Being a rep

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Apsych's picture
Apsych
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Oct 27 2016 21:47
Being a rep

Here's a thorny one for you. If I work in an organization where everyone is a Unison member, is it worth volunteering as a rep? Has anyone done it?

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fingers malone
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Oct 27 2016 22:19

I'm currently the rep for people on zero hours contracts. I think this is a decision which really depends on your branch, perhaps on your team. If you think you might want to do it, this is my experience (this will vary massively from workplace to workplace though)

Pros of being the rep:

You may get some facility time, or time off to attend training

You can go round talking to people about their jobs and what's happening and it doesn't look weird

you don't have to rely just on personal connection to contact workers, people will ask who the rep is and then get in touch with you

it can give you legitimacy which can be very useful sometimes

You often get to find out what is going on

You can say 'speaking as a union shop steward....' whenever you speak at a public meeting, even if it's totally irrelevant

Cons of being the rep:

Burnout, exhaustion, overwork

People expecting you to do everything on your own

Dealing with workmates having massive stupid rows with each other and expecting you to come and sort it out

risk of victimisation (depends on workplace but can happen)

having to deal with really tricky situations without enough preparation

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Oct 27 2016 22:29

Probably someone will come on and tell you that you will be ordered by the union to make union members cross other unions' picket lines. This is an issue that some people bring up a lot. I just want to say that in 13 years as a union member that's never happened to me and I've never seen it in my workplace which goes on strike all the time. Also reps get told they have to do things or mustn't do things all the time, and they just refuse to comply with it.

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Steven.
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Oct 28 2016 10:06
fingers malone wrote:
Probably someone will come on and tell you that you will be ordered by the union to make union members cross other unions' picket lines. This is an issue that some people bring up a lot.

I must say I've never seen or heard anyone say that.

I'm a union rep, got to dash now but will post some thoughts later

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fingers malone
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Oct 28 2016 11:47

Yeah I used to get it loads on here a few years ago, the search function doesn't work though so sadly I am unable to prove it.

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Oct 28 2016 13:01

I've never experienced it either - though I have seen regional organisers tell rank and file workers who overwhelmingly wanted to strike that they couldn't and the union wasn't going to organise a ballot. Mind you, reps ordering workers to scab did sometimes happened back when unions had a bit more clout... but using it as an argument against anyone becoming a rep is piss poor.

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fingers malone
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Oct 28 2016 13:28

Thanks, it used to really upset me, now I think it was people being really silly.

Yeah the not having a ballot thing has happened to me too, but I don't feel as a rep that I'm implicated in it, I can slag the regional off along with everyone else, I don't feel obliged to defend them.

Spikymike
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Nov 1 2016 19:11

Union rep's have to have the ability to face both ways at once - representing their fellow workers towards the union and the union towards their fellow workers - not simply representing the union and their fellow workers as the supposed same entity towards the employers and managers. It's a tricky function to carry off whilst maintaining radical or pro-revolutionary credentials for any length of time. Maybe worthwhile in some limited situations, for a limited period, to achieve some specific objectives but will suck the life out of you if it becomes a permanent full time activity.

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fingers malone
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Nov 1 2016 20:25

Spikeymike, what do you think are the big differences between doing workplace activity and being the rep, and doing workplace activity but not being the rep

ajjohnstone
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Nov 2 2016 03:57

Can i be the Devil's Advocate.

When i was rep for the CWU, my biggest problem was the selfish attitudes of some of my colleagues up on trivial disciplinary charges of going AWOL to the local pub. They had no concern that they left other colleagues working twice as hard to cover for them by doing the extra work left to them and having to re-arrange their own breaks and job-and-finishes. They were putting at risk all the hard-fought informal working practices that made life easy for all. So when on the rare occasion a manager did catch on to their absences, i was obliged to defend them but truthfully it was hard-going to be conscientious about it compared with protecting those being punished for their sick-record or being victimised by vindictive managers. It was more a case of ensuring that for from the behaviour of a few, the many did not suffer. (some may recall Jimmy Reid's speech back in the 70s during the UCS work-in..."And there will be no bevvying..." He understood the reality and frailties of his fellow workers )

I recall our WRP-member union rep. He was very much personally attached to the work-ethic and lead by example and expected others to share in that devotion. He had little sympathy for shirkers and seldom took their side.

So the question is...where do loyalties sometimes lie when you take on the unenviable job as a union rep?

