When the pandemic arrived, it caused a lot of businesses and organisations to re-evaluate the way they do things. Phil Gunn, Branch Manager for one of Britain’s largest trade unions, was one of those such affected. Nottinghamshire County UNISON branch represents over 8500 members, and Phil and the Branch management team recently made the decision to close their premises in West Bridgford and relocate to Antenna.
In recent years, trade union membership has steadily declined, however, things are changing. Faced with the rising cost of living and the energy crisis, not to mention financial instability caused by the pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly clear that working people need the protection of a union now more than ever. Find out how Phil and Notts UNISON are supporting their members.
Hi Phil, tell us a bit about Notts UNISON and your team
UNISON came about in 1996, when three public sector trade unions merged: the National and Local Government Officers Association (NALGO), the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE).
I am one of eight paid members of staff, and our Nottingham branch (Nottinghamshire UNISON) is supported by a large number of Lay Activists – sometimes called stewards or reps. Those individuals volunteer their time to support the Union in various capacities. A certain number of roles within each UNISON branch are required to be filled by Lay Activists, who bring skills and knowledge from their primary job to support our organisation and members. There’s a national agreement in place with local authorities providing trade union reps with a certain amount of time each week to attend to union business, including time off to attend meetings.
It’s up to the individual activist to decide what amount of time they want to commit and to what degree they want to be involved. After a period of time, one might decide to take on some representation work, which is what several of the senior team focus on.
How do you support Notts UNISON members?
UNISON primarily support people working in public services, including local government, health, and education – from Primary and Secondary education, all the way up to University-level. We also support members working in other sectors that used to be part of local government that are no longer directly controlled by them, like the police service, probation services, fire and rescue etc. And there is an ever-increasing number of members working within the Community and Voluntary sector.
As union reps, we focus on protecting members employment rights, challenging inequality and when an injustice is brought to us, we assist members to get the best possible outcome. Members come to us with a wide range of employer and workplace-related issues, however, there are some that crop up more often than others. For example, “my manager’s asked me to work unsocial hours with no notice”, which might be normal in certain sectors but isn’t in others. Another common one tends to be, “I booked my holiday a year ago, it had all been agreed and now my manager says I can’t have those two weeks leave”.
We also deal with members injured at work who we support to make a claim against their employer’s insurance liability. In fact, in the last six months, UNISON across the East Midlands has won over £100,000 for local members in compensation for injury claims – there are some big outcomes and triumphs.
Another part of the role, and something our more senior activists work on, is to comment on organisation’s proposals, for example a workplace restructuring resulting in job losses. What we try to avoid in that situation is a strike, and I think the popular misconception is that we’re all on strike or on the verge of one, but the truth is far from it. We work behind the scenes often preventing strikes, working with all parties to get the best outcome possible in the circumstances for our members.
How did the pandemic affect Notts UNISON?
I think the biggest thing has been changing how we communicate with our members, we rely a lot more now on social media.
During the early stages of the pandemic the majority of our membership worked remotely, and it was unsafe to visit those still based in the workplace. Before the pandemic we would have the vast majority of members working in fixed locations, often in large buildings – such as Nottinghamshire County Council’s County Hall, which provided office space to around 200 – 300 staff. UNISON would be able to go in there and meet those members on a regular basis.
Our physical presence in those workplaces would mean other staff who were not members would come up to us and say “Hi, I’ve got an issue at work, can I join the Union? Can you represent me?” and so we’d pick up new members in the process. When everyone was told to work from home, that physical connection was gone and so everything had to be e-communications led.
Since restrictions lifted, many people continue to work remotely and so there are far less staff in those hubs. We’ve adapted to better suit our members and we’re continually looking to come up with new ways to grow our membership in the future.
Why did you choose to make Antenna your base?
We were introduced to Antenna about five or six years ago when we were looking for a venue in the centre of town. We were promoting a joint event with Nottinghamshire County Council focused on disability and accessibility. It went really well, we filled the place out with attendees, the facilities impressed us, and I think the key thing that struck a chord was the central location.
When COVID-19 happened, working from home kicked in and there was no access to the work’s building in West Bridgford, however, as things started to relax, we started to have meetings at Antenna. Our West Bridgford office already had its drawbacks in that it was very old, not fully accessible and although it was situated close to County Hall it was in the south of the county and therefore more remote for members travelling from the north. Antenna on the other hand, based where it is in the City Centre, is spot on for getting in by public transport and there’s plenty of parking nearby for those driving in.
At the same time, we also noticed that, whilst Antenna is pretty relaxed, you can still have a formal working space on a large scale. As the pandemic dragged on, it became apparent the significant overheads we were paying to maintain the old premises could be better utilised. It made us question whether we really needed a physical location five days a week any longer – we know a lot of businesses went down this same path – and so we started looking for somewhere which offers more flexibility. Since we’d already been using Antenna, and knew it met our needs, it was the obvious choice to go for.
How does the place fit into your day to day?
I have personally been a member of Antenna for five years and probably come here once a fortnight. I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere in the co-working space, and the staff are always friendly and nice to speak to.
We use Antenna for meetings three to four times a month. We hold staff training workshops and committee meetings in the meeting rooms, which have been hybrid over the last 12 months. The strong Wi-Fi and audio-visual kit have been helpful in making them accessible to team members tuning in from different places. We also make regular use of the co-working space for informal meetings between colleagues and for one-to-one meetings with Union members.
Quite often, before the branch management meetings, my colleagues and I will come early to have breakfast because the food’s so good! We also make use of the catering for all day meetings and events. I can’t fault the tech here either; as part of events, we’ve made extensive use of the IT to show case studies, pre-recorded interviews, and set-up live streams. The tech team are very knowledgeable and extremely helpful.
What are the key issues facing your members at the moment and how are you supporting them?
The cost of living crisis is without a doubt the biggest thing at the moment, and it seems that people want the support of unions now more than ever. There’s been a large increase in membership this autumn – we joined up three times more members in September compared to the previous month – and certainly some of that will be directly due to rising energy costs, mortgage rates going through the roof, fuel prices, it all has a knock-on effect.
UNISON has a national welfare section that offers advice and financial support to its members. Some of the things we can do include grants for school uniforms and debt relief – providing people a bit of breathing space whilst getting support with managing their finances.
We’re also working with employers to see what more they can do to support employees. A good example of this is speeding up the length of time it takes for expenses to get paid. There are a lot of social workers and carers travelling the county and they pay for their fuel upfront themselves and sometimes it can take up to five weeks to get that money back. These people are providing socially vital services and we want to see those expenses paid quicker to help alleviate their financial burden.
We’re also helping to address the mileage rate, which hasn’t changed in over ten years and obviously since then the cost of fuel has gone through the roof and people are finding themselves out of pocket.
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