Workplace Report June 2020


Lessons from the crisis: union reps in the time of coronavirus

In the second of our features based on our survey of union reps during the coronavirus epidemic, the LRD goes beyond the “crisis issues” reps have faced and looks at how the pandemic has impacted their day-to-day roles – as well as at their hopes as trade unionists for a post-crisis future

About the survey

Back in April, the LRD launched a survey that set out to capture the specific experiences of union reps providing the frontline response to the coronavirus crisis. Our aim has been to recognise the vital work being carried out by reps on a daily basis, to share best practice across the movement and to gain important feedback on the kind of support that reps most need at this time.

To date, over 630 reps from 22 unions have responded to the survey. The first set of findings, published last month, covered how they have faced multiple issues, including health and safety, pay and sick leave, in circumstances made harder by rules on physical distancing and employers who have not always engaged with the union. It also highlighted the many inspiring stories of how reps have won better furlough terms, enhanced sick pay, and improvements to health and safety for their members.

Who answered our survey?

We surveyed reps from 22 trade unions including: Aslef, BALPA, BFAWU, College of Podiatry, CWU, EIS, FBU, FDA, GMB, NASUWT, NEU, NUJ, PCS, POA, Prospect, RMT, SoR, UCU, UNISON, Unite, and USDAW.

Sector: 70% of respondents are from the public sector, 27% from the private sector, 3% from the voluntary sector.

Industry: 23% of respondents come from education, 20% from “other service activities”, 16% from health, 8% from public administration, 8% from transportation and storage, 7% from manufacturing

Role: The two most common roles performed by respondents were shop steward/workplace rep, 62%, and health and safety rep, 46%. Forty percent of the total were also branch secretaries.

Working situation: 50% have been working from home, 33% have been working as normal throughout the crisis, 10% are on reduced hours. Only 5% of those who answered have been furloughed.

The coronavirus has disrupted normal working patterns across the economy and temporarily halted physical meetings between workers or with employers. How have union reps been able to carry out their day-to-day work under such radically altered circumstances? In this feature, Workplace Report investigates how the crisis has impacted the bread and butter work of union reps, and draws out the ways in which they have adapted to the new realities, and outlines their hopes for positive permanent change from this difficult and extraordinary period.

32% of reps say union membership has grown during the crisis

One clear positive for unions to have emerged from the LRD survey is that nearly 1 in 3 reps who responded say that their membership has grown during the crisis period. This is a sign that more workers have realised the value in being part of a collective during a crisis and that at least some unionised workplaces will be entering the next phase of the pandemic in a strengthened position.

55% of reps have changed the way they communicate with members

The role of a trade union activist, whether organising, representing or negotiating, has traditionally relied on face-to-face contact, where body language, physical presence and subtle facial cues play a large part in helping activists to achieve their aims. The coronavirus pandemic has largely put a stop to such encounters and while many reps have experienced this as a significant loss, they have been quick to adapt to the new context.

“Communication is usually face to face. But haven’t seen anyone. Members have used FB messenger to ask me questions.” Rep, Leeds West Academy.

“Previously many issues were informally raised during other conversations held ad hoc in the office — as these opportunities no longer occur, I am having to be more proactive in asking members to contact me if there is an issue they want to discuss.” Rep, local authority

“Communication has slowed down, but we are producing monthly newsletters, publishing domestic violence guidance and helplines on our intranet.” Rep, National Archives.

“I have adapted. I use email a lot anyway but to communicate with our Environmental Services and Parks staff I attend at the depot two mornings a week. Ordinarily it would only be once a week.” Rep, Harrogate Borough Council.

66% of reps surveyed said they had been using new tools to communicate with members.

Two thirds of reps have used new online methods to communicate with members. These have included WhatsApp messaging and video conferencing, and team collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype as well as more traditional email. While there have inevitably been teething issues and worries around security when the service is work-based, many reps have found the tools have helped to increase member engagement.

“We setup a WhatsApp group to provide regular updates to those on furlough.” Rep, manufacturing industry.

“As many have not included private email addresses in their details we send these to work emails. This sometime delays use getting messages out in a timely fashion. Face to face meetings have stopped.” Rep, West Yorkshire Police.

“No meetings, except via interceptable e-mail or ‘teams’, very few have my personal mobile number for discrete contacts, employer has a record of ‘monitoring’ ecomms.” Rep, university sector.

“We would normally hold fairly regular site meetings, and two branch general meetings per semester. These have moved online, and we have changed to monthly branch general meetings. We would normally produce a regular (at least monthly) email com to members, plus a 14 page branch magazine (emailed as a pdf, plus some printed for break rooms, brew stations), at least twice per semester. We have been in email communication at least weekly since the transition to working from home, and are increasing the frequency of the magazine to monthly. Online site meetings and meetings of women and BAME members are also planned.” Rep, northern university

“Yes we now provide a daily update to our members via email. The volume of communications has increased significantly.” Rep, Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council.

