As workplace rep I knew it was right to support this member in a tricky situation. But I also felt way out of my depth. The background to the meeting was complex, and had been handled at regional level for months. Trust had been eroded and emotions were running high. As an inexperienced rep, could I hope to achieve anything? Or might I just make a bad situation even worse?
Fortunately for the member, I received comprehensive advice from an NEU official. He gave me a wider perspective and identified an overall strategy. He explained exactly what my role was (and wasn’t!), with practical suggestions for how to engage constructively with management both before and during the meeting. He urged me to really ‘own’ the process.
I’m so glad I took his advice.
It emerged in pre-meeting conversations that management had no idea what the rep’s role was, expecting me not to speak at all. I was able to calmly articulate various ways a union rep would normally be expected to facilitate communication and engagement. I think this helped them have more faith in me, and in fact they then took on board some of my suggestions about their approach.
These informal conversations also shed a bit more light on management’s perspective and priorities. As a result, I found myself briefing the member with real confidence.
During the meeting itself, I listened carefully to both sides, but was also able to speak up freely to aid communication or clarify points that seemed significant. The outcomes were reasonable and we achieved our most important strategic aim for the member.
Although this meeting was difficult for the member and stretching for me, I really enjoyed taking ownership of the rep’s role. In fact, I was buzzing! I had been empowered to rise to a new challenge. With union experience behind me, I believe I had a significant positive influence on that particular meeting. My personal skills developed and my confidence grew. I even found myself secretly hoping for another tricky situation to arise so I could have another go!
Our college situation remains difficult and I’ll probably feel out of my depth many more times, but now I know that with the right support I can keep my head above water and serve members more effectively. I would encourage other reps to embrace opportunities to grow in their role. I would also urge NEU officials to invest time in passing on their wisdom and experience to genuinely empower reps in the workplace.