It’s good to talk – especially now

A Yorkshire & Humberside branch, with the help of its local organiser, is making sure to touch base personally with every new member during lockdown

Wakefield District Branch

UNISON membership has continued to grow since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, reflecting the many concerns of public service staff about their health, rights and working conditions, especially on the frontlines.

While continuing to support all their members, one of the challenges for branches has been how best to embrace these new joiners – when the whole of the country is in lockdown and normal workplace contact impossible.

The answer for the Wakefield District Branch was simple: pick up the phone. And it’s proving remarkably effective.

The branch, in Yorkshire & Humberside, has around 9,000 members, across the council and over 80 other employers. Since the start of the pandemic it’s welcomed 126 new ones – more than double its monthly rate of new recruits, most citing COVID-related concerns for joining.

Local organiser Sarah Brummitt explains that before the pandemic started, she had already been helping the branch with member phone calls, as part of its retention strategy.

“Then, when COVID hit, and we all started working from home, we just thought: ‘We can’t go out to workplaces. So what can we do?’

“That was the first thing. I contacted the branch membership officer, Virginia Moulton, who’s busy at the frontline, helping to keep essential services running. And I offered to start calling all the new joiners, every week. I’d note all their concerns. And if there were issues in a particular workplace I’d pass that to the relevant person in the branch.”

She laughs when she admits that she’s been on the phone pretty constantly ever since.

“I introduce myself as Sarah from UNISON, explain that I am supporting the Wakefield branch and just want to check that they know how to get in contact if they need support.

“The branch have been sending out weekly bulletins, with all the negotiations that are going on, so I check that people are receiving the emails. I also ask how things are going at their work. Then take it from there.”

I think on the whole people are joining for a bit of peace of mind

She’s been struck by the overall response. “In the past we’d ring new members and they’d be, like, ‘Why are you ringing me? Can you prove who you are?’ Not trusting that we’re actually from the union. But during the pandemic the average phone call has been 30 minutes, because people have been wanting to talk. Every single time they’ve been really grateful for the call. They say, ‘Ah, thank you so much for calling’.

“Most people don’t raise issues they want us to pick up. They just want to tell us about their experience, say in a school or a care home. I think on the whole people are joining for a bit of peace of mind. And I can reassure them that UNISON is on this.”

If someone does voice a particular problem, she can sometimes help simply by pointing them towards government guidance, or suggesting that they have a word with their manager (which often works). Or she can call the relevant rep, who will then contact the member.

She’s noticed a number of patterns from her phone calls these last weeks, many in keeping with the progress of the pandemic.

There was the first rush of new members from schools – support staff concerned by the proposed rota systems, staffing ratios, or the vague government guidance on shielding and social distancing involving children requiring intimate care.

Later there was another surge, of joiners from the care sector, who were particularly concerned over PPE, pay and furlough.

Then there have been the noticeable number of young people joining. And a number of people declared that the crisis had simply prompted a long intention to join a union.

I think that’s the first time anybody’s ever said ‘thank you’

There’s also been a sadder pattern, she notes, of members feeling undervalued during the crisis, who feel they’re not in people’s minds during Clap for Carers.

“This is one of the things that hit me early on. I spoke to a new member, a social worker in children’s social care. One of the things I’ve been saying to all of the members is ‘Thank you. I’m sat at home and you’re on the frontline, you’re out and about, making sure people are safe.’ And when I said that to her she just paused, then said, ‘I think that’s the first time anybody’s ever said thank you’.

“Last week I spoke to someone from a meals on wheels service, in the private sector – we’ve had a few new members there – and she said, ‘Yeah, we’re out there still, providing all these meals for people, but we’re just forgotten about, nobody cares’. I had a couple of home carers who said the same. ‘Everybody goes out and claps for everyone in the NHS, but they’re not clapping for us.’

“There was a similar response from some of our members in residential care. This came just before the situation in residential care really hit the media. We knew it was going to, because a lot of our members working in those settings are feeling that nobody’s bothered about them.

“It’s really sad, it gets to you. I think all the work from local government seems to be forgotten. But these are the people keeping the whole infrastructure going.”

This underlines why personal contact from UNISON is so valuable. And like many branches, Wakefield has also been active on its social media.

As for her work, Sarah reflects: “I think the real success of the calls is due to me having branch knowledge, as I have been quite embedded in the branch for over a year.

“So I am able to engage the new members in relevant discussions and update them on issues specific to their workplace. I know the name of the convenor who would support them, the stewards on the ground. And my regional organiser and the branch convenors have all kept me in the loop.”

Sarah points out that all local organisers and some area organisers in her region have been contacting new members in a similar way. And she’s confident that her Wakefield branch colleagues will continue long after lockdown.

If her experience is anything to go by, the comfort they’re giving, and the information they are collecting will prove invaluable.



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