Guest post: Trade unions: powered by community activists and volunteers

Guest post by Neil Foster of Northern TUC as part of VONNE’s Blog Action Day for Volunteers

Last month it was reported that trade unions membership rose across the North East from 327,00 to 341,000 in the region. Against the backdrop of huge job losses this is significant achievement. However it’s not just trade unions who benefit from this upsurge in membership but workplaces and wider civil society.

Not everyone knows about the work that union reps do on a regular basis in workplaces. We do our best but they’re not quite as newsworthy as industrial action being called. However the consistent and quiet achievements of union reps accurately represent the modern face of trade unions. Union reps are primarily voluntary roles that involve hours of unpaid commitment to help colleagues in a wide variety of way. We have union learning reps who help improve workplace skills most recently on display at Caterpillar in County Durham, safety reps to improve workplace safety and reduce accidents, green reps  to help improve the environmental sustainability of workplaces, and many others negotiating on behalf of members’ pay and conditions and those falsely or harshly disciplined at work. Others work hard on equality issues tackling discrimination at work and in communities. Through the TUC they receive decent training and skills support to enable them to perform in their role.

The core business of people who put themselves forward as union reps generates a strong economic return for workplaces and the country. Government figures show that Reps save employers over £103 million per year in avoidable dismissal cases, save the Exchequer over £22 million in workplace tribunals, saving over £126 million on workplace injuries and over a 3:1 return on investment in skills.

Additionally TUC survey of union reps showed how union reps additionally campaigned across wider society on a voluntary basis are 3 times more likely to volunteer in community initiatives than the average and 8 times more likely to be involved in civic participation. When asked to describe their wider community campaign priorities they reveal a strong emphasis on achieving social justice:

·         Tackling poverty and inequality 74%

·         Tackling unemployment 50%

·         Improving the quality of public services 46%

·         Tackling racism and the far-right 44%

Sadly despite their value at work and in communities there are some who attack the role of union reps at work and the financial investment in their activities. Ignoring support even from the CBI, the so-called ‘Taxpayers Alliance’ (who we must never forget has a director who doesn’t actually pay any tax in the UK) have launched repeated political attacks on union reps over the last year. This is despite (or perhaps because of) their proven value. Instead workplace reps should be recognised and celebrated. With over 6 million trade union members in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people who put themselves forward to improve their workplace and society, union reps are an important part of any Big Society. Collectively we represent an important force for social and economic progress as well as an often overlooked aspect of volunteering too.

Neil Foster

Policy and Campaigns Officer

Northern TUC

0191 227 5554 / 07786 717972

5th Floor Commercial Union House

39 Pilgrim Street

Newcastle upon Tyne


Now follow Northern TUC on twitter at


Please visit the VONNE blog to see the other contributions to the Blog Action Day.

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