Empowering workers and building networks – a union organiser’s story

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IMPACT organiser Linda Kelly

Just over two years ago, I joined the IMPACT family as one of six new union organisers. Bright eyed and bushy tailed (and perhaps even a little bit green) I was sent off to work with the Special Needs Assistants South Dublin /South Leinster branch.

During that time I’ve worked closely with the wonderful and dedicated group of people that make up our branch executive committee. Together we’ve been working to increase our membership, training workplace representatives and equipping them with negotiation skills and building a network of support across seven counties.

As organisers we work to bring the union closer to members, to build on the reputation of IMPACT, and support workers who are in difficult situations, supported by a great network of staff and activists across the union.

Nothing compares to meeting a group of SNAs to talk about joining the union. They’ll all have different reasons for being there and they’ll have plenty of questions. It’s a big first step for many of them, and quite often we’ll be meeting somewhere like a coffee shop miles away from where they work because there’s a genuine fear that they might be spotted meeting with a union.

No worker should have to live with that kind of fear, and much of our initial conversation will be about dispelling that fear, and empowering people through union membership. After that we set about the process of providing advice and guidance on whatever issue might be causing them trouble in their workplace.

Through this process we get to know each other a lot better, and you can begin to spot the people with the potential for taking on the role of the workplace rep. We’ll spend several weeks guiding new reps through negotiation with management, working with our official (Dessie Robinson) and helping to resolve any difficulties in the workplace. Taking people through that process, from our initial chat to developing a unionised workplace with members who feel supported and prepared, is the reason I love doing the job.

The role of organiser is one that IMPACT has really developed over the last number of years. The Dublin Care Services branch and the Boards & Voluntary Agencies branch were the first to develop the role and my colleagues Úna Faulkner and Joe O’Connor work with these branches respectively. The other SNA branches across the country work with my colleagues Joan McCrohan, Eimear Ryan and Deirdre O’Connell-Hopkins and Sinead Wynne has recently joined our team working with branches in the Mid West.

It’s a great team and between June 2013 and June 2014 we’ve seen 30% of all new IMPACT members recruited to the branches we work with. That’s an encouraging figure, and it has helped us to expand thriving rep networks across our branches and develop effective campaigns.

IMPACT has a much greater visibility in the workplaces where we’ve organised and that means that branches are stronger, better able to fight for their members and more effective at getting results. Best of all, we get to witness fear transform into empowerment. I love it.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” (Helen Keller)

 By Linda Kelly, Organiser, Education Division

Follow Linda on Twitter @lindabtweeting