Thursday, 11 October 2007

Representing indifference

Perhaps the disinterest of union members to turn out to protest and vote at elections is equalled only by the impassivity of the reps.

In the sub-textual constitution of union activity, protecting the health and safety of workers is the first amendment. Accordingly, the mythical figure of the rep crouched like a tiger ready to leap on any infringements by management, lingers as a shadow somewhere deep in my subconscious. But this shadow finds its casting corpus only in other unions, in other places; far away from Wonderland.

And there’s another place yet further away from Wonderland. It’s a dark and dirty place.
One thought has been going over and over in my mind: How is it possible for a person to die in a swimming pool and yet for no heads to roll. Head of Risk, Safety and Health Mr Martin Hedley-Smith at the University of Wolverhampton remains in his role like a fat cat licking its whiskers waiting for its next small prey.

Of course, this doesn’t concern Sally Hunt and the UCU; the lifeguards on duty weren’t part of the union and neither is Mr Hedley-Smith.

No academics drowned so what’s the problem?

It does make me wonder though how the health and safety of others is put at risk in this, like many other universities, unchecked; what is the union doing to protect them?

In 2005, I visited the office of one Wolverhampton University lecturer in the School of Computing and IT and was chilled to my bones. Aside from the dense encrustation of dirt over everything (including the nearly blackened window), there were too many breaches of human dignity and workers’ health and safety to name; bicycles in the office, outdated electrical safety checks, poor light, ventilation and space; the list goes on. But what I had come to see was a chair, a simple chair. Too simple really because it was broken and unusable. Nonetheless, the academic it was assigned to had been ‘using’ it for a year or so, was refused a replacement by line management.

Management, health and safety and, here’s the crux, the union rep , Mr John Roche, knew all about it.

The academic, a union member at the time, fought hard alone to obtain a new £30 chair that could meet regulations. Meanwhile, Mr Roche, in a manner I later learnt to be typical of Wolverhampton union reps., responded collusively, otiosely and with an overwhelming sense of ineluctability, by doing absolutely zero. This was the first, but not the last encounter with a novel attitude towards unionism, which colloquially translates to “don’t rock the boat, you’re in your probation year.”.

Just why is a pay rise campaign more juicy material for Sally Hunt than broken chairs and shitty offices.

Is it okay to suffer the discomfort and indignity of a hostile unsafe working environment as long as the ‘take-home’ is good enough?

These issues may come with less bells and whistles to further political careers, but it is what matters to members most because, aside from the rhetoric, Wonderland can be a cold, dark place for a member with a broken trust.

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