One of the biggest issues facing the union is developing new activists. We already have many fine, dedicated reps, but the more we can increase their numbers, the better the workload can be spread and the better we can serve our members.
If members are new to the union and want to dip a toe into playing a more active part, then encouraging them to become a workplace contact can be a gentle introduction.
The key to the role is two-way: letting the branch know what’s happening in the workplace and helping UNISON get messages to our members.
A workplace contact will:
- share information with colleagues and other UNISON members;
- keep notice boards up to date with UNISON information;
- have regular conversations with members in the workplace;
- support people looking to join UNISON.
It’s a good learning opportunity and starting point for getting involved in the union – many stewards and branch officers begin their journey as a workplace contact.
But how do you then encourage someone to take the next step and become even more active?
Reps and organisers often spot talent among members who want to do more and are sometimes already acting as a contact, only to find that they back away from the idea of going further.
Part of the problem is that many potential activists are not aware of the range of roles that they could play in their branch. It’s so easy just to think of stewards, branch chairs and health and safety reps.
These are the roles that most people think of first – and indeed, many reps and organisers will list these first when trying to encourage someone to progress.
But members can be put off becoming more active in UNISON particularly because they don’t want the responsibility of representing other members. Part of the key, then, is to make sure they know that there are many more active roles that won’t require that.
There’s a long list of possible roles within a branch, from the branch chair, secretary and treasurer, to the young members’ officer, equalities co-ordinator international relations officer and lifelong learning coordinator.
And yes, there are the ‘obvious’ – and very important – ones, but there are a wide range of other options.
To give you a flavour, a branch education co-ordinator helps to arrange training courses and education programmes for members, stewards, health and safety reps and branch officers.
They make sure all new stewards and reps receive information about the branch and their role, publicise the range of educational and training opportunities available to members and activists, and make sure that all reps go on appropriate courses.
A branch communications officer explains UNISON’s policies and provides the information members need to play an active role in their union. They help the branch’s recruitment and organising, and support UNISON’s national and regional campaigns.
This is a creative role – a communications officer helps build a positive image for the branch and wider union among members, potential members and the public.
A branch welfare officer makes sure that that members who are seeking welfare assistance receive a prompt, supportive and effective response. This includes making sure branch officers, stewards and workplace reps – as well as employers – have regular, up-to-date information about There for You, our welfare charity, and its range of services.
The Labour Link officer (not in Northern Ireland) is elected by, and accountable to, the Labour Link section within the branch and must be an individual member of the Labour Party. This is because the post holder should work to take UNISON policy forward in the party, including being a delegate to the general committee of the appropriate constituency Labour Party and encouraging joint work and campaigning with the local party.
The retired members’ officer enables retired members of the branch to continue to be active in the union through the branch’s retired members’ section.
Environmental officers co-ordinate the union’s green and environmental agenda in the branch. This can cover areas such as energy use, recycling, travel and procurement.
So that’s just a brief look at the variety of roles available within a branch.
If you’re looking for ways of signposting members to such knowledge, then Activate is another good resource. A new e-note from UNISON’s learning and organising services (LAOS), this can help members find the perfect role for themselves by using a simple quiz to show what their personal attributes and interests could lead to.
Activate also includes brief interviews with various reps. You’ll be able to find it at e-learning.unison.org.uk/