Hazards banner
     
DAVE SMITH'S GUIDE TO ORGANISING


9. YOU GOTTA FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT TO SAFETY

 

You think we have got safety cracked? Well, injuries may have fallen but problems including work cancers, insecurity and mental health conditions are rocketing. Dave Smith says only informed collective action will really make work better. MORE

 

8. JUST ASK WHAT WORKERS WANT

 

I was working with a union branch that had completed a detailed online safety survey. It started with about 10 standard personal information questions. Followed by 30 questions that asked members to grade from 1-10 how they felt about every possible safety issue. Followed by another 30 questions about options for solving the problems. The survey was certainly thorough. But barely anyone filled it in.

 

It needed a rethink. Firstly, anything that takes up more than one page of A4 is usually too long. Secondly, only ask questions that are going to be of some use in your negotiations with management. I asked the branch committee: ‘What safety issues do your members regularly come to you complaining about?’ Once we had identified 15 issues, that was effectively the survey form finished.

 

At the top of the form was the union logo and a short introduction: ‘In the next 12 months, the union will be negotiating with management on the following safety issues: please tick the three that are most important to you’. Below this we listed the 15 issues that the reps had identified. It is important to limit the choices or workers may tick every box and the survey becomes pointless.

 

At the bottom we asked people to tell us the department they worked in. A small number of complaints about a hazard becomes more significant if they all come from one part of the workplace.

 

Finally, workers wanting more information had the option to add their name. This is a great way of spotting workers who might be prepared to help out in the future.

 

I asked reps to personally hand out the survey forms. The forms took no more than 20 to 30 seconds to complete. One week later, we had over 300 responses. Because the reps had done this face-to-face, the union profile had been raised. Collating the information was simple and the union was able to identify concerns members were really angry about and that required action. Union organising needn’t be complicated.

 

 

7. FIND A FRIEND

 

A workplace may be seriously unhealthy, but it’s frequently only budgets, deadlines and margins in the must-do column for senior management. A solitary union rep quoting Hazards magazine is unlikely to change that. A lone voice is easy to ignore, particularly when the company board is more fixated on a healthy profit than a healthy workforce.

 

When it comes to organising around workplace health and safety, the key to success is recognising that unions are collective organisations. That means individual reps can’t do it all on their own, we need support. But where to start?

 

My suggestion for new reps is to get a big piece of paper and draw a plan of the workplace divided into different departments.

 

Take retail workers. I have done a lot of work with the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, organising in the major supermarket chains. The very large superstores employ up to 1,000 people, with a 24/7 shift pattern. A rep has to consider the aisles, warehouse, deli counter, bakery and tills but not forgetting the canteen, office, car park or security. Don’t worry if it’s not to scale – identifying the different sections, locations or shifts is the important bit.

 

Next, ask yourself two simple questions. What are the issues? And do I have any friends?

 

What are the safety issues people working in each department complain about? If the rep works on checkout for example, common issues are lack of breaks, broken seats, RSI and abuse from customers.

 

We tend to know everything about areas we work in ourselves but much less about other parts of the business. Are there different issues affecting night shift workers in the warehouse? Blocked fire exits? Faulty roll-cages? Cold temperatures? What about the admin workers based in the office?

 

Then, work out who your friends are. Is there anyone in each department who is particularly sympathetic towards the union? Not just a union member, but someone who is always prepared to chat with the rep or who has raised concerns in the past.

 

If you don’t immediately know the answer, don’t make it up, just leave it blank. Whenever safety reps try this for the first time, there are inevitably gaps in knowledge. Don’t worry, that is the point of the exercise, to highlight where we need to do more work.

 

Over the next few weeks, wherever a gap exists, make a point of visiting that particular department or shift. Introduce yourself and get a few pointers about the ongoing health or safety concerns that only workers on that section would know about.

 

By patiently chatting with people over a period of time, the rep raises the profile of the union and its likely that that will lead to them recruiting a few new members in the process. But it will also uncover workers’ concerns. This means when reps talk to management in the future, they are talking about issues their members are really interested in.

