediscovered film, reveals how sharing our organising successes and strategies is safety critical.

In 2020, everyone has a video camera on their phone and unions use film routinely as an integral part of their campaigning. But only 20 years ago, long before anyone had heard of ‘social media’, it was virtually unheard of.

Countless acts of individual heroism against hostile employers and collective action by workers in offices, factories and hospitals are mostly hidden from history. So, the rediscovery of a long lost film about union organising on building sites in the 1990s is a rare treat from the archive.

Builders Crack: The Movie’ tells the story of the London Joint Sites Committee (JSC), a rank and file network of bricklayers, electricians, carpenters and painters who took a stand over deaths on building sites and attacks on workers’ rights - and won. The digitally remastered film along with a Q&A with the film makers and safety activists who appear in the documentary is now available to watch on YouTube.

The film shows Tony O’Brien of the Construction Safety Campaign interviewed on BBC News after a tower crane at Canary Wharf crashed 25 storeys killing three workers. Another scene shows hundreds of building workers in hard hats and hi-viz on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, having walked off nearby building sites to attend a vigil for a worker killed in a fall down an unguarded lift shaft.

But instead of being sombre, the film is uplifting, documenting how building workers came together to save lives by fighting back against attempts by bosses to cut corners. One electrician, Steve, describes a safety dispute after workers were told to change and store their clothes in an old shipping container that had previously stored barrels of oil. The dispute was the spark that led to the unionisation of the Jubilee Line – possibly the best organised project in UK construction for the past 40 years.

Another electrician, Jim, recalls how a coordinated walk out by thousands of electricians across the country stopped the major employers’ attempt to allow untrained non-qualified workers to carry out electrical work. In another memorable scene, a bricklayer puts his skills to good use by bricking up the entrance to the construction employers’ headquarters, while senior executives of firms who blacklisted union safety reps met inside.

Yet these large scale mobilisations of construction workers did not happen overnight or spontaneously. They took conscious organisation. Throughout the film, the JSC activists explain the need to do the “nitty gritty work” of patiently talking to workers, finding out their concerns and giving them confidence to “believe in themselves”.

And it worked. Even with the UK’s anti-union laws, JSC activists armed with their notorious fanzine ‘Builder’s Crack’ were still able to lead a succession of successful actions from 1991 until 2005. This was an organic rank and file model of union organising, in which workers’ safety was a central plank.

Whether it be non-existent welfare facilities, asbestos, workers sacked for raising concerns about safety on site or unpaid wages, the JSC strove to unite workers irrespective of their employer, union, trade or race. As another former JSC activist, Steve Hedley – currently the RMT acting general secretary – makes clear, while bosses may use racism as a means to divide and rule the workforce: “We must never fall into that trap. A victory for one is a victory for all.”

While ‘Builders Crack: The Movie’ documents the activities of the JSC, there is a long tradition of grassroots union organising led by adhoc networks of construction workers rather than the official union structures, that are constrained by the most restrictive legislation in Western Europe.

A bricklayer, Paul, commented, that the JSC was “not there to replace the unions, it’s more like an auxiliary”, able to carry out actions that the unions couldn’t. This could equally apply to the Building Workers Charter in the 1960 and '70s, Building Worker Group in the 1980s, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee that organised occupations of oil rigs in the North Sea after the Piper Alpha disaster, the Construction Safety Campaign, right up to the Construction Rank and File today.

As the film maker Darren O’Grady says in the introduction to the YouTube video, “these stories of working class struggle need to be told”. But its not just construction or in the past. Appearing in the Q&A after the film, Unite safety rep and bus driver, Moe Manir explained how despite being divided into different companies due to privatisation, rank and file workers in London were using Facebook as an organising tool to improve safety for drivers during Covid. “The Facebook groups became our canteen”, he said. A single consolidated “group for London buses now has over 4,500 members.”

Professor Jane Holgate, a Leeds University employment relations expert, highlighted that as far back as New Unionism in the 1880s it was rank and file union activity amongst precarious workers that often led "the real fights that take place.”

