What’s it like working for a union?

What’s it like working for a union?

So what does it mean to be an organiser? I’m probably not the best person to answer this question, as I’ve only been doing the job a couple of weeks, but I think it’s a great chance for me to reflect on what I’ve done so far, and how it has matched my vision of what the job might be like.

First things foremost: it’s a union. I’ve worked in lots of places before, but I’ve never worked in a place that is so obviously a collective. Everything that we do here is decided upon by all of us – we make the decisions – and when I say we, I don’t just mean the paid organisers and officers of the union – I mean the members of the union and those who have been elected from the rank and file to represent them.
Compare that to your average workplace, where the boss tells the underbosses what to do, and they tell everyone else. Workplaces like that are based on the need for executive power – and they hold over everybody in them the economic threat of ‘do it my way or you’re fired’. Unions don’t work that way, as far as we know. We’re a voluntary organisation, and more than that, we’re a voluntary organisation that demands money from its members. Our power has to come from solidarity – it is power that is given to the executive by the membership – not extorted via the barrel of your next payslip.
The work that I’ve done falls into a couple of different categories. Firstly, there is what everyone calls ‘servicing’. Basically, this is problem-solving on an individual basis. If a member wants to know why they didn’t get paid, or if they think their timetable is too big, or anything of that sort, I can find that out for them and sort it all out. Often, this is a matter of simply providing the member with information.
The second category is what I call advocacy. Here’s where we speak on behalf of the membership. For example, as a teacher’s union, we might make representation to the Board of Studies about professional accreditation. We might argue cases in court. We might sit on different panels – all of which we can do on behalf of our members because their fees provide us with the resources to do so.
The last category (and I should mention that I borrowed these categories from Si Kahn) is mobilising. This is where we get the members to take action about particular issues. Of course, we provide guidance – we build awareness, communicate issues, facilitate discussion about political issues and such, but its the members who are taking the action – stopping work, going on strike or whatever the case may be. Needless to say, this is the kind of action that gets the headlines – and is the most effective.