 

Just as importantly, the process will identify a few people who are real allies. An informal network of union members a rep can discuss ideas with, who might be prepared to help out at a big staff meeting if the rep needs someone to back them up. Remember, it’s easy for management to ignore one person, it’s more difficult to ignore lots of people all making the same point.

 

In union organising, we call this process ‘mapping’. If you were training to be an army officer at Sandhurst, they would call it reconnaissance. It’s simple, it’s non-confrontational but it really pays dividends in the long run. Give it a go.


Resources
Hazards mapping webpages.
Hazards organising webpages.
TUC health and safety organising guide
Find a friend, Hazards 137 [pdf]

 

 

6. SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND

 

On building sites, long hours and weekend working are the norm. I've lost count of the times I fell out with a site manager, arguing that if they only paid me single time on a Saturday morning, I’d barely be making any money after paying for train fares, breakfast and tax. But in a casualised industry where most of the workers are employed via agencies, the response was often, “if you don't want to work Saturday, don't bother coming in on Monday.” Even if I did cut a deal, the foreman would say keep if to myself - he was doing me a favour. This never sat well with me.

 

On one site, the foreman came into the canteen on Thursday morning and announced a big concrete pour was scheduled for Sunday and everyone was expected to work all weekend. I'm halfway out of my seat ready to have a row when this old carpenter next to me grabs my arm and whispers “sit down young 'un.” Nothing is said and the foreman leaves the hut. Over the next 20 minutes, I watch this fella go round and quietly chat to the 20 other workers on the job.

 

When the foreman came back into the hut at lunchtime, the old hand casually says “sorry, but me and most of the others are on a stag do and won't be able to make it.” The foreman looks straight at him and then asks everyone else, “is that right?” Most nod. One or two say, “yes, it's been planned for a while.” The foreman knew it was all bollocks but after he couldn’t bully anyone into agreeing to work all weekend, he left the hut. 

 

By Friday morning, we’ve all been offered double time for Saturday and Sunday, with a guarantee that we'll be given more notice in the future. No need for shouting and hollering, no need for one person to be a martyr. Lesson learned: Being prepared to challenge the manager is important - but getting all the workers to support you is often decisive. 

 

 

5. GETTING BUGGED BY HOT-DESKING

 

Hot-desking – where do I start? The latest money saving idea that means office workers are not allowed their own desk anymore but everyone has to fight over the communal computer monitors in a big open plan workspace. Goodbye family photos and postcards that make work a little bit more bearable. Hello soulless corporate mono-culture. As for having a place to store all your paperwork (or even your favourite tea bags), forget it.

 

Of course, workers hate it. As well as dehumanising the work environment, there are health and safety issues. If no one is guaranteed the same computer every day, is a brand new DSE risk assessment supposed to take place every single day? If workers now have to carry all their documents with them wherever they go, is this a new manual handling hazard? And as anyone who has had to share a public computer with hundreds of other people will testify, what about communicable diseases? That keyboard you are tapping away at isn’t just used by you, it’s been sneezed over and had food crumbs spilled on it by god knows how many people. Oh and by the way, the cleaners are under strict instructions not to clear rubbish from the desks. 

 

As is often the case, lots of people are moaning but what is the union going to do about it? One of my favourite tactics was from a group of safety reps in a north London council who decided to get their members involved by using an idea from off the telly. Who remembers that reality TV programme, ‘How clean is your house?’, where Kim and Aggie used to do a deep clean of someone’s home. Most weeks seemed to involve taking swabs of the built up grime from a manky cooker in student digs. The swabs would then be sent to a lab and the cultures grown in a petri dish. In the last scene of the programme a list of harmful germs and spores would be revealed – all of which would be potentially lethal. We did ‘How clean is your hot-desk?’.

 

Every rep got trained up in how to correctly use the swabs and the week before the quarterly safety inspection, an email was sent telling members that the union would be conducting a safety sampling exercise. All on the same day, the safety reps went out and people were queuing up to get their desks swabbed. Everyone was talking about it. One of the safety reps was a lab technician in a 6th form and the swabs were taken back for the A-level chemistry students to practice with. This is all perfectly legal under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations, and if your workplace does not have access to a chemistry lab, then the regulations require the employer to provide facilities and assistance in this kind of thing.  

