Better Support for Overworked Branch Secretaries and Activists

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2010 National Delegate Conference
3 June 2010

Conference recognises the hard work that all UNISON lay representatives undertake to ensure that UNISON members are well supported and represented in the workplace. Conference notes that without the dedication of so many union representatives UNISON would not be able to operate effectively nor meet our key objectives. UNISON representatives are the backbone of the union – acting as the link between members and the union to organise and support people in the workplace.

Conference believes that the demands that are placed upon UNISON activists are ever increasing, particularly when taking into consideration the current climate of public sector funding cuts that will equate to job losses, service cuts and an expectation for fewer public sector workers to cope with an increasing demand upon services. UNISON activists are going to be a key part in protecting the rights of public sector workers.

It is alarming how many of our branch secretaries and leading activists are off work through stress due too much work as union activists. Many of our members from local Government, health, police, business and environment and transport are continually juggling competing union priorities whilst delivering their professional duties. Some branch secretaries and assistant branch secretaries who have full-time release are left dealing with the bulk of all negotiating, consultation and representation as other branch officers ‘cherry pick’ what they will and will not do as ‘activists’ thus leaving the representation to a handful in the branch.

Inadequate facility agreements work against capacity building and development of new activists in our branches and are therefore preventing our union from fully meeting the increasing needs of our diverse membership. If one wants to become active at a regional or national level it is a real challenge to get paid time off as currently that only relates to trade union duties, yet all that we do falls into the category of a duty rather than an activity. That includes training!

All local, regional and national meetings relate to either discrimination in workplaces, service conditions or campaigns to improve the working lives of our members and as activists we consult and provide local, regional and national perspectives on all of the aforementioned to our union. If necessary, any structure in our union that is not contributing to either collective bargaining, challenging unfair and unlawful treatment or consulting on service conditions should be reviewed as to its pertinence to the core business of our union.

Conference therefore welcomes the revised and improved Code of Practice on time off for trade union duties and activities that came about as a result of representation from UNISON and other TUC affiliated unions and further welcomes the new ACAS guide Trade Union Representatives in the Workplace that spells out the issues and factors to be taken into account in designing and operating time off provisions. Although the guide is only written to complement the revised Code of Practice it provides advice on good practice to build effective methods of communication, consultation and negotiation between management and union representatives that can be used by branches to improve existing facilities agreements.

With the increased work that all the Equal Pay, LGPS, Keep the NHS Public campaigns have and will bring for branches it is essential that we do something now to support and protect our leading activists from burning out; it is not fair that many of us have to use our annual leave in order to participate and more importantly whilst doing that it means that we never really get the opportunity to relax, chill and recharge weary minds and bodies. We as a union need to demonstrate tangible and effective ways of managing the health and safety of our lay activists.

We must review the ACAS recommendations for recognising trade union duties and change our policy to describe all our activities as recognised trade union duties; this will facilitate our negotiating facility agreements and requesting paid time off for trade union duties. Our union will benefit by being able to support the full participation of all our potential activists as human resources managers and service managers will be quite clear about why we should be granted paid time off without any argument or requirement for justification.

Conference recommends that the National Executive Council consider increasing the resourcing of appropriate support mechanisms for UNISON activists through training and education in order to build a culture of mutual support, guidance, skills sharing and open communication. Conference proposes that the support package should include legal, emotional and practical support. Conference further proposes that the Four Pack Training programme be reviewed to incorporate some of these supportive elements where appropriate, but that members would have access to outside bodies for support where necessary.

Conference asks that the National Executive Council:

1)Ensure that all regions use the Joint Branch and Region Assessment procedure to assess the support individual branch officers require to fulfil their duties adequately. The assessment should include support the region can provide to the branch; training that branch officers may require; and assistance the region can provide to identify and train new activists. In addition, all current facilities agreements should be jointly reviewed by the branch secretary and regional organiser under the procedure to see if they meet branch requirements and, where the agreement is inadequate, a dialogue begun with the employer using the new ACAS guide on time off and facilities to seek improvements. In addition, in light of the statutory requirement for stewards to be accredited, lobby to seek statutory rights to time off with training for Shop Stewards which would replicate the provisions currently in place for Health & Safety representatives;

2)Implement such changes as is required constitutionally to ensure we maximise the benefits to activists and our union by National Delegate Conference 2011;

3)Monitor the levels of increased participation in branches, regional and national structures amongst under-represented service groups and our diverse membership.

a)A report to be provided from all regions for the National Delegate Conference 2011 as to the increased levels of participation.