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Nov 2 2016 09:40

It's always difficult to figure out where bad/negligent workers fit into your politics, I don't think there's an answer to that one. I guess the problem is that even if a worker has done something wrong and needs to change or be punished then management aren't the right people to be doing it, because it shores up manager's power and makes them look legitimate. So if we want self management/dual power then the best solution would be to find some way of protecting all workers (even really shit ones) from management, and protecting their jobs, while simultaneously finding a way of bringing them into line using our own authority in the workplace.

A friend of mine was a Unison rep for a while and he said the same thing, that he spent most of his time defending workers who had done really stupid shit, had clearly breached their contracts and couldn't be helped. It must get pretty demoralising after a while

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Nov 2 2016 13:16

Here are a few thoughts on being a workplace rep though it is some years since I was active in a union.

First the obvious, do not take on the job unless you are prepared to put in the time to master the job. Become an expert of procedures, union and management. Be prepared to make mistakes, as some knowledge only comes through experience. For example many people will try and use you and give you helpful/unhelpful advice. To determine which is which, takes time to become apparent.

It is necessary to like and respect most of your workmates. Where possible express your politics by example not by flag waving. Remember people have their own politics and only welcome ‘new’ ideas on special occasions. If you’re any good as a rep, expect eventually to be approach for recruitment by management or the union bureaucracy. They will hope (as will some of your workmates) that you can be used or negated as a person potentially useful/troublesome.

The job can have its rewards, like eventually winning respect and trust from your workmates. On the other hand, if over time this does not become apparent, then walk away.

Spikymike
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Nov 2 2016 15:06

fingers...
Without disputing some of the valid points made by others on this thread, assessing the usefulness or otherwise of being a (traditional) union rep depends on what you perceive as your function in terms of promoting independent class politics and pro-revolutionary opposition to capitalism as a whole when today's unions are very much wrapped up in promoting sectional interests and the continued reproduction of capitalist social relationships. I think it's what the SolFed for instance talk about when they contrast the 'representative' from the 'associational' function of unions even if they don't necessarily carry that analysis through consistently in their practice in the traditional unions. Certainly when the need arises to escalate class struggle socially and politically that will necessitate going outside and against the trade unions - and any self respecting union rep will then have to make a very rapid change of course to avoid being seen as the 'enemy within'.

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Nov 2 2016 17:23

Lots of good posts on this thread.

I will say that when I was a rep, I was given a letter to give to my Unison colleagues telling them they were to come to work during an NUT strike. We ignored that and joined the picket line, but when I got brought up on a disciplinary for that exact picket line, unison would only defend me if I made it clear I was acting against the intructions of the union.

I won that disciplinary, btw.

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Nov 2 2016 18:00

Well done on that disciplinary.

I remember an occasion when a longterm union rep was on a disciplinary for union activities and the then branch secretary wouldn't defend him as he didn't approve of the disruptive militancy of this rep, so another rep in the branch defended him.

Spikeymike, I would take it for granted that you are going to have regional coming in and shouting at you. However in any situation of class struggle you are, as a bare minimum, probably going to get shouted at quite a bit. I know that unions do have other methods of discipline including fines and that postal workers got fined and threatened with expulsion during Grunwick. However, in my experience at least, most attempts to discipline or reign in shop stewards are not formal, they are more on the level of personal pressure, and that can happen whether you are a rep or not.

I know a rep who was helping workers with unofficial action on their first day as a rep, and was called in by the branch secretary and told off, and is still unanimously voted for every year as a rep with no problems years later.

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Nov 2 2016 18:09
Chilli Sauce wrote:

I will say that when I was a rep, I was given a letter to give to my Unison colleagues telling them they were to come to work during an NUT strike.

I think this is one of the many areas where things massively depend on your branch. I've never been told by my branch to cross a picket line. I know some other workplaces who are in the same union as me where they support members who don't cross the picket line if another union is on strike.

The culture of your workplace and the level of militancy will be the biggest influence on how these issues play out. Most people will sadly be in the position now where if they are victimised because they refuse to cross a picket line they will get no support. However most of these people will also not be members of a union. The problem is more a base level lack of militancy and solidarity.

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Nov 2 2016 21:35

Great discussion--a few weeks ago in comments on a blog post about an IWW campaign, syndicalist talked about the importance of organisers being productive workers. I thought it was an interesting observation and something worth discussing. I think I agree, if only for strategic purposes.