 

It takes a while for the cultures to grow but as you can imagine, the union was being contacted by their members almost on a daily basis to find out what the results were. It’d been a long time since publication of a report by safety reps had generated quite so much interest amongst the workforce. Full colour photographs of bacteria are not a pretty picture. Alongside a list of long Latin names and their possible health effects, the next union safety newsletter caused uproar. At the next meeting of the safety committee, hot desking was the first item on the agenda.

 

 

4. BLOCKING ROADS AND TURNING A CORNER

 

Junior doctors closed the road outside Downing Street. Firefighters brought traffic to a standstill in Parliament Square. Construction workers with a giant inflatable rat shut down Park Lane. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, explains why blocking roads has become a great way to make bad employers change direction.

 

On a cold wintry day in 2015, a young electrician was sacked on the Crossrail project after he had raised complaints about unsafe access routes on the building site. His union, Unite, attempted to negotiate his reinstatement but the Bond Street station contract was run by two of construction's notorious blacklisting companies and they didn't want to know.

 

At short notice the Blacklist Support Group called a protest outside the site entrance. When around 30 people had turned up, one of these concerned members of the public pressed the button on the pedestrian crossing and we waited for the lights to change. Once the traffic was safely stopped, we walked into the road, taking our banners with us. And stayed there. This was Oxford Street. During evening rush hour.

 

In less than a minute, one of the most famous shopping roads in the world was in total gridlock. Suddenly everyone wanted to know us. Shoppers cheered our speeches about taxpayers’ money being paid to firms that mistreat their workforce. Bus drivers stuck in the jam took our flyers apologising for the delay but explaining about the major safety issue on a London transport project. Importantly, people were instantly posting photos of our banners and placards to Twitter and Facebook. We were trending within minutes.

 

The Met's finest finally arrived half an hour later - the police vans couldn't get through the traffic. Were we nicked? No. We have a democratic right to protest in this country and blocking a road does not result in instant arrest. Instead police officers are required to ask everyone present a series of questions, known as the 'five steps'. “Can we assist your protest? Do you realise that there are consequences if you continue?”

 

During the few minutes it takes to talk through the series of warnings, we continued to entertain the ever increasing crowd of shoppers who were now watching the spectacle unfold. We were peaceful and polite throughout and just before the 5th and final warning, we took a democratic vote whether to finish our protest. It was unanimous. Partly because we had achieved our aims of raising publicity and partly because it was absolutely freezing cold. Not a single person was arrested.

 

The whole thing was caught on video from start to finish and uploaded to YouTube, appearing on media websites almost immediately. Civil disobedience is all about publicity, it is pointless if no one knows about it.

 

The outcome of our mischief? The employer rang the Unite union official even before we took the vote tosuspend the protest and the electrician was immediately reinstated on full pay pending further negotiations. We went to the pub to celebrate our 30 minute victory.

 

Somewhere in that episode there is probably a few lessons to be learnt. Be bold but act collectively. We're not looking for martyrs. We don't want anyone arrested or to lose their job. But done properly, low level civil disobedience can have a huge impact on a dispute and give a big morale boost to union members.

 

One person standing in the middle of the road risks getting run over. When an organised group takes to the tarmac, it can quickly set a campaign on the right road.

 

• Also available as a Road block poster



3. IF YOU WANT TO WIN, YOU BETTER LISTEN

 

I was working with a union branch where the council housing stock - and 300 of its members - were being outsourced to a private housing association. The union had been in consultation to protect the terms and conditions of affected workers, as required by the TUPE regulations. But everyone knew examples of privatisations where, down the line, contracts and safety conditions had got much worse.

 

Contractors could get away with it because unions and reps were unwilling to take a stand or were ineffective. Here, a union ‘Know Your Legal Rights’ meeting addressed by a renowned lawyer attracted just a handful. The branch committee had all but given up any hope of fighting the privatisation or having any reps in place post-transfer.

 

At the next the branch committee meeting we set every rep one simple task - go back to where they worked and sound out what workers were moaning about. The clear winner… car parking.

