The UNISON workplace representative
What is a UNISON representative?
The UNISON workplace representative is the most important link between the union and its members. Workplace representatives play a number of roles.
They are organisers who talk to, recruit and organise members around workplace issues, hold meetings, undertake surveys and help run ballots.
They give members information about union issues by publicising UNISON campaigns, distributing leaflets and keeping members informed about and involved in local negotiations.
They are advisers and sounding boards, talking to members about workplace problems and - if they feel confident - giving advice on how to deal with these.
Alternatively, they may arrange for the member to get advice or assistance from elsewhere in the union, or work with them to obtain the information they need.
They are representatives and spokespersons for members in their workplace.
Where they feel confident and have received appropriate training, they accompany members in meetings and assist them in raising problems with managers before these get out of hand.
Otherwise they seek advice and support from other union representatives. They also have an important role in ensuring that the views of the members within the workplace are represented to the wider union.
They are the workplace representative in UNISON - an essential part of a large and powerful national organisation.
All workplace representatives and members belong to a local UNISON branch, which is their main source of advice and support. In turn, branches belong to one of UNISON's regions which integrate with the national structure.
This way UNISON provides strong and effective organisation for all our members and their representatives. More information about UNISON's structure and organisation can be found on the page, Getting involved in UNISON.
Types of representative
UNISON has four types of workplace representative.
- 1. Steward
A UNISON steward is an elected representative whose role includes organising, recruiting and representing members.
Stewards in workplaces where UNISON is recognised by the employer have rights to time off for training and to carry out their work.
Stewards have a right to be involved in how their branch is run and are the most important link between the members and the union.
UNISON aims to have at least one steward in each workplace and department, more in larger departments and where members work shifts.
Stewards are elected each year by the group of members that they represent and the post is open to job share.
Stewards engage in different levels of activity depending on their experience, skills and the time they are able to commit.
A UNISON steward should seek to be the first and main point of contact with the union for members.
They will also recruit and organise new members and work with members to establish an organised workplace.
He or she will support and advise members on workplace issues, both individual and collective. They will act as a spokesperson for the members they represent and inform and involve members in branch activity.
They will represent members with the employer, depending on their experience and confidence, and represent members within the branch committee.
They will also be answerable to the members they represent.
Being elected as a steward gives a workplace representative access to training by UNISON, regular UNISON mailings - including Focus, UNISON's fortnightly newspaper - and access to UNISON advice and information.
Support from a UNISON organiser will also be available should they face serious problems at work.
Stewards working for employers that officially recognise UNISON also have rights to paid time off for training, meetings with members and managers, and some other union work.
They have use of employers' telephones, email and internal mail, access to an office and lockable facilities at work and recognition as a UNISON representative.
- 2. Health & safety rep
A health and safety representative has the right to training and to raise issues which affect the health and safety of members.
UNISON aims to have at least one health and safety representative in every workplace where we have members.
In some cases, the safety representative and steward are the same person but they have two separate roles.
Safety representatives have specific duties and responsibilities and also have important legal rights.
The Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations of 1977 spell out in detail the rights and functions of safety representatives.
These include making representations to the employer on behalf of members on any health, safety and welfare matter.
A health and safety rep can represent members in consultation with Health and Safety Executive inspectors or other enforcing authorities.
They can inspect designated workplace areas at least every three months, investigate potential hazards, complaints by members and causes of accidents, dangerous occurrences and diseases.
They have facilities and support from the employer to carry out inspections and receive legal and technical information, and paid time off to carry out the role and undergo either TUC or union-approved training.
- 3. Union learning rep
The union learning rep is a new position. People in this role are likely to be members who have recently completed a learning programme and are enthusiasts and advocates for learning in their own workplaces.
Their precise role will vary according to their own circumstances but will probably centre on raising awareness of lifelong learning among the members and helping to identify and articulate the learning needs of particular members, as well as negotiating with employers on learning issues. They have some rights to time off for training and carrying out their duties.
They will also liaise with employers about lifelong learning opportunities.
4. Workplace contacts
Workplace contacts play a number of different roles.
They may distribute information, support a steward or carry out some tasks normally undertaken by a steward.
Workplace contacts do not have access to the same rights as stewards but can and do play an important role in enabling groups of members to organise effectively.
This is an ideal role for someone who is interested in becoming a steward or safety representative, but would like to find out more about what is involved. It is also ideal for those groups of members who can find no-one willing to be a steward.
Workplace contacts have a more informal role than stewards or safety representatives. They can also operate as part of a network supporting an elected steward.
Workplace contacts have access to a range of benefits from UNISON, but these are more limited than elected stewards and safety representatives.
They include regular UNISON information, involvement in branch work, some training courses and advice on dealing with workplace problems.
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