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14 August 2013

Successes, failures and stalemates: A week in the life of a trade union rep

Glynn Doherty represents one of the large trade unions working mostly in the public sector. He recently gave the Socialist an insight into a week in his working life.


Not looking forward to today. Three redundancy appeals in a small enterprise - an increasing issue for me lately.

In larger employers, there's more opportunity to galvanise opposition across the workforce. This workforce is small and disparate; only these three face dismissal.

I've explained beforehand the odds are stacked against them. Unless we find a procedural or discriminatory failing, it's unlikely the decision will be overturned.

Three separate appeals, almost six hours. When one woman breaks down as the realisation hits that she is losing her job of almost two decades, I call a respite. In all honesty, I'm close to tears as well.

After each hearing, I'm embarrassed to be thanked by the members for my assistance. They know their hopes are forlorn.

I go home exhausted... But I still have a job tomorrow.


A chance to catch up with paperwork: a compromise agreement I've negotiated; challenging a local authority over a massively underquoted redundancy payout; a few emails to members seeking advice.

After lunch, I meet members in a local depot to get feedback on proposals to introduce annualised hours.

The full time officer of the other union involved doesn't materialise so I run a joint meeting myself.

There's overwhelming rejection without me having to nudge or direct! The workers provide information I can use in negotiations to show the plans won't deliver promised 'savings'.

I stop around at the end of such meetings. Some workers need to chat in private; some are not confident of speaking up in front of dozens of others but have views and ideas. If I run off straightaway, these workers could go home feeling ignored.


I've been running drop-in sessions in town centres, allowing workers to turn up when it suits them.

The sessions are casual - members can discuss work problems or just chat in general about what the union does.

Non-members can attend. Obviously I can't help them with individual problems until they join but with low trade union membership, these are great opportunities to spread the word about collectiveness.

I plan to take 30 minutes setting up the room with posters, newsletters and a projector. But there's two workers waiting for me.

They've got issues to discuss, they don't want leaflets. They're home carers facing split shifts or being refused working patterns which allow them to take their kids to school.

I advise them of their rights and emphasise they will have more success if everyone on the team takes the same stance.

Despite the rush at the beginning, turnout is small and slow. But I'm not frustrated.

I speak to around a dozen workers but that's more than if I'd been stuck in an office. Face-to-face contact is so important.

It also gives me the opportunity to get workers to try and organise their workmates themselves. The best 'recruiters' are not full-time or branch officers but local stewards and workers.

I'm pleased one of those who turned up agrees to become a contact for her area, taking away a batch of application forms.


I travel to help a dismissed worker present her grievance. She's been sacked on the spot without any warnings, letters or hint of a disciplinary process; in anything but the legal sense, unfairly.

But she doesn't have the two years' service needed to take it to an employment tribunal. This is a bosses' charter for hire and fire and why socialists support employment rights from day one of every job.

Within hearings, it's sometimes difficult to prevent members falling into traps laid by the employer. They want to get everything off their chests but this can cause problems. .

The only hope for this member is if the employer has a change of mind - which is highly unlikely - or I try and rescue some form of financial settlement.

The member just wants to slag off her manager and the company - a quite understandable reaction but one that's not going to get her anything more than 20 minutes satisfaction!

I manage to wheedle some previously unknown information out of them and turn it round to our advantage. It's still not an easy hearing. Later she was offered a 2,500 settlement.

Clearly the employer, under no legal obligation, was minded to make an offer to protect their reputation both in the community and with the union. A valuable lesson.

Once again my evening turned to redundancy. Austerity measures in local education authorities means often hidden cutbacks. School budget shortfalls means cuts in jobs or, more often, hours.

Underemployment is as much a problem as unemployment... except that government statistics record only those out of work completely.

Tonight's meeting is at a small rural primary school proposing cuts in teaching assistants' hours.

For one worker it looks like her hours will be cut to a level below the threshold where she's able to claim Working Tax Credit.

If the cuts go through she would be worse off in work than out - this is the reality of so-called benefit scroungers.

Occasions like this are why I support the call for an initial one-day general strike against austerity.

These schoolworkers also recognised the futility of tackling everything on an individual rather than collective basis.


The negotiations following Tuesday's mass meeting. Senior management are surprised at the level of opposition to their plans and they're already prepared to make concessions.

We manage to negotiate at least the introduction of a four-day working week as recompense for a move to more seasonal working.

A couple of hours answering queries on a helpline, then a welcome few pints with a local convenor.

A busy week but not unusually so - successes, failures and stalemates. One thing is absolutely clear in my mind though - without the knowledge and confidence I've obtained through being a Marxist and having the support of the Socialist Party around me, I would have ended all such weeks like this feeling demoralised and unable to provide workers with any alternative to the assaults they face.

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