 

Everyone got free car parking. It was safe and cheap. Would they have to pay a fiver a day to park? Or would it mean parking in the street about a mile away and walking to work through a poorly lit, less salubrious part of town? This was a genuine safety issue – safer access and egress is the legal responsibility of the employer. It was also an issue of their contractual rights.

 

Did we then rely on the negotiators to quote the law and sort it out? Like hell! The reps organised another meeting: ‘Defend your car parking from attack’. One hundred and twenty people turned up. Before the next consultation meeting, management was falling over themselves to reassure the union that the car parking was safe. It was what the union did outside the negotiations that was critical.

 

The 120 people angry about their car parking elected a group of new reps prepared to act as ‘temporary TUPE reps’ in the run up to the transfer. We didn’t just win the issue, we found out what workers were angry about, mobilised the membership and built the union. Quoting the law was secondary.



2. A WALK IN THE PARK

Some time ago, I was training safety reps on how to carry out workplace inspections. It was a sunny day, so we took a short walk to a local park to put the theory into practice. In a five minute inspection the 12 new reps identified some low hanging branches and a pile of dog's mess on a section of uneven paving slabs.

 

I was sceptical and asked if anyone had talked to any of the ground maintenance workers. The answer was "no". So we wandered over to the Tudor Lodge where the park keepers were based. When we asked if there were any safety issues worth reporting the response from the keeper was, “no, not really.”

 

After we persuaded him that we were not from management, he reconsidered. “Well, except that I get assaulted about twice a day, usually when we have to get people to leave the park late at night.” He then pointed to an axe mark in the Tudor door frame where he had been attacked the week before.

 

We looked inside the medieval building crammed full of gardening tools and a rep asked: "It's much smaller than I imagined, where is your toilet?” The answer was: “There isn't one. I have to use McDonald’s across the road.”

 

By now he was opening up. “My first job every morning is to walk round the park benches picking up the syringes which appear overnight.” After a few minutes we found out that he was employed via an agency, worked a 14-hour shift during the summer and had no way of communicating with his office because the walkie-talkie had been broken for months.

 

A short conversation with a park worker, uncovered issues around potential needlestick injuries, training needs, excessive hours, welfare facilities and assaults. Without any input from the workforce, the safety report was useless. What is the most important thing to remember when becoming a union safety rep? Make sure you spend most of your time talking to people!


1. USING FLOWER POWER AT WORK

On a TUC training course I was running, a union rep told a story about one of her members who had reached the final stage of the company sickness monitoring procedure. There was no denying that the woman had a poor sick record but her absences were due to ongoing hospital treatment following a workplace injury two years earlier. Despite the rep quoting employment law, the managers were not impressed. The worker had gone over the trigger levels and it looked certain that she would be dismissed under the capability procedure.

 

The final stage hearing was to take place on Friday. The rep spent Wednesday and Thursday going round to all the co-workers, explaining what was happening and asking if they would put in a pound to buy a card. The rep bought a bunch of flowers and an oversized ‘Get Well Soon’ card, the kind of the thing that your lovestruck teenage son buys his first girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.

 

On Friday, five minutes before the hearing was to take place, all of the workers turned up outside the HR office. There were hugs all round as the sick woman was presented with the giant card and flowers, with the managers who were hearing the case forced to wait in the corridor until the impromptu ceremony was over. The meeting finally started five minutes late, the manager’s opening remarks were: “OK, we get your point.” The appeal was granted and the member was referred to occupational health, with reasonable adjustments to her job implemented a few weeks later.

 

You know all the co-workers who had signed the card or put in their pound told the story to whoever would listen about how they had saved the worker’s job. Not the rep but them - the workers. Now that is what union organising is all about.


 

 

 


 

Search Hazards

1. Using flower power at work
2. A walk in the park
3. If you want to win, you better listen
4. Blocking roads and turning a corner
5. Getting bugged by hot desking
6. Something for the weekend

7. Find a friend
8. Just ask what workers want
9. You gotta fight for your right to safety

Hazards webpages
Organising Union effect