Training gives union reps the edge
Reforms have made every college a bargaining unit where negotiating skills for members' rights are all important. The last thing any hard-pressed college union rep wants to hear is that more work is coming their way with new areas of responsibility.
A recent University and College Union initiative aimed at "greening" campuses across the UK might have won plaudits from David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser. But it still means more work for the reps.
A motion to develop the environmental role of the union was passed unanimously at the UCU conference in Bournemouth this year. With it came the lobbying and calls for legal rights and paid release for union reps' duties and training.
It is a far cry from the days when the duties of a union secretary or chair were restricted to negotiations on local conditions of service. Since incorporation in 1993 and a range of other decentralising reforms, every college has become a bargaining unit, drawing in a range of activities.
On the issues of health and safety alone there are complex tasks relating to the legal duties of employers, workplace regulations, hazard and risk assessment, tackling stress and bullying at work.
The "hottest issues" coming across the desks of regional and head office officials, according to Dan Taubman, UCU national official for FE, are pay and conditions, the blight of casualisation and measures to save courses on English for Speakers of Other Languages.
"When you look at the amount of work for reps, there are no comparisons now with the past. When I was a branch rep there was nothing like this. We ran a few courses to help reps and that was about it. I have to say that one of the best aspects of New Labour over the past 10 years is what it has done to help on the union learning front," said Mr Taubman.
The Government may have opened doors to more union powers. But for staff wishing to take a more active role in union life, the prospect can be daunting. However, it also offers opportunities to have influence and gain experience on a gradual climb through posts of increasing responsibility.
The big unions, notably UCU, Unison and GMB, have sophisticated training programmes to support reps in colleges. These include the role of representatives, representing members, organising and recruiting, and negotiating and bargaining.
For some, work in the union can also be a training ground towards a management post. The Association for College Management, which recently affiliated to the TUC, sees itself as active in creating a more enlightened management force.
David Green, ACM national officer for employer relations, said: "We encourage members to set up branches and sometimes we will approach the college HR departments with a view to setting up a branch."
As with the UCU, lack of time is the real enemy, even where they have willing candidates for posts. "The big difficulty in being a union representing management is that the workload is already excessive and there is no one to cover. If you undergo joint consultative meetings, the work will still be there when you get back."
For college boards and directors, the increased union workload can mean a growing bill for an ever-expanding range of people on legally sanctioned union duties. The unions are keen to make sure reps are properly trained as this is required for staff on paid release.
But principals often recognise benefits in a strong union. David Gibson, former principal of City College Manchester and The People's College Nottingham, said: "The union can play a really important role in letting you know what are the staff concerns and assessing needs in a different way to the principal. They do a good job on casework and other issues - the ones I have dealt with are red hot.
"On consultations over strategic change, I have always found unions positive. Without them, you miss out on a whole area of expertise and communications."
The posts and training requirements to match range from health and safety, union learning reps and branch officers to equality reps. Dan Taubman said: "These are not all confrontation. Some of the posts are a really good way of getting involved for those who maybe don't want the deeper involvement and grief of being a branch officer."
And, as the new regulations for continuing professional development and teacher training came into force last month, it meant more monitoring work for the union rep and more negotiations with management.
On the "greening" of colleges - another expanding area - Graham Petersen, the South London College executive UCU member, says they already have an environmental rep on each of the four college sites. All the unions agree there will be no let-up in the growth of tasks on campus. The only answer, they say, is for those already active to promote enthusiasm and keep the volunteers coming.