Gary Best, one of Prospect’s young professionals, feels optimistic about the future for unions after attending a training course with young workers from across Europe
My first journey to a UNI Europa event involved a 5am rise, one bus, two planes and a taxi ride to Tetyk Hotel Apartments, Cyprus. With 29 degrees Celsius, my pasty, white Scottish skin received its yearly amount of vitamin D in just one hour!
UNI Europa brings together young union activists from across Europe including Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Italy and Norway. The idea is to share our experiences as activists and provide support and guidance to each other.
Getting to know you
We started at 9.30 on Wednesday morning with an introduction from the course leaders and introducing ourselves to the person sitting beside us. The lecturers had placed everyone beside someone who wasn’t from the same country or union.
We had 30 minutes to find out the individual’s name, the union they represent, their job, experience, hobbies and something unique.
I realised that my thick Scottish accent was not easy to understand, especially when introducing myself to Angelica who was from a small village in Italy and whose English was clearer than mine! This was true of all the attendees who didn’t have English as their mother tongue.
The introductions created a more comfortable atmosphere among the participants and helped with the first task. The lecturers wanted to understand what we would like to take away from the course and asked us to present the issues facing each of our unions.
Recruiting young members resonated throughout the group, with all individuals agreeing that if it didn’t change, the union movement could cease to exist.
The group discussed this at length and it was clear that understanding how to run a youth recruitment campaign successfully would benefit all participants.
Lunch gave us all a good opportunity to get to know each other a bit more while planning for that night’s social activity.
Discussion, negotiation, agreement
We were split into teams for the afternoon session and worked on a task which involved selecting ten people from a group of 20 to save from a sinking ship. These people would have to successfully inhabit an island for 99 years.
They included a doctor, a nurse, a house builder, a gay man, a lesbian woman, a poet, a woman with arthritis, a 14- year-old girl, a priest, a three-month-old baby and a weightlifter.
This task encouraged active discussion and negotiation between the teams because we had to agree on the ten people we would save.
The task made us aware of the unconscious bias that we can place on titles. For example, our team didn’t save the woman with arthritis because we assumed that she was elderly and therefore unable to bear children and help sustain life on the island. But realistically you could be a perfectly healthy 29-year-old who suffers from mild arthritis.
The final task was to work on our negotiating skills. Half of the room was asked to sell a damaged book but told that brand new, it was worth £85. The other half was told that in pristine condition, the book could sell for up to £250.
We then paired up for a one to one negotiation. I have to admit that I got greedy and stubborn and ended up not selling my book. If I had accepted the lowest offer of £100, I would have made a profit – especially given that the book was dog eared, stained and had a page missing.
Day one was a great ice breaker and allowed us to discuss issues that we agreed were fundamental to the future of trade unions. I found it surprising that the issues we face in the UK resonated with all the European countries in attendance:
- low numbers of young members
- youth engagement with the union movement
- uncertain economies.
It was perhaps it naive of me to believe that these issues only affect the UK – but they highlight the importance of the work all union representatives do.
No matter which union or country we represent, unions can’t survive without the cooperation and togetherness of all parties – from individual representatives up to the general secretary.
Day one taught me a lot about myself and the kind of representative I currently am – and ultimately, the rep I want to be.
I’ve learned that I need to realise a victory when presented with one during negotiations, rather than be greedy and demand more.
Unconscious bias, although extremely difficult to eliminate, should be avoided when making decisions. This will ensure the correct decision is made and that individuals are not incorrectly judged on perceptions.
Finally, I learnt that my actions not only reflect me, but also the members I represent and the Prospect badge I proudly wear on my chest.
The weather on the second day was even hotter than the first. Eating breakfast outside is almost unheard of in Scotland – and applying factor 50 sun cream before 9am really sets you up for a day of looking pasty white!
Day two continued with our negotiating skills. We suggested what we believed are key skills required for a successful negotiation. These included:
- planning a strategy
- active listening
- actively recording the minutes and everything discussed
- clear communication
- keeping something in reserve
- making the company believe they’re gaining something
- emotional control.
With these skills fresh in our minds, we were split into small groups to role play a negotiation scenario between a union and a company. My group was the union, and the scenario was that racism and fascism was active in the working environment and that young employees were being targeted.
This included graffiti on company property and acts of violence against the employees. The company had just been bought by a bank and told it could not afford to provide paid time off for any employees.
The objective for the union was to get time off for a minimum of ten employees to attend a training course about the importance of standing against this kind of behaviour. Additional information was given to both parties during the negotiations. This altered our stance slightly, but replicated a real-life situation.
This activity highlighted the importance of preparation and why it is key to any successful negotiation. Through preparation you’re able to outline a strong strategy, a clear argument and highlight the minimum acceptable agreement.
Our group was able to negotiate: a communication course for managers (who had failed to inform the senior management that racism and fascism was taking place); a full day ‘train the trainer’ course for ten individuals with paid time off to attend and paid time off to train other people within the business.
We achieved this because we had a clear strategy on how we would approach the business, a bottom line for what was acceptable and someone focused on taking detailed notes throughout.
All groups had to present the outcome of the negotiations, discuss how they found the task and highlight where they thought they could have done anything differently.
The next activity was to prepare a two-minute speech about something you felt passionate about and present it to the rest of the group.
The speech could focus on anything you felt comfortable discussing, although preferably focusing on youth recruitment.
