“You must be happy that Corbyn got in,” is what many people say when I tell them I work for a trade union. I reply that I am, and long may he remain leader. What amuses me most about this is that they use the Labour leader’s surname and not “Jeremy” like my younger colleagues, as though they are on personal speaking terms with him.
I have been a lefty for as long as I have understood about politics and was delighted when I got a job at a trade union, helping out in the membership department. It was a chance for me to join the cause, promote workers’ rights, do my bit to get Labour back in power and eat hummus and pitta bread with intelligent staff who enlighten me with their deeply thought-out political theories.
The reality is somewhat different. There are too many opinions, too many discussions and not enough decision makers – but I guess that’s socialism for you. Weak management means there is a complete lack of consistency among staff: everyone seems to be working on their own pet project rather than doing anything together as a team. No sooner are ideas implemented than they are cast aside again – often the same day. Our crumbling membership, which sees us lose many members every month, never gets addressed – no wonder striking is at itslowest level since records began. Strong personalities are allowed to get their own way and, quite often, their own working hours.
A typical day consists of making a pot of coffee, answering emails from members, (im)politely declining telephone sales calls, answering “I’ve no idea” when other staff ask me what they are meant to be doing, and browsing the internet while I wait for my manager to give me some work to complete. To say I’m under-used would be an understatement – this was written at my desk.
I will stay here for a long time though, because the benefits – as you would expect from a trade union – are incredible. Short hours (and no one would dream of doing overtime), ample holiday, a very good salary (especially considering the amount of work I have to do), a great pension and being able to attend any training course I wish.
There are disadvantages to these perks though, as nobody feels they can leave until they retire or are offered a fantastic redundancy package. Even that doesn’t work sometimes, as people realise they are on to such a good thing that they refuse the redundancy offer and stay here to do little more than open the post for the rest of their working lives, while still picking up the same salary.
As a result we have an ageing workforce with no fresh ideas. The activists are computer illiterate, preferring to print out emails instead of send them on electronically. I was once scoffed at for suggesting that we try to have a paperless office instead of killing rainforests. “We have too many old members. They like to fill out forms,” I was told.
They are right. We do have too many old members. For all our talk about diversity, our membership, branches and committee are the definition of pale, male and stale. It is rare to see a woman at any branch meeting or on any committee. Or a young person or anyone from an ethnic minority for that matter.
The waste of our members’ subscription fees is scandalous. The annual conference takes so much time to organise and costs a small fortune, all so a group of old, cantankerous men from the branches can spend a couple of nights away from home in a seaside town drinking copious amounts of free alcohol.
My colleagues are constantly away from the office on courses so I barely see them. It feels like we have to attend at least one course per month about “successful team working”: where the bonhomie that is created evaporates as soon as the training room door opens. Cliques form and promotions are impossible unless you are in the right one.
Those who represent members at industrial tribunals are often the rudest and most sexist of all. They can be very prickly too. I have heard the C-word used so often that I now think of it purely as a noun rather than anything offensive.
When potential members ask me why they should join, I give them the usual spiel but what I’m really thinking is: “Join our rivals, they are cheaper and care more about you than we do.”
I haven’t completely lost faith in the movement yet though. I know there are better unions out there, and to be fair there are still a few staff here who work hard for the members. They have great knowledge about employment law, and are skilled and tenacious negotiators who care deeply about the people they represent.
Whether my union will be around in a few years to keep the red flag flying for them is doubtful though. But here’s hoping comrade Corbyn will.
First published in The Guardian on 8 August 2016 at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/08/secret-life-trade-union-employee-work-benefits-workers-rights