Michelle England explains what led her to become active in the union and shares her experience of standing up for BAOT members at work.
I first got involved in BAOT/UNISON when Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) were created in 2001. During this time, AHPs were being made to move from their familiar acute settings over to the PCTs, and the initial proposal for the AHP directorate to be split was not wanted by our members.
Every time my manager returned from meetings where plans were discussed, she was not able to answer our questions. After a while, she grew sick of the constant badgering and told me that if I wanted answers, then I should go to the meetings myself! So I did, and a few weeks later I found myself at a trust board meeting with the director of AHPs. The issue was debated and it was decided to go ahead and split staff up, but I just didn’t feel like I had the confidence to speak up, so I spent the duration of the meeting tugging on the director’s sleeve, telling them how wrong they were. Following the meeting, I decided that I needed to take matters into my own hands, so I encouraged every AHP staff member to write to the chair of the board to express their concerns. Finally, the board gave in and we were all moved over to the PCT as one.
It was this experience of challenging a management decision and successfully changing it, that prompted me to become active in my union. I became involved in the UNISON branch and after a short while it became evident that there was tension between the community and hospital staff and it was my role to bring the staff together. I managed to win them around and not long after, I became the Branch Secretary. It was only then that I felt confident enough to attend the Joint Negotiating Committee as the Staff Side representative for BAOT/UNISON. This was a great experience, it helped me to develop my negotiating and communication skills and I found that I could navigate my way through difficult meetings with management and the other trade union reps. The next thing I knew, I was Staff Side Chair which was an excellent achievement for me both personally and professionally. I’m now Vice-Chair of the Regional Health Committee, the lay member on the TUC group on ‘Devo Manc’ and the Chair of the National OT Panel.
Being a union rep has equipped me with a massive range of skills, all of which have benefited me in my clinical role. I have learned how to:
- build relationships between different groups with diverse interests,
- deal with challenging behaviours
- engage in policy development and strategic planning
- be a successful negotiator.
All these skills are transferable and greatly enhance future career prospects.
What I’ve learnt is just how important it’s been for me to act as a professional voice for OTs in the workplace. It’s because I put myself forward as a BAOT rep that I’ve been able to attend meetings with directors and chief executives and bring an OT perspective to discussions. I’ve always been at pains to use every available opportunity to promote the value of Occupational Therapy – being active in the union gives me many more opportunities to do this.
Over the years in my role as a steward I’ve been given the chance to talk to people that I’d never usually come into contact with – the decision makers at the top. Being a BAOT steward has equipped with so many skills but it would be a lie if I said that it’s been plain sailing. In our professional lives, we’re constantly being asked to do more with fewer resources, and that makes our role challenging and all consuming. As a union rep, it’s our job, to promote what we do and to let others know about the benefits of partnership working with trade unions. I have witnessed so many times that when an employer works in partnership with the unions to resolve an issue or meet a challenge, it results in better decision-making and outcomes for both patients and staff.
Being a union rep has been great for me, my branch and my profession but most of all, it’s been beneficial for patients and the services they receive. I am proud to be a BAOT/UNISON steward and I strongly encourage other OTs to put themselves forward, to be active in the union and make a positive difference in the workplace
North West regional BAOT lead
Article first published in OTnews September 2016
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