I spoke about the use of social media in the union movement and how unions will not be relevant to the smartphone nation if they do not move with technology. On the way to the podium to deliver the speech, we had to pick a random word from a box and fit this word into our speech without everyone noticing.
We did this to replicate a real-life situation and show that information is constantly being updated and you may have to alter your speech at the last minute. Everyone listening had to identify which word wasn’t originally in the speech.
The lecturers provided feedback on how people presented their speeches and suggested improvements where necessary.
Day two’s activities were very well organised and also allowed us to focus on specifics for both negotiation and presentation skills.
I’ve been involved, and am currently involved, in negotiations at branch level but I was still able to gain some valuable knowledge from the negotiation activity. Especially as I was partnered with someone who had carried out negotiations differently to how I have in the past and this gave me the opportunity to pick up some alternative methods, which could prove to be invaluable.
I see myself as a confident public speaker, but like everyone else, suffer from butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms beforehand.
If it is something you feel passionately about, then it is always easier to speak publicly and being well prepared will also help.
A valuable piece of advice that will stick with me is that you should not apologise before or during a speech. If you make a mistake, move on rather than highlighting it to everyone. As someone who tends to get a bit tongue tied when I get nervous, I tend to apologise, so this tip will definitely stick with me and hopefully improve my communication skills.
By the time day three rolled around, I was missing the rain! Thirty degrees Celsius, constant sunshine, meals by the pool and the opportunity to wear flip flops all day is not something us Scots experience very often!
The organisers had arranged for Nigel Flanagan, a senior organiser at UNI Global Union, to come and talk about the future of trade unions and the importance of good recruitment planning. (http://www.uniglobalunion.org/)
In the morning session, Nigel focused on the key issue facing trade unions – how to recruit young people.
Nigel said unions don’t actively engage with younger members in the way they had in the past. In our group discussion, we agreed that reps can sometimes overcomplicate the situation when they are trying to recruit younger members.
Rather than talking to them and discussing how the union can help them, we sometimes treat them as a unique entity. This complicates recruitment and is more likely to turn people off rather than encouraging them to join.
The human cloud
Nigel then moved on to talk about the impact of the human cloud on the union movement. This was the first time I had heard about the human cloud and was unsure if it would affect me as an engineer. How wrong I was.
Companies across the world are taking projects, splitting them into smaller packages and splitting these smaller packages into individual jobs or tasks.
Companies then look for individuals in the human cloud to do these tasks at the lowest price – meaning that companies are saving millions of pounds by not having a core staff workforce.
This new method of employment allows companies to advertise jobs worldwide on the internet, meaning they don’t need to worry about employer responsibilities ie paying a minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay and all benefits that many people in employment have.
I see this network as a collective of sub-contractors who are bidding for work and the lowest bidder wins.
The company I work for hires sub-contractors during peak periods, therefore this is something they could easily do.
Amazon is one company currently using this system with Amazon Mechanical Turk. Amazon employees have the opportunity to carry out small tasks which Amazon places on an internet marketplace.
The employees earn a small amount of money for each task completed correctly. If the task is not completed, or is done incorrectly, they will not be paid for the work they have done. This in turn leads to the individual being paid an hourly rate which is less than the minimum wage.
This mirrors the ‘piece work’ system which has been around, and challenged by unions, for decades.
We discussed how we could unionise people who currently fall into this line of work. We agreed that a recruitment campaign would not fulfil its potential without good organisation. Without planning and a strategy, a recruitment campaign might bring in numbers, but these numbers will fall again over time.
Growth is easier to sustain if you ensure workplace leaders have had the appropriate training; a strategy has been put in place and the members and non-members in the workplace has been mapped out.
Film, camera, action
We were given a set of guidelines on how to recruit successfully and asked to create a recruitment film in our groups.
The film was to last three minutes and focus on how to recruit youth members in the future. My group created a scenario set in the year 2025. Robots have replaced a lot of jobs and people who are not in a union don’t have the same protection as those in a union.
This activity allowed us to work as a team, create an idea we all agreed with, present the film to the other groups and ensure we were communicating clear and precise messages.
What I learnt
The three days in Cyprus certainly opened my eyes to the difficulties facing the union, but also left me feeling extremely optimistic about our future.
I met people from all over Europe who care about the union movement, have strong opinions about their local areas, understand the bigger picture and how we can work together to make positive change for all.
I also learned a lot about myself as a rep, including my strengths and weaknesses, and how I can improve these weaknesses to become a better rep for my members.
The most important thing I learned was that we have two ears and one mouth and I therefore need to listen twice as much as I talk. This allows us as reps to understand the issues affecting our members.
At times, we hear what we want to hear and immediately do something that we believe the member wants. But this may have nothing to do with what is really affecting them and may not fix the problem.
I enjoyed these three days because of everything we learned, the lecturers who delivered the course and, most importantly, learning from the other attendees.
I would encourage any young reps in Prospect who are interested in getting more involved in the union to go on courses, speak to your local reps and try to help out in any way you can.
Without your involvement and engagement, the union will struggle to maintain its relevance for young workers. Unions are vital for ensuring we all have equal opportunities and fair treatment in the workplace.
It is up to us as younger members to:
- encourage non-members to join
- spread the message
- share how the union has helped you
- explain the benefits of being in the union, and
- why more members means that we can have more influence on our future working environments.