My journey to becoming a union repNovember 9 2018
I joined my first trade union when I was 19, not that I realised it. I was a member of the student union at Lancaster University and was told I had to join if I wanted to take part in any of sports societies due to insurance reasons. And that was it for me in terms of my knowledge and involvement into that union. Sure they held elections for posts I didn’t understand and occasionally held the odd event, but to me the union was an insurance broker. I left university and the union without really realising what I had been a part of for three solid years. My knowledge of trade unions still something vague and in a historical context.
Historical context is sadly what most young workers view trade unions in. Unions seem to have little influence or impact in the modern industries young people find themselves in. Their only experience of trade unions being what their grandparents tell them or from period movies and books. My family has a strong history with the NUM being welsh miners, however those hard fought battles and eventual defeat, instead of spurring my family to encourage trade unionism, have led them to fear and worry about my continual involvement in it. Even families that have union ties sometimes will not encourage the next generation to take up the fight. Fearing the impact on their job prospects. That and a continual downward spiral in membership, is rapidly shrinking our pool of advocates who could educate people about the benefits of unionism and its relevance.
Carrying on with my journey into trade unionism: I spent the next 2 years temping for various companies. Often for 3 month contracts, being paid minimum wage, no paid overtime and generally wondering what the hell was the point of getting a degree. I
loved the independence work gave me; but the insecurity about my next contract, the crushing reality of the harsh job market and the rubbish pay next to high rent prices led me into the biggest funk of my life. It culminated in me arriving in work one day, this time working for a concrete manufacture of all things, and bursting into tears. My manager took one look at me and said I wasn’t fit to work and sent me home without pay (sick leave not being covered). I got home and realised I needed a break. My whole life I had worked hard, revising for exams, working dead end jobs, filling out countless job applications, only to be told I’m too qualified or not experienced enough, and I had had enough. I wanted a summer, I wanted to work part time and finally get a sun tan. Ironically the first job advertisement when I searched part time was for a postperson and I thought why not?
I joined Royal Mail and CWU on the same day. A very enthusiastic man named Adam arrived at my orientation explaining how everyone in Royal Mail was a member of the union and it was why Royal Mail had great working conditions and if at anytime I was in trouble I could rely on the union. I signed up for two reasons; partly to fit in and the other because socialism and the Labour Party had recently become of interest to me. This was after the EU referendum and the party struggles and was around the time there were whispers of a General Election.
Labour is attractive to young people for countless reasons, but for me it evolved around the idea of making the country fairer for all. Growing up in the vibrant city of Cardiff I was heartbreakingly aware of inequality every time I visited my grandparents in the Valleys. Boarded up shops, burned down buildings and poor public transport. These realities were a million miles away from the ones I faced in Cardiff. I was also furious with the EU results seeing it as yet again something the older generation was depriving me of while they got to reap the benefits. Not to sound anti-ageist here, but with rubbish pay, pitiable pensions, abusive employment and being able to afford a house a far off dream, it wasn’t hard to hate the generation which seemed to have everything handed to them on a silver spoon. Labour offered change, something for younger people to get hopeful about, a resetting of the scales which seemed to be against everyone except an elite few.
Anyway I had just joined the union and within my first week I met my much talked about union rep. He introduced himself as Andy, said if I had any issues to come talk to him and that was that….. for an entire year. Sure he yelled over to me a few times when management pushed for overtime that I didn’t have to do it, but being on probation I never refused. Or that I didn’t have to go to other offices if I didn’t want to, but again not thinking I had a choice I never refused. I think it is important to point out here, that confidence grows with time. My previous experience in a work environment had taught me I couldn’t refuse a manager’s request; hell I was amazed I got paid overtime. It wasn’t till much later working with some of the older staff I realised how little power management had over me. Or that I could say no to managers without having to worry about my job.
The first time I ever needed a rep was when I flat out refused to drive my car to another office as my insurance had pointed out this was illegal. My manager threatened that I should start looking for another job then; so I tentatively asked my rep to speak to the manager. It infuriated me that the rep repeated the same stuff I had stated about it not being covered, but because it had come from a rep’s mouth it must be true. From then on anger at my manager and his behaviour grew and grew, until one day I subjected Des, my branch’s equality rep, to a five hour rant when I worked with him. Des, bless him, rang me up a few day later asking if I was so passionate how about I apply for the women’s or young workers role in the branch. My first question to him then was “what is the branch?” Again, I am highlighting my lack of knowledge of trade unions and what they were doing for me as a member. Sure I knew about Terry and the four pillars, but the branch, the NEC and PEC, the fact we also had BT in our union – not a clue. It was an eye-opener. I sat down at my computer that night and googled the union I had been paying into for the past year. I attended my AGM and was discouraged to find myself being the only person under 40 in the room and the only other woman there being the women’s rep. All these positions and posts and not one of them had ever come to my office, not one of them had done anything I knew about to help me. I thought of the Labour Partymovement and how it had been changed and revitalised by young people and I thought rather arrogantly, hell I could do that to this union.
So I applied and won the young workers branch rep role uncontested.
Joining a trade union: www.gov.uk/join-trade-union
Join a trade union: www.tuc.org.uk/join-union