Meet the steward: Unions can help drive up the quality of social care, argues Kirsten Hey

In the second of our look at the people behind the Unison, Community Care caught up with occupational therapist Kirsten Hey, a union steward for health and social care in Edinburgh council.

Why did you join the union?

It would never have occurred to me to not be in a union. It’s the background I come from: my dad was a steward with the electrical engineers union, so it was automatic. Even when I had a Saturday job in the supermarket when I was 16 I joined the shop workers’ union.

How did you end up moving from a union member to a steward?

When I started work post-qualifying in the NHS in Kent in 1992, the previous steward had left and nobody else would take it on. I took the point of view that it was better to do it myself than have nobody doing it.

I was, and still am, a member of the British Association of Occupational Therapists (BAOT) and the main thing I did in there was get involved with the discussions for the agreement that now exists between the BAOT and Unison, where Unison provides the union services to BAOT members.

After that I moved to work for the NHS in Liverpool in 1993 where there was a steward already, so I had a period off. I came back to Edinburgh in 1994 to work in the local infirmary, I took stewarding up again around 1995 after the previous steward left and remained as steward for the rest of my time there. In 2000, I moved over to social work and the year after a steward stood down and I took the role on. I had a break in 2006 when I was on secondment, but went back to stewarding in 2008 and haven’t stopped since.

What does a union steward do?

A lot of the work is about passing information on; information coming from other places within the union and from management and making sure the members are aware of that. I also answer informal questions from members, such as concerns about how somebody has been treating them, whether management could do something or what’s happening with this year’s pay claim. Then there’s the more formal work, representing members in grievances and disciplinaries and attending formal meetings with management at a variety of levels.

What do you enjoy about being a union steward?

You get an awful lot of satisfaction out of it when somebody comes to you with a serious problem in the workplace and you’re able to help them get a solution that makes their life better. In some ways I’m using some of the same skills in my job – problem solving skills, listening skills, analysing a situation and coming up with a solution. Also I get access to the decision makers in a way that you don’t get as a non-steward. We go to meetings with the top-level management, sometimes we’re in meetings with councillors and I’ve been in meetings with government ministers. Getting the opportunity to meet these people face-to-face and say what the problems are and what the possible solutions could be – you don’t get that opportunity very often as an everyday worker.

Why should those working in social care join a union?

The first thing is protection for themselves, assistance if they are being treated badly by their employer or if somebody makes an allegation against them or if something goes wrong at work. The second most important thing is having the knowledge that you are not fighting on your own, that you’re doing things in a collective way. Unions are collectives and depend on everybody doing their bit. If you’re in a workplace that doesn’t have a steward then either elect one or stand for election yourself, because the union is only as good as the activity members put into it.

Can unions help social care services improve?

Yes, unions can help with that. It’s not an obvious link – we might not be able to make social work get more funding, but because union stewards and members work in these services we can see when things are going wrong and use the evidence we get from members to argue for changes or improvements. Some people have a very old-fashioned view that unions are there to say no to change, but I don’t see that as our role at all. We’re there to say no to the wrong sorts of change, but very often we are pushing for change because we can see it will make things better for the workers and for the service users.

Have you achieved anything as a union steward of which you are particularly proud?

There are some recently that I can’t talk about, but when I worked at the infirmary in Edinburgh there was a nursing assistant on one of the wards who became quite unwell and was no longer fit to do her current job, which involved shift work. Because of my job as a occupational therapist I was familiar with all the wards in the infirmary and what they did, so I was able to suggest a move to a different ward that didn’t require shift work and required a lot less manual handling and physical work, so she was able to move to that job. As far as I know she is still in that job today and as healthy as she can be, which is great.

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