Yes, the re-release of Builders Crack reminds us of our heritage, but two decades after the Canary Wharf Tower crane crash, another tower crane collapsed just a mile away in Bow. With the increase in workplace fatalities and neoliberal attacks on workers’ rights, the union movement does not need nostalgia: it needs to debate how best to respond to the massive attacks that are heading our way.

Rediscovering the tradition of rank and file militancy should be part of the debate about how to defend jobs, wages and safety standards. Yet as a Scottish labourer Chris Clarke reflects at the film’s conclusion: “Sure it’s about being safe on site and having a few extra quid in your pocket, but its also about human dignity.”

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In another memorable scene, a bricklayer puts his skills to good use by bricking up the entrance to the construction employers’ headquarters, while senior executives of firms who blacklisted union safety reps met inside.
Dave Smith

17. Corporate capture

Every country and pan-national organisation has almost sacred texts that grant fundamental rights. These documents are supposed to guarantee the right to life, to protect workers from discrimination, and the planet from climate catastrophe. Yet in every country in the world, workers are dying, discrimination is rife and the environment is being destroyed.

What is written on paper and what happens in real life are too often two completely different things. Flowery words in a legislative chamber don’t help much when the boss is more interested in making a profit than complying with legal minimum standards. What is needed isn’t just rights, but their enforcement.

Unfortunately, when it comes to health and safety, the public enforcing authorities have become completely neutered by the conscious involvement of big business in statutory decision making structures. This is corporate capture: major corporations are literally writing the laws that apply to them and advising the enforcing authorities about what should and shouldn’t result in prosecution.

Arconic, the multinational that makes the flammable cladding responsible for the Grenfell tragedy, advised the UK government on the relaxation of Building Regulations for its own products, even bragging about it on the company website. The Office of Rail and Road regulator is literally paid for by the major rail companies. Just as the airline industry finances the Civil Aviation Authority, a body that publicly acknowledges its intention not to be a proactive regulator.

Whole swathes of the British economy are now allowed to self-regulate when it comes to safety, including patently dangerous sectors such as the docks. Tesco and other major supermarkets sit on a panel that decides whether prosecutions of safety violations in the sector are in the public interest. Unsurprisingly, this has seen legal action against retail giants dropped.

Rather than defending workers’ fundamental right to life, the HSE repeatedly sides with business against tougher regulation, whether that be over silica dust or organic spores in industrial scale composting facilities. Any pretence of acting as a champion for working people has been jettisoned by the HSE, which is now firmly in the pocket of powerful vested interests.

Never has this been more apparent than during coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, the HSE has not prosecuted a single employer for endangering their workforce, this is despite workplaces being repeatedly identified as the centres of outbreaks. Official government guidelines for safe working in industry have been outsourced to the major employers in each sector.

The Construction Leadership Council, a body comprising representatives of the major construction firms that fund the Conservative Party and blacklist union safety reps, has been made responsible for drawing up the ‘Site Operating Procedures’. Now on Version 7, successive revisions of these official guidelines have watered down social distancing and other control measures to ensure construction projects remain open for business.

The enforcing authorities have all but abdicated responsibility for defending workers’ safety, but this is nothing new. Many legal rights in the UK are civil law, which means that rather than the state, it falls to individual workers to enforce their rights by standing up to employers. Yet despite the legal system reinforcing the laughable notion that an employment contract is ‘an agreement between two free and equal parties’, in the real world there is a huge power imbalance between individual workers and employers. Managers who victimise workers who raise concerns about their health and welfare, do it because in most cases they can get away with it.

So even where workers are granted individual rights, it is by acting in unison that workers are more likely to protect themselves and others. The historic action by the National Education Union in encouraging teachers to talk to their colleagues and quote Section 44 of the Employments Rights Act to their managers forced the government to close schools. The lives of thousands of education workers and pupils have been saved, not by the emasculated HSE or even by the letter of the law, but by proactive union organising. That’s a lesson we should all remember from school.