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Volunteering to help an NUJ member is hugely rewarding - #heartunions


11 February 2016

Andy Smith, NUJ president

I’d been working in book publishing for about three months, and what was to become a large and successful chapel didn’t yet exist. I’m afraid my first response when Stephen asked me if I was interested in joining a union was "which one?"

The company was small then, I remember that we counted 14 NUJ-eligible members. Soon we were a chapel of 12 and I, as Father of Chapel, was in decidedly frosty dialogue with the managing director. I don’t remember asking myself then, or very often since, why I joined a union. I’ve always considered them to be an obvious good, allowing staff a voice in a relationship where the other partner is accustomed to having the authority.

On the face of it things didn’t go well. The redundancies, mine included, may well have been part of a wider trend to outsourcing, but we felt that it was also a reaction to our setting up the chapel. Our opposition, though in the end fruitless, I think demonstrated to all that took part that we could organise ourselves, that we could have our say, that the union would back us. The chapel, now recognised, is still there. The MD has long since retired.

That feels like a long time ago. It was 1990. Since then, whilst working in-house and as a freelance, I’ve served on all sorts of union councils and committees, including the national executive, campaigned on a huge range of issues, been elected as the union’s joint vice-president and am now coming towards the end of two years as joint president. In that time I’ve not had to ask the union for very much but have gained a huge amount.

The stand-out moment of my time as president has to be the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris. I was honoured to join representatives of media unions from across Europe to march with the families of those who had been killed. The experience was overwhelming.

Presidential duties have taken me from back rooms of pubs with half a dozen members to speeches at TUC, meetings with government ministers and TV interviews for channels that nobody who knows me will ever watch. I get most satisfaction, however, from a role in which I rarely mention my current position in the union; individual case work.

Volunteering, when I have the time, to support a member in difficulty who isn’t lucky enough to have the backing of an active chapel is hugely rewarding. The skills I’ve developed dealing with disciplinaries, grievances and redundancies, as well as the experiences I’ve had representing the union addressing people large in number or in ego, are ones I could never have had but for the NUJ.

Though dangerous and nasty in myriad ways, it’s not the individual clauses of the Trade Union Bill that anger me so much as what it represents in its entirety. I joined the union the same year as Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister. This bill, I think, represents attitudes formed then. There is no reason, no justification for it now. It’s a piece of unfinished business, a parting shot in an argument largely forgotten and entirely irrelevant.

The NUJ is supporting the TUC week of action #heartunions to celebrate the work of the trade union movement and to campaign against the government's divisive trade union bill.

Tags: , heartunions, tuc, trade union bill