Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Unions reps in the fight for equality

Disappointment at the failure of the Equality Act 2010 to include statutory rights and time off for union equality reps has failed to dampen the enthusiasm of Unite members already in post. Now the race is on to get many more to join them.

Despite trade unions honourable tradition of opposing discrimination and fighting for equality there remain problems to solve, such as establishing equal pay for women and the opening up of workplaces to disabled people.

So unwilling to stand still the Unite Equality Reps’ Project got underway in February 2008 courtesy of government funding via the union modernisation funding.

However, even before then things had started moving with the election of equality reps in a number of establishments across Britain.  As such when a seminar was held in March 2007 for the multi-industrial sector 27% of those who attended from workplaces such as TNT Express, Oldham and Plymouth Councils were already equality reps. Nine employees at the Ineos Oil Refinery in Falkirk had also jumped on-board, when following a 3 day UNITE on-site workshop, also attended by two Human Relations managers, they subsequently gained members support to become equality reps.

Ruth Swan, Stephen Mancini, Stevie Deans, Mark Lyon, Lisa Crawford, Colin Henderson, Ian Proudlove 
Amongst the newcomers was process operator Lisa Crawford, then just 25. Although she was already a shop steward and safety rep, and the new role would mean giving up more of her own time to assist her fellow union members, she was happy to get involved: “because I believe people should be treated equally whatever their sexuality, ethnicity, religion or age, as with regard to the latter I’ve witnessed young people with perfectly reasonable points of view being ignored because of their relative inexperience.”

In the past there would also have been a tendency to ignore what might have got hung on the walls, pornographic images creating an unwelcome working environment for many women in particular. Lisa has used her role as an equality rep “to challenge such displays and persuade fellow Unite members to take down page 3 posters from The Sun newspaper.”

Ruth Swan also became an equality rep at the same time as Lisa. She’s worked at Ineos for 20 years and has been active in the union for over half that time: “I’ve used the role to ensure female workers are properly treated. I discovered that, after their maternity leave, women were being refused requests to work part-time and transfers from nights to days. I’ve had some success in re-negotiating their work patterns. It’s been helped by the fact that the company is very positive about the equality reps posts.”

Ruth is also full of praise for the Unite training [*] she’s received saying “the courses help you to look at situations differently and give you the confidence to tackle any problems you might identify or have raised with you by members.”

One such problem currently being grappled with by all equality reps at Ineos is the fact that the number of young women applying to become apprentices appears to have fallen.

The issue was first raised under the equalities agenda listed as a standing item at every shop stewards meeting. No one is quite sure why there’s been a fall but management are now being pushed to look at their recruitment processes to see if improvements can be made. In the past the company has been willing to respond to requests to re-design personal protective equipment found to be unsuitable for women and also improve shower facilities to prevent embarrassment at shift change over times.

“There’s a big link between equality and welfare,” said Ian Proudlove who during his 18 years as a shop steward at Falkirk has seen local demographics change significantly. It’s also meant a change in attitudes and in language. Sadly that’s not the case in all workplaces, where fuelled by articles in anti-union newspapers such as The Sun and Daily Mail workers are encouraged to use language, and tell jokes, that demean their workmates for having a different colour skin or sexuality, or because someone has a disability.

The equality reps at Ineos have tried to stop this happening by using materials prepared for them by the Unite education department and have introduced, with management’s agreement, a two-hour equality session for new starters. Out have gone handicap, old fogey and best man for the job, in has come impairment, older and best person. Returning is a more welcoming workplace whereby everyone feels valued. 

When this is the case the likelihood is that employers will benefit. Mark Lyon has been works convenor at Ineos for over a decade. During that time there have been a number of disputes and according to Mark there’s always “an edge to” relations between Unite and the company. Not so however with equality as “management know that a workplace where people feel included is good for morale, as it boosts productivity and ultimately profits. “

As a consequence when Unite and other unions were pushing in 2009 to get statutory rights for elected equality reps included by the Women’s and Equality Minster Harriet Harman in the Equality Bill management at Ineos backed the demands. They were even willing to go as far as sending ex-Human Resources head Ian Fife to speak before the select commission established to examine the proposals.

“I think they saw it as business and moral benefit for companies to have elected union equality reps” said Mark.

Sadly Harman chose to ignore the evidence, and whilst the new Government may also prove unsympathetic Unite, and most other unions, haven’t given up the fight - after all it took almost three decades of campaigning before the 1977 Safety Reps and Committees Regulations came into effect requiring employers to consult with employees on safety issues, and recognise elected safety reps by giving them time off to do their job.

“The union will be continuing to fight for legal rights for equality reps, but meanwhile I’d like to think that the successes we have had at our workplace, and those I know achieved by reps at other locations, might encourage Unite members in other locations to consider getting elected as an equality rep” said Mark Lyon.

Despite trade unions honourable tradition of opposing discrimination and fighting for equality there remain problems to solve, such as establishing equal pay for women and the opening up of workplaces to disabled people. 

Which is why Unite was disappointed by the failure of the Equality Act 2010 to include statutory rights and time off for union equality reps in order to put them on an equal footing with workplace, safety and learning reps.

This is a principle Unite remains committed to achieving and in the meantime electing new equality reps and then training them remains a priority. 

In November 2011 Shokat Ali, a Royal Bank of Scotland employee in Manchester, and Stagecoach bus drivers, Simon Bell and Phil Peak, utilised negotiated agreements with their companies to join the four day Equality and Diversity course in Unite’s offices close to Old Trafford. Joining them were voluntary sector and local government reps, all recently elected. 

“I became an equalities rep because of the introduction of the Equality Act that is designed to help achieve equal opportunities at work. I wanted to get up to date with all the new legislation. Then I want to use it to represent members as part of a fight to get their rights by establishing an effective line of communication with management,” explained Shokat. 

“And to do that you need a bit of guidance, which is where the course comes in,” said Simon, a driver for over 25 years. 

“We don’t want people being discriminated against, and fighting on someone’s behalf is helped if you’re up to date with case law and can put forward concise arguments,” said Phil, who works in Stockport.  

“We’ve studied how to evaluate and tackle harassment, victimisation and direct and indirect discrimination of groups that are protected under the act on grounds of age, race, religion, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, sexual orientation, disability and gender reassignment,” said Shokat. 

“Which will be a big help at our bus depots as there many people who want to know what are their equality rights. As such we deal with many issues around time off for dependents, illnesses and disabilities,” said Phil, who in his ‘spare time’ is also teaching English as a Second Language to foreign drivers at Stagecoach.

Admitting that “most drivers probably don’t understand the role of equality reps,” both Phil and Simon were intending to help educate them by using union notice boards to explain the role. Like Shokat, they had little doubt that sceptics could be won over when they explained what they’d learnt on the course. 

“It’s for the members benefit that I’ve attended,” said Simon “and very largely I think they appreciate that to be the case. Like most workplaces today we have a diverse workforce and equality at work is very important.”

The course was tutored by Dave Marshall, who was a shop steward for 27 years until wrongfully dismissed by his employer in 2004, following which he undertook a Law Degree and Masters before becoming a tutor in Trade Union education. 

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