“No longer able to meet face to face; body language tells you a lot about your members and what state of mind they are in We have added a new Covid-19 group to our Facebook page to keep our members updated which has been very successful.” Rep, local authority.

“I’ve been able to hold virtual meetings with all members. This is an improvement.” Rep, Society and College of Radiographers.

The consensus is that online grievance and disciplinary meetings do not work well

It appears from the survey that in many workplaces disciplinaries and grievances are continuing as normal albeit under altered conditions. Over a third of reps, however, have seen disruption to this part of their role. Plenty of reps say formal procedures have been suspended, with several taking a stand to ensure that they will not take place, even though this has left cases and appeals hanging. For others, meetings have been moved online, sometimes despite protests from the union. Many reps point out that the stress of members involved in cases has been exacerbated by not being able to meet face-to-face. The reduction in facilities times of many reps during the crisis period has also been an issue.

“Suspended hearings which is a good thing in some respects but we are unable to attend sickness meetings to support members which are being conducted on the phone.” Rep, NHS.

“We have suspended online disciplinary and grievance meetings unless the member expressly assents to these as many found progressing them in this way was too stressful.” Rep, SOAS.

“I’ve experienced a loss of facility time to carry out my functions as a health and safety rep. Management said they can only offer two half days of facility time between branch chairman, branch secretary and health and safety. I have only received about six hours in dealing with health and safety issues of Covid-19.” Rep, Prison Service.

“…the only real effect is that it is harder to do the emotional support to distressed members in a virtual environment. All our actual cases have been suspended so far but we expect most of them to restart soon. I have some concerns about how well members can present their cases virtually, especially where mental health is involved (most cases). It will be harder for people hearing the cases to empathise with participants. I think it will also be a bit trickier to gauge when a rep needs to intervene. On the other hand, we will be able to message our member during the meeting in a way that other meeting attendees can’t see and that might be useful.” Rep, National Audit Office.

“We had a probation meeting which led to dismissal of a member. While not the outcome was not entirely unexpected, the meeting was conducted using MS Teams and the technology did not work properly so the rep for this member felt it was not terribly fair.” Rep, local authority.

“Disciplinaries etc have continued apace without means for secure consultation between member and rep in some cases.” Rep, university sector.

“One already arranged misconduct meeting done over Skype. Three misconduct witness interviews done over the phone. Difficult to represent properly in those situations. Wasn’t great but worked OK. Sometimes you need to be with a member if they are upset or distressed and it’s not always easy consoling someone on the phone especially if they are isolating or working from home by themselves. Some members feel lonely and isolated and clearly just want someone to talk to.” Rep, police service.

Over one in three reps have not had a normal pay round

Most pay campaigns and anniversary dates take place during the first few months of the year and therefore have coincided with the crisis. Not all the respondents to our survey are directly involved in bargaining over pay. However, out of those that are, more than a third, or 35% have experienced negotiations being suspended or cancelled.

The vast majority of reps with talks on hold describe how their employer entered into “crisis-mode” where they were unable to consider pay negotiations. A rep from the voluntary sector says, “There is only one issue – financial survival” and another rep from an airline says, “the company is too busy to enter into talks”.

“The cost of keeping jobs has meant that the company haemorrhages cash, so it is limiting pay awards.” Rep, private sector communications company

“Our pay claim is largely on hold, and it’s difficult to get updates on where we are with it. Our campaign to end outsourcing has been affected as our employer will not listen to the arguments while Covid-19 is ongoing, and our priorities have also changed – making sure our members are safe and secure.” Rep, London University

The next largest group of reps mention how social distancing and closed workplaces has disrupted their ability to campaign effectively or take industrial action. They have been unable “to strike effectively”, “to post ballots out to members”, or “to organise any mass protests”. The enforced use of online communications has also been an obstacle to pay rounds. A rep from Translink Metro says, “a lack of eye contact” impedes discussions, while another from delivery company Hermes says he is “not sure Zoom and phone meetings carry the same tone and meaning as face to face ones”.

“Rotational work left us unable to engage proper relations with the members. As a result the Department of Finance enforced a pay decision upon us.” Rep, DFI Rivers.

“We would normally be out campaigning for the theatres’ casuals to be paid, but social distancing means we can’t get out there to lobby the employer and talk to the public.” Rep, Hull Culture and Leisure.

A small group of reps have faced hostile employers who have outright refused to negotiate online or even talk to the union. A rep for a leading telecoms company says that the “CEO decided on a low pay award without union agreement, another rep at Transport for London said: “Pay talks were stopped with an ultimatum to accept”. However, the vast majority of responses on pay bargaining had more positive experiences despite the lack of physical meetings.

“Agreed to defer pay talks until an appropriate time, any increase will be backdated to anniversary date.” Rep, component distribution company.