That said, as far as shirking goes, I think there's a fine line between strategic productivity and coming across/sounding/acting like pro-Stakhanovites. I definitely think shirking that shifts the productivity burden to coworkers is antisocial and undermines solidarity. But uniformly dismissing and denouncing shirkers in general can easily fall into a 'workerist' mentality, not far removed from historical CP cadres.

Rachel
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Nov 2 2016 22:29

Great thread with thoughtful contributions. Good list of pros and cons of repping and comments from your experience, Fingers.

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Nov 2 2016 22:34

It's a good point, I think it probably makes a difference that Apsych works in a hospital which is probably particularly difficult.

I have seen some people in the union who are not sympathetic when people have stress problems or anxiety problems caused by work because they think people should just toughen up and that's seriously not helpful. I've also had some health problems caused by anxiety and overwork and people have been really good with me, to be fair. I noticed that I did worry a lot what everyone thought and was upset about 'letting people down' and worried people didn't believe I was really ill.

I have also felt within the union that I have to keep proving myself by working really hard on stuff, both because I am an anarchist but also because I am on the zero hours contract, and historically there has been a lot of tension in the union between zero hours and permanent staff. We have managed to break that down a lot but I still feel like I always need to be proving my worth.

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Nov 2 2016 22:36

I've also seen people make nasty comments when a disabled person has time off work or a parent leaves a staff meeting early because of childcare, other people who feel overworked focus on that person getting an 'easy ride' rather than on challenging overwork together. On this I've actually see the union be really good at tackling that sort of nasty attitude.

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Nov 3 2016 00:22

Apologies for the delay in getting back to this. Is it worth doing… Well really I think it depends on the circumstances.

I'm a rep at my work, which is a local council, and personally in my situation it makes sense.

There are basically two sides to the rep role, one of which is organising, and the other is individual representation.

You can do organising as a rank-and-file worker as well of course. But depending on circumstances being a union rep can be useful in this regard as it can mean you get facility time to do union work, and you have the ability to mass email colleagues, book meeting rooms in work time etc and have legal protection from victimisation.

It is this organising part of the role which has radical potential. Although there is a danger with you being a union rep, in that the better you are as a rep, the more it encourages your fellow workers to rely on "the union" (which they will associate with you) to do things for them. However what I do to try to mitigate this is always stress that "the union" in abstract won't do anything for us, all we can achieve is what we can do for ourselves.

I also do individual representation as a rep, because I have a lot of facility time. I enjoy this on a personal level, as it means I get to help people. However its radical potential is zero. Mostly I help disabled colleagues who get into trouble over sickness absence or performance. Very occasionally you help someone who has done something really bad, at which point you can just do the bare minimum.

If you are going to be a rep, one of our users wrote this guide on how to be a good one a while ago, which is still pretty good: https://libcom.org/blog/tips-union-reps-23082006

Basically as an anarchist/revolutionary, it's vital that you don't go off half cocked and do your own thing. Just do what your members want you to do. Certainly you can try to push people to be more militant, but you can only push them so far. And another key thing is not to focus on the union itself, or union members, but try to bring all workers together as much as possible from all unions/none, including permanent, agency, temporary staff etc.

On shirkers… I think it totally depends on the workplace and the type of work. Obviously in a hospital casualty department shirking will probably be bad. But if you are doing telesales, where basically you are trying to scam pensioners out of their savings, then the more shirking the better.

Certainly though if you want to be a union rep you have to be respected as a worker by your colleagues, being someone who follows through with what they say they will do, and helps people out when they can. Also if you want to avoid victimisation you need to make yourself indispensable to the employer (although there are ways you can do this without being an excessively hard worker, like monopolising information and processes etc).

The pros fingers mentions are all good. Facility time can be another one. For example I've been able to do lots of organising work in the private sector using mine, which I would not otherwise have been able to do.

Fingers, interesting about your being the rep for people on zero hours contracts. Maybe we could start another thread about that, because I represent a lot of zero hours people and have had a fair few successes getting people on permanent contracts/TUPEd onto contracts/getting hundreds of thousands of pounds backpay for unpaid annual leave etc. so would be good to compare notes, see what has worked and learn from each other's experiences.

In terms of reps being told to tell members to cross other unions' picket lines, as fingers says, reps don't have to tell members what to do. Normally if there is going to be advice saying something like that it will come from the region. And at branch level reps can say what they want.

