Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/551/6479
"Telling the boss: You can't do that"
When I became a union rep a few years ago at my current train depot, it was basically because no-one else would do it. I had been a rep before, so my workmates knew I had some experience. So getting elected was easy.
An Aslef member
But the attitude of some workers was that being a rep was a bit of a perk. After all, the reps get some time off for their duties. At our place, one of the two reps is released for a day each week to deal with allocation of overtime, disciplinary matters, annual leave problems and anything else which crops up.
There was also a perception that issues were talked about but rarely resolved. We reps decided that we would keep a written record of what we did each day we were on union duties.
So I fill in a page of our book with details of what time I arrive, what matters have been dealt with, a list of who I have spoken to and dates fixed for meetings with management. I don't put a lot of detail as members don't want everyone knowing their business. But keeping the book means I have been able to refer to it to answer questions from members and it shows what time and effort is being put in.
One of the initial problems was that record-keeping was not good. Up-to-date copies of agreements with management were not available, meaning the same questions were arising again and again.
Copies were obtained and placed where members can consult them. This does not solve every problem, because we do not like some of what is in our agreements, but at least now we know what the agreements say.
Being a rep is not all about what you can do in your facility time. You have to be ready to be challenged at any time.
What has helped me is that the reps who negotiate for us at company level also changed and I am often supplied with a lengthy report of what they are discussing. On urgent issues like pay I will get an email or text message with any important developments. Our company-level rep also attends our union branch meeting regularly.
There is no doubt that the top levels of the trade unions are woefully out of touch with their membership. How far down the line of reps this goes will vary from industry to industry.
If the unions are to maintain and build on the loyalty of their members, local reps will have to show that being in the union is worthwhile by being accessible, having the necessary information and training, and being prepared to utter the most important phrase in a shop steward's vocabulary: "No boss, you can't do that".
In The Socialist 8 October 2008:
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