‘You are The Union – what are you going to do about it?’April 22 2021
Voice spoke recently with several CWU reps and officers from different parts of the union, different businesses and various parts of the country, asking why they got involved in the CWU and for their message to potential activists of the future…
Back in the early 1990s, telecoms clerical worker Karen Rose was “fed up with how they were treating us after we got redeployed from Cardiff to Newport. “So, I went and banged on the door of the union office demanding to know what the union was going to do about it,” recalls Karen, who is now of course our CWU president. “An older man opened the door and calmly replied: ‘Well my lovely, you are the union – what are you going to do about it’?
“And it was that moment when I made my mind up to become a rep.” She tells The Voice: “That man was our South Wales Branch secretary Ken Lovell, who was always very kind and encouraging to me and to others. He sadly passed away last year.”
Karen was active in the CWU’s first equality structures, which, she says: “At the time were a huge step forward, but these structures gradually began to ‘box in’ people a bit.
“The structure created a mindset of ‘she’s an active woman, put her on the women’s committee’, or ‘here’s a keen black member – ideal for our race committee’.
“It was time for a rethink – for a fresh approach,” Karen explains, adding: “Mainstreaming and positive action are the way forward – more effective for proportionality and for encouraging new activists and reps to come forward.
“And what an important time it is to become active – when we’re hard in struggle with an aggressive BT management.”
Mahmood Ali was an activist before he came to live in the UK – having been involved in the pro-democracy movement and protests in Pakistan in the 1980s.
“An elected government had been overthrown in a military coup, our Prime Minister had been hanged, and students like me were marching in the streets and demanding a return to democracy,” he recalls.
“Crackdowns on protesters, arrests and heavy-handedness of police were regular occurrences and I was arrested more than once although I was never actually charged with anything.”
These experiences had already politicised Mahmood when, as a 20-year-old, he moved to the UK in 1990. “I strongly believed in the principles of social-democracy and when I started work for Royal Mail, becoming a union activist was something I strongly wanted to do,” he says, adding: “I appreciated the democracy and freedoms here and I wanted to be actively involved in the trade union and labour movement.
“I was a unit rep, a shift rep and an area processing rep before being elected onto the executive and I’d say this union’s done more for me than anyone else in terms of education and development,” he says, and adds: “This union’s for everyone.”
Mahmood describes the struggle to encourage more members from a BAME background to become reps as a “chicken and egg situation” between opportunities provided and people coming forward and he describes the CWU as “very welcoming and embracing.
“We need BAME members to come forward – if they come forward, they will get elected as our membership isn’t biased when voting.”
Denise O’Neill is a BT/Openreach engineer, providing fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) connections in Northern Ireland. Originally working for the company in a clerical role, Denise redeployed into an engineering position 10 years ago and says that her male colleagues had been “totally supportive” in her retraining efforts.
“I already knew quite of few of our engineers from my previous job and all I got from them was encouragement – it’s been the same within the union for me too.
“I reckon there are probably around a dozen female Openreach engineers over here,” she says, adding: “I think about four working on exchange jumpering, one or two are data engineers and then a few ladies in the field.”
As South Section Chair of Northern Ireland Telecoms Branch, Denise has one day per week for CWU duties and the rest of the week in her Openreach job.
“I was elected as South Section Chair four years ago and I put my name forward because of how much the CWU had assisted me when I’d needed it, when I’d gone to the union with my own difficulties. “I wanted to get involved with the CWU so I could help other people in return,” she tells The Voice.
“Erin Massey, our branch secretary, was my mentor and I still go to her if there’s a CWU issue that maybe I haven’t encountered before. She’s always massively supportive.
“Personally, I find being a rep very rewarding. I’d really like more people to be reps – there’s always support and back up from this union and you can really make a difference. We’ll certainly welcome new activists coming forward to be reps in Northern Ireland.”
Ishak Ali, a central London BT/Openreach engineer, represents members in Capital Branch and was elected as their Young Workers officer some 18 months ago.
“I spoke up often at our team meetings on various issues, particularly safety and near misses. And after one of those meetings a senior branch rep, Paggett Lewis, took me to one side and asked me to stand for the vacant youth rep position,” says Ishak.
“So, I agreed to stand, got elected and now I’m learning more and more about the CWU – the elections, the motions, going to the AGM – and I’m starting to get to grips with it all. “Recently I’ve been very involved with the CMI campaign, speaking to members about the issues involved in this dispute and how important it all is to everyone,” he continues, adding that, if the company refuses to reach a fair agreement with the union, he expects members would strongly back a call for action if called upon.
“As the weeks go by, we’re just seeing more and more redundancies. BT is not listening to us at all, so something has to be done to make things change for the better – and for a better future. “Nobody is safe if the management carry on in this way,” he warns, adding: “We’ve all got to stand together.
“My view is, if there’s anything we think the union needs to do better, or any issues we want to push forward, getting involved in the union is the way to do it.”
“The racist graffiti on the toilet walls was horrendous,” recalls Ian Taylor when asked about his first impressions when he began work at Manchester Mail Centre back in the 1980s.“Back then, you could count the number of black members of staff on one hand and there were very few women too,” he continues, “and it was about then that the company was just beginning to start on the road to diversity – and the union was just getting to grips with the issue as well.”
Ian, a long-serving representative for the North Wales & North West Division, first became a rep in 1992, after becoming more and more determined to push for change at the Manchester unit.
“There was an almost militarised attitude from management and I found myself objecting increasingly to their treatment of the workforce, so I stood for election as late shift rep and I’ve been active within the union ever since.”
Ian was instrumental in the setting up of the first CWU Black Workers Conference back in 1996 and remembers the arguments against these early equality initiatives.
“People who didn’t like it asked things like: ‘We already have a national conference, what’s the need for a black workers’ conference’? and ‘We don’t have a white workers’ conference, so why a black one’?
“But it was necessary at that time,” he insists. “It brought black members forward and it brought us forward as a union.”
However, circumstances change, workplace culture and the composition of the membership has changed – and with the redesign strategy, we are taking equality into everything our union does.
“What we really need is new people coming forward to drive that change on. And I’d urge members to contact their branches and be part of that. There’s something for everyone to do!”
Royal Mail delivery worker Luke Elgar first became involved as a young member representative for Essex Amal Branch, and tells us that his father, Keith, was his first inspiration.
“Dad was unit rep at Leigh-on-sea Delivery Office where I started work back when I was 18,” he recalls. “But even before then, I often went on marches and rallies with him and his union friends.
“And a particular event that really got me interested was hearing Jeremy Corbyn speaking in Southend during the 2017 election campaign – for me, he said so many things I wanted to see happen.”
The Leigh office merged into Southend MPU several years ago and is now one of the larger delivery units in the company, Luke explains, and says that he has recently deputised as a substitute rep for delivery members. “The Young Worker role is a great way to learn and a great place to start – in a way, it’s a bit like a ‘CWU apprenticeship’ in some respects and I’d strongly recommend this role to a new member who wants to become involved.
“When I first took on that position, I worried I was going to ‘fall’, but there’s always someone to help and advise you – an experienced rep who’s faced the same issue you might be needing advice about for example.
“Plus of course, the CWU provides brilliant training courses,” he points out. “ We absolutely need new people to come forward.”