In terms of Spikymike's post #13, I sympathise with it but don't necessarily agree with the last section, particularly "outside and against" the unions. While I agree that ultimately the trade unions are anti-working class organisations, and at periods of high class struggle they will become a barrier which we will need to overcome, I think that historically what has happened in the UK and in many other places is that union members and lay reps are often the most militant workers, and are the forefront of things like unofficial or wildcat strike activity and confronting union officialdom. So in the UK in the 1960s with the huge strike wave which happened then, local union reps were often the organisers of wildcat strikes which happened "against the unions".

So I agree with the "against" bit, but not necessarily the "outside" (although of course if we did get back to the point where there were lots of self organised wildcat strikes, where the unions were openly opposing them, ordering people back to work etc then there would seem to be no good reason to remain in the union).

Spikymike
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Nov 3 2016 11:36

My reference to the risks of reps being regarded as the ''enemy within'' can be read as applying to either side in the conflict between the unions and the workers involved in escalating a struggle. I understand Steven's point in his response to me and don't dispute that there are many examples of some shop stewards or union reps going outside the usual trade union rules to advance militant class struggle but there is always a point where to move things further will involve the ss or rep having to make a break both politically and organisationally. This is the lesson of history in my opinion but may seem difficult for many to grasp in the current UK period of class defeat and de-radicalisation. Today's compromises by 'revolutionaries' may seem the pragmatic response to such a period but there are risks of this backfiring if the situation changes.

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Nov 3 2016 20:54

Spikymike, surely if the situation changes and there's an escalation of struggle there are loads of ways that I or anyone might not really rise to the challenge? Could be fear, lack of experience, making the wrong decisions, not understanding where the situation is going, being too overwhelmed in other things to really do anything, becoming too big-headed and ego-driven, leading the charge of the light brigade....
as we most of us don't have much experience of it and there is a general cultural lack of solidarity, class conciousness and so on, are there not loads of ways we could do it all wrong? Why is being a trade union rep so important? Am I not more likely to fuck everything up just by being a bit of an idiot?

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Nov 3 2016 21:03

Also, surely if the struggle escalates, there will be loads of people involved, and my shortcomings will be less important as there won't be a small group of militants trying to do loads of work.

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jesuithitsquad
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Nov 3 2016 21:13

Can I just say--from behind the anonymity of libcom, I imagine fingers being an absolutely amazing person.

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fingers malone
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Nov 3 2016 21:17

Lol thank you!

I'm actually even funnier in real life.

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Nov 3 2016 21:24
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Today's compromises by 'revolutionaries' may seem the pragmatic response to such a period but there are risks of this backfiring if the situation changes

Even if I do sign up as a rep, hopefully I'd be able to recognise if a changed situation at work meant that my role was no longer useful. I have some degree of agency in this- signing up as a rep in my local CMHT doesn't mean I'm going to get brainwashed by reformist ideology.

At the moment I think the pros outweigh the cons although I'm aware that that might change in future.

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Nov 3 2016 21:27

Yes that's basically what I think. If suddenly your workmates are seizing the means of production, are you really going to be running down the corridors shouting that everybody has to go back to work because the branch meeting wasn't quorate?

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Nov 3 2016 22:18
fingers malone wrote:
Yes that's basically what I think. If suddenly your workmates are seizing the means of production, are you really going to be running down the corridors shouting that everybody has to go back to work because the branch meeting wasn't quorate?

ha ha TBH I did that last week.

But on a serious note there is a conflict here. When push comes to shove this is what the unions will do. And those of us who are being "good union reps" now are helping build up support for "the unions" now; and this could well turn against us one day (if we're lucky!)

This is a conflict, however on balance in my personal situation I think it is worth it because I am able to help my fellow workers organise and achieve meaningful improvements to our conditions in the here and now. But I think it is something we should continually reassess

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Nov 3 2016 22:37

Sure I'm fine with that, and I can imagine lots of situations where personal involvement in the union could get really tricky.
But what I think people should do then is talk through the reality of these kind of situations, if things are kicking off and some experienced people are saying 'no this is too risky, it's irresponsible, people are going to get hurt' the trouble is that people can get hurt, and if these people saying that are the people that have credibility because they have spent lots of time helping people and being there for them then are people not more likely to listen to them?
So isn't it useful if you have people who have been plugging away doing the hard work, and if things kick off some of those people are saying yeah we should fight, doesn't that make you more credible?
This is basically what a lot of my long term strategy is so if I'm wrong about this then my long term strategy is fucked.

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Nov 3 2016 22:43

This is partly based on some mates telling me when a massive strike kicked off in their workplace, they were really involved, but they felt it would have helped a lot if previously they'd been doing more of 'the boring stuff'.