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       Hazards special online report, September 2015
Your best defence at work is to be organised and active
With the government set to implement more anti-trade union laws and further attack workers’ rights, your best defence is to be organised and active. Mick Holder of the train driver's union ASLEF spells out how union health and safety reps can fight back.

Having endured the last government’s unprecedented five year assault on health and safety, it was hard to imagine there could be much worse to come. But since the Conservative win in May 2015, safety has been bundled in with a renewed and pernicious attack on union and employment rights (see: We’re here to stay!).
But even if the government does its worst, that doesn’t mean we can’t win at work. How? By having a high density of members and ensuring their routine participation in union activities, and by encouraging them to get stroppy.

Unconvinced? How does the prospect of an 8 per cent plus wage increase over 18 months sound? Alright, so that was exceptional, but how about pushing an employer to offer an inflation beating 2 per cent? Both were delivered by rail unions after recent disputes - so it can be done.

How? Rail unions are very well organised – they have people elected into lay positions talking to members and representing their interests. That’s branch and workplace officials, especially health and safety representatives, as well as shop stewards, equalities, environmental and unionlearn reps.

Things are only likely to change for the better if we act collectively from a position of strength. Meet with your members, discuss issues and set priorities for the reps to raise. And be accountable by reporting back, allowing discussion and agreeing what, if anything should be done next.

Encourage members to take part in the democratic running of the whole union at every level, and maintain contact with your full-time official.

I know all of that takes a lot of effort and I’m not going to deny there are difficulties. But think of all the work put in to servicing unfair dismissal cases, redundancies, victimisation and bullying cases and running around at management’s behest – and how much that is likely to increase whilst the Tories remain in power. In my eyes it’s a no-brainer. Organise!

Safety reps are go

Why are safety reps so crucial to workplace organising? Trade union health and safety representatives have unique and extensive legal rights. No other union rep is in such a strong position at work.

Most other reps are there only by agreement with employers, usually guided by ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) codes and guidance. Employers have shown those agreements can be stomped all over. It’s more difficult to get round the law.

And with health and safety at work a major concern for most working people, making it an area of work for the union can and does show what being in a union is all about, helping to retain members and recruit non-members.

Stress, bullying, long hours, shiftwork, lousy working conditions, toilets, cleaning facilities, working alone, computers, dust, noise, chemicals - these are all issues trade union health and safety representatives can get active on in support of the membership.

All rights for now

They are in the government’s sights, but for now safety reps retain unparalleled legal rights, many underwritten by European directives. The Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations say that where there is a recognition agreement between a trade union and an employer, the union has the right to elect or appoint health and safety representatives.

Those safety reps have the legal right to:

Training on full pay.
Paid time to carry out their functions. Their role as a rep is not an add-on to their existing workload, but should form part of their normal working day with their workload suitably adjusted.
Inspect the workplace, investigate accidents, talk to members and make representations to the employer.
Be consulted “in good time” on risk assessments, the legally required method all employers must use to manage health, safety and welfare risks.
Copies of, or access to, relevant health and safety documents.
Ask for safety committees to be set up and to attend those meetings.

What can you do?

Use your head  Savvy unions always look for a link between any issue of concern and health and safety so they can use their safety reps’ rights and demand employers meet legal standards as a minimum.

Take your time  Time spent as a safety rep is not agreed “facility time” in the same way as that negotiated for shop stewards and other union reps. The safety reps’ regulations do not set a limit but say employers must allow such time as necessary for safety reps to fulfil their functions – and they should paid for that time too.

Get trained  If you are a new safety rep, or a rep who has never been trained, use the law to get on a union or TUC stage one health and safety reps course. If you’ve been a rep for a while and not been on a follow up course, try for that – there are stage two, stage three and issue-specific courses. If you can’t get paid release – fight for it. However if this fails there are online courses available via Unionlearn.

Be relevant  Ask what issues are affecting your fellow workers. Agree with them the priorities to take to management and report back.

Map it out  Bodymapping allows for problems to be identified and priorities set collectively. The same goes for risk mapping. Surveys of the membership on health and safety problems can uncover problems, but don’t provide as much “ownership” as ‘participatory research’ like bodymapping or risk mapping.

Non-members  Unions might treat non-members differently in a workplace with high membership density to one where there is a need to improve the union’s strength by recruiting. However, it must be clear you only get the full benefits of the union if you become a member.

Raising issues

Make sure safety reps attend or feed into any workplace union committee or the local branch. Safety reps should talk to other reps including stewards, convenors, equality and environmental reps so everyone knows what’s going on. Local committees should keep the union and the full-time official up-to-date on what’s been raised with the employer and any progress, or lack of it.

Don’t ignore the power of publicity. Communicate with members via newsletters, noticeboards, toolbox meetings, one-to-ones, email. You can publicise successes or abuses through the branch or the union HQ – unions have sophisticated communication strategies using social media and magazines. They also know who to contact in the specialist and popular press. Correctly-pitched stories can help maintain or bolster the union’s position – and embarrass errant employers.

Work with other unions, at your workplace and beyond. This may seem obvious, but it is an area where we often fail to deliver. United we stand, divided we’re shafted.

Not recognised?

Health and safety is a core issue for unions, whether they are recognised or not. Not being recognised leaves the union at a disadvantage and means the safety reps’ regulations have no legal standing at your workplace. But employers are still legally bound to consult with their employees on health and safety and must still comply with health and safety laws, including the requirement to do risk assessments.

So all the basic principles still apply. You’ve just got to find creative ways of achieving things when the law doesn’t give you an in.

Getting active on health and safety at a workplace is more than likely going to strengthen the union’s position and the potential for recognition in the future.

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Turn it on!

With the government set to implement more anti-trade union laws and further attack workers’ rights, your best defence is to be organised and active. Mick Holder of the train driver's union ASLEF spells out how union health and safety reps can fight back.

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Artwork: Andy Vine