12 April 2013 #Employment
I am a trade union workplace representative and postgraduate law student and with a particular interest in employment law. This week I am on work experience with Clarkslegal in the Cardiff office and have been asked to share what it is like and what challenges I have faced working with the union.
I have been a union workplace representative for nearly 3 years and counting. Before I was appointed my workplace had no union representation and had very low membership. I work in the service sector, which often has a high level of staff turnover and a low age demographic, generally this equates to low union membership. Since my appointment membership has grown from under 10% to 40%. I have mainly dealt with disciplinary proceedings however I have also had significant input on issues such as health and safety, pay and holiday entitlement. As the only representative I cut a somewhat lonely figure, but despite this I have a supportive full time official which enables me to fulfil my duties effectively. It can at times be a thankless task; attending meetings on days off, doing research in my spare time and always being contactable, but I believe that I fulfil an important role for my members and employer and I enjoy the position greatly.
The most difficult part of being a rep is managing member’s expectations. Members may believe that they deserve a 5% pay increase annually but in the current economic climate this is going to be very difficult to achieve. Trying to inject an element of realism into demands is generally not met too warmly but offering realistic proposals is the only way to open effective dialogue with an employer.
Another challenging aspect of the role is dealing with hostile HR. This is by no means uniform and from my experience negative approaches are more likely to come from on site or day to day management rather than those who work over a wider area. Amongst some there is still the belief that we are ‘trouble makers’ or ‘tin rattlers’ but this is far from the case in the modern era. I have found reps that I have met from other workplaces to be both easygoing and approachable people.
Negative attitudes towards unions seem to fall into two main categories. The first I have encountered involves some level of fear or more aptly, an ‘anything for a quiet life’ approach. The second is more distrustful and dismissive in nature and not willing to move an inch. Both of these are counterproductive for both employers and employees as they create mutual suspicion and resentment and ultimately, tribunal proceedings.
The better HR management I have encountered will involve dialogue with the union. When a situation is fully explained to the workforce they will generally be more open to compromise or may drop their demands altogether. Knowing where they stand creates a workforce that feels like part of the company and wants to work for the company. I have heard the line ‘I want to work with the union’ on many occasions however in the instances that it has actually happened, the end result is better for all parties.
Ultimately having an onsite union rep is better for employees and employers as it gives everyone the chance to settle minor disputes at the earliest possible stage and have a happier workforce. The old cliché that prevention is better than cure has no greater relevance then when problems arise in the workplace and the role that a workplace representative undertakes towards this end should not be underplayed.
LPC Student, Univerisity of South Wales