“The pay bargaining had to be done over the phone rather than across a table or by video-conference. It doesn’t really seem to have made that much impact although ‘time outs’ to discuss with union colleagues was more difficult.” Rep, financial sector.

“Final negotiations were conducted by conference call. Subsequent consultation and ballot of members conducted via email, phone calls and electronic survey (eg Survey Monkey).” Rep, water company.

“We have had to put some campaigns on the back boiler for a while. GMB, UNISON and Unite are still negotiating our pay claim for 2020, we need to ballot members (which was going to be a workplace ballot) it now looks like we will have to use technology to do this.” Rep, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council.

Changes for good to come out of the crisis

The coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly been extremely difficult for workers, so much so that many reps are struggling to stay optimistic. One in 10 of the reps who answered our survey said that they just could not see the positives in their situation at the moment, or that there only hope is for a return to a semblance of normality. However, the vast majority of reps want to take some aspects of the pandemic experience into a post-crisis future:

• New, more flexible ways of working with more scope to work from home

• More concern for health and safety

• Staff better valued by employers

• More bargaining power for the lower paid.

• Better use of tech

• Better industrial relations

• More solidarity between workers

• Stronger unions

“This working from home has shown a change in my role and there are more positive ways of dealing with requests from the public, aided the development of using virtual hubs with use of new technologies thanks to Teams, Zooms and our business picking up and running with these.” Rep, Doncaster Council.

“Working from home often denied as a reasonable adjustment for those with disabilities and/or poor mental health. This crisis has proved [it] is a viable option and can work well and hopefully will be available when the pandemic is over.” Rep, Royal Sun Alliance plc.

“Hopefully, management will realise that their best asset is their workforce and that it needs to be looked after and respected, both financially and in wellbeing.” Rep, food manufacturing.

“Recognition that as a food manufacturer we are essential, and deserve pay levels that reflect this.” Rep, food manufacturing.

“Greater bargaining power for workers, particularly those in cleaning, catering, and operations. Ability to work from home to be extended across job responsibilities – less dependency on coming into the office. Shorter work week.” Rep, London University.

“Hopefully improve relationships between reps and management as we have all had to pull together and compromise during this period.” Rep, NHS

“Yes! Adequate cleaning standards, both in train cabs and staff messrooms. More respect for our cleaning teams!” Rep, train franchise.

“That social distance and cleaning hygiene routine is implanted to a high standard with employees all being given appropriate training information in order to follow it.” Rep, social services.

“The atmosphere has become even more collegiate and people are realising the importance of contact centre staff.” Rep, Co-op Bank.

“I think we will come out of this a better organised branch, with better communications and more active reps. There are many signs of this already.” Rep, northern university.

“The positive effects are increased knowledge of health and safety issues and rights; ability to organise virtually; set up a WhatsApp group for union members to discuss things independently.” Rep, local authority.

“Unions have come into their own during this crisis, carrying out core roles that have literally saved lives, jobs and homes. As unions, we need to re-set ourselves as we come out of this, making ourselves more relevant to more people, particularly young people who rarely join – unless they are in trouble!” Rep, Cardiff Council.

Less violence in prisons?

We had a number of Prison Officers complete our survey and a noticeable trend in their answers was that the measures put in place to combat the pandemic had reduced violent incidents in their workplaces. Many wished the learning from the experience to be taken into account in the future. Below is the experience of reps from three different prisons.

The coronavirus has reduced the amount of assaults on staff and highlighted that less non-purposeful time out of cell reduces these assaults. We hope that regimes be restricted for those that do not want to engage with purposeful activity.

Yes, the coronavirus has had a positive effect on the prison as violence has dropped and the young persons now have a settled regime, they know what they are getting and when they are getting it. I hope that management take this on board as it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to implement a regime that works.

The coronavirus has had a huge impact on how we operate … this has brought about extra staff and a huge fall in violence within the establishment. Hopefully, this will show that fewer prisoners unlocked and an increase in staffing levels helps maintain a safe and decent environment for all to work and live in.

Back to school?

Reps who work in schools were another standout group in our survey responses. Understandably, many have worries about a return to work, including over areas of hygiene and health and safety, lack of clear guidelines, workload, and the mental health of staff and children. However, they also saw some positive impacts of the crisis.

The children in our daily care, some of who are neglected or from violent households will need so much support to help them through what I can only describe as [a] traumatic time. Therefore our job may become more of a counselling role rather than educating children. Rep, primary school.

BAME members have serious concerns about impact of virus, yet management is completely ignorant on this matter. We are lobbying them to listen to our concerns. Rep, tertiary education.

Staff have learned far more about digital strategies of teaching than would have been achieved otherwise in the timeframe. Rep, Eastleigh College.

Reps have become more active and we have new reps as a result of the crisis. Rep, The Village School.

We will have better cleaning as cleaners were reduced due to austerity, nurseries are dirty. Rep, children’s centre.