I entered the workplace not having a clue what a union was.
By the time I finally landed myself a part time job in a local supermarket in East London, I was a shy and nervous 18-year-old. The supermarket recognised a union, however didn’t mention this on my induction and so for my first 6 months I had no clue.
Building up to Easter, I had an operation which meant I couldn’t walk for 10 weeks. I provided my manager with a surgeon's certificate, doctor’s notes - the lot.
Still receiving daily texts, I was pressured back to work earlier than scheduled and on my first shift back, 5 minutes before my shift was up, I was told to go to the manager's office where to my surprise I entered my first ever disciplinary.
My manager asked if I needed a union rep, to which I said, “what do you mean?”
They then asked if I was a member of a union – I responded: “I don’t think so”. “Well, you can’t have a union rep then”, and so the meeting went on.
Despite my shyness, I stood my ground and questioned why I was in a disciplinary when I received no indication that my operation would be a problem.
Management told me that they didn’t know I was ill and would have to provide evidence.
It felt cynical as I personally handed in a letter from the doctor before the surgery and my mum had hand-delivered every doctor’s note since.
The meeting was eventually adjourned at 11pm, an hour after my shift had actually finished. I got home that night feeling I was about to lose my sole source of income.
I warmed up some leftover pasta and quickly went to bed, as my next shift started at 8am. I was deeply upset.
After a restless and anxious night, I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast. My mum asked how I was, and I said I was fine but - a mother knows.
She asked if I was a member of a union and I remember saying “I don’t know what that is”.
She told me about my granddad, a committed trade unionist and a member of what is now Unite.
With the knowledge that someone can stand by me and protect me in this meeting, I turned up to the work cafeteria early and asked an experienced colleague for info about the union.
I filled out my form with my new union rep in five minutes.
Our meeting resumed and when I was asked “do you want a union rep?”, I said ‘yes’.
The look on management’s faces was priceless and in walked my rep who demanded they find my doctors notes. After one of them went to have “another look” surprise, surprise, they found all of them.
The meeting concluded pretty much at that point.
Since that moment, no matter the workplace, I always have and always will join my union.
I’m now a proud member of Unite and have delivered the ‘Unite in Schools’ programme to the next generation of workers.
I’m also now a lot braver when taking on management.
And one of my ambitions over the next few years is to become a rep so that I can stand up for workers in the same way my reps have always done for me.
Unfortunately, stories like mine are rare.
Trade union density is low amongst young workers.
This is why employers find us easy prey when making redundancies or exploiting our naivety around our rights at work.
This is why it’s so important as a movement we devote time and energy to unionising the next generation of workers, reps and activists.
I love my union and I love this movement.
This week and beyond, let’s share that love with young workers who like me, eight years ago, had no clue of what difference a union can make for all of our lives.
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