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'I’m proud of the justice' says NUJ rep at RCN

3 February 2015

Laura Downes

I took over the role of Mother of the Chapel at RCN Publishing nine years ago. I took this on with great reluctance and really because I felt guilty that others had put all the work in and that it was ‘my turn’. My biggest fear was that I would be a useless rep and might let people down.

The chapel had been represented by several FoCs/MoCs during my previous nine years, none for longer  than two years. My plan, therefore, was to hold the baton for up to two years and hand over at the appropriate time.
Most of the issues had been fairly routine including policy updates and pay negotiation. We had been through a job evaluation scheme which was fairly horrendous and some heavy duty pension negotiations but as these had been resolved so I felt it shouldn’t be too daunting. Little did I know.

Being the person that I am, I enrolled on the NUJ training for reps almost from the outset. This proved to be a very wise decision and I have found the training invaluable – I would urge all new reps to do the same.
The first five years were relatively without incident; some individual representations, policy updates, pay negotiations, all that would generally be expected for a rep. The management/union relationship was a positive one and the company, in the main, a happy one.

Four years ago our CEO retired and a new CEO joined the company. From very early on it was apparent that we would all need to adjust to a very different management style. There is of course nothing wrong with that necessarily and I for one embrace change. As long as change is positive, appropriate and fair. Some of the proposed changes were seen by most of the staff as forward thinking and welcomed, several others, unfortunately, were not.

Existing directors left – by mutual agreement – and new directors were brought in to the company. Some of the new directors were known previously to the CEO.

In 2011, days before the law changed to abolish age discrimination in the workplace, two members of staff who were over 65 were asked to leave by compulsory retirement. Neither wanted to leave and both had worked for the company for approximately 25 years. There were no stated issues with the quality of their work and no financial incentive was offered to either of them. I put together a petition which was signed by 88 members of staff, out of 100 total including directors. In representing these two members of staff I managed to extend their employment by six months, but sadly that was all I could achieve.

Other management decisions that needed to be challenged by members included: offshoring of work to India; salary benchmarking; a new web platform that led to multiple problems; redundancy; and extremely large fees to external consultants. Most overarching was low staff morale, an overall feeling of working within a blame culture and incidents of intimidation. 

The CEO absented herself from management/union negotiations and discussion. Hardly a day went by without a member coming to me in tears, angry, frustrated and in fear – for themselves and their future within the company.

With the exceptional and wholly invaluable support of the NUJ and Fiona Swarbrick, our national organiser, I undertook a pathway of whistleblowing. We discussed an independent investigation, but eventually this was denied. 

Borne out of frustration, in February 2014 the chapel lodged a vote of no confidence in our CEO. Although some members were keen at this time to submit a collective grievance, I suggested that a more tactical approach would be to take the vote of no confidence to keep discussions open in an attempt to resolve the issues less formally.

The issues stated by the chapel were: permitting a culture of intimidation; poor leadership; and inadequate communication about the direction of the company and changes in working practices. Various meetings followed. At each, the meeting commenced with us being informed that the board were totally in support of our CEO. We continued with our request for an independent investigation, at each these were denied with the suggestion we deal with the matters internally. Throughout this time we remained compliant with the requests.

We met with two board members in May 2014, at the start of which we were guaranteed and reassured that the meeting was without prejudice and totally private and confidential, though a note taker then came in to the meeting. I cannot describe my horror to discover that the notes of my evidence had been sent to the CEO by the note taker. Potentially, members could be identified and most certainly, I could and was. It left me shaking, literally. I felt my position by now was untenable and  that any small amount of trust remaining was destroyed.

I realised that I had no other option than to call a chapel meeting and propose a collective grievance. Other than one abstention, this was agreed unanimously. Because the notes had been sent to the CEO we added breach of confidentiality to the previous issues stated in the vote of no confidence. This time we insisted on an independent investigation. This time it was agreed.  

I was contacted and given the details of the person to conduct the investigation. Feeling satisfied, I agreed. I also agreed to accept the results without the right to appeal, being guaranteed that the management would also agree to this. It was a gamble, a big one, but one that I felt confident in accepting.

The investigation commenced in May and concluded in October, with 83 members of staff having been interviewed. The outcome is that all four counts were upheld in their entirety.

Following the report the CEO and a director left on amicable terms. The external consultants also left. A further director will be leaving in April. An interim CEO is in place and while there are still difficult times ahead and decisions to be made, morale is improving. It will naturally take time for people to start trusting again, but I feel that we have transparency and most of all, respect and regard for members of staff now.

I would be a liar if I said any of this has been easy. This has been one of the hardest experiences I have ever endured. Yet I’m proud. I’m proud of the justice. I’m proud of the faith members had in me through many difficult times. I’m proud of the NUJ and the support I had throughout. I’m proud that whenever I wavered – and there were times I did – I sat back and considered right from wrong. It was that which always kept me going.  

My suggestion to anyone facing a similar battle is to stay strong and keep the faith. To apply strategy and get the timings right – during my time our membership grew from around 23 to around 65 which proved crucial in gaining a majority and having to be listened to. Oh and of course… to keep a good bottle of wine at hand for the tough days!   

Laura is the MoC at RCN Publishing.

Tags: , rcn publishing, reps, negotiations, change, strategy, campaigns, magazines