Trade union branches are the backbone of organised labour. They are staffed by union members volunteering to take on roles which they are then elected to by other members in the branch and fulfil an array of functions (e.g. collective campaigns, negotiations with management and individual support in workplace processes) for their members.

Chris Rawlinson, the Branch Secretary of Unite’s University of Sheffield branch was kind enough to talk to me about the efforts of his branch since 2020. All branches (if they are in rude health) have an executive committee and supporting volunteer officers. The structure of Unite’s University of Sheffield branch is as follows:

  • Chair
  • Secretary
  • Treasurer
  • Equalities Officers (x3)
  • Health & Safety Officers (x3)
  • Learning Rep
  • Workplace Representatives (x2)

Everyone on the committee, except for the Treasurer and Learning Rep, also act as Workplace Representatives (stewards) while one of the Equalities Reps is also Assistant Branch Secretary. The branch is allocated 49 hours of Facility Time per week (paid time off for branch reps to do union duties) by the University, which is then shared out according to the reps’ commitments. Facility time is integral to a branch being able to operate. The branch has weekly committee meetings to discuss workplace issues (such as casework and restructures) and get through the various bits of admin that are necessary to keep the branch going. The branch has recently experienced a resurgence and in 2020 and 2021, having more members join than in the previous five years.

Rawlinson explained that successful results in disputes were key for revitalising the branch. When he started there were only three active reps, now they have twelve (and another three at the Student Union, who count as a separate employer) and a fully functioning branch committee. The pandemic was key for elevating the branch, Unite is one of many trade unions operating at the University of Sheffield and when Covid struck management wanted to constantly liaise with labour. Previously, meetings with management had been 6 weeks, now they were every week (and twice a week for the first six months). Rawlinson estimated that from March 2020 to the end of the year, the branch had at least 170 hours of meetings with management.

However, while the pandemic enabled more regular communication with management, it also facilitated conflict. The main element of this was the proposal to fire and rehire staff (by issuing Section 188 notices) in July 2020 citing a potential £100 million deficit caused by the pandemic (the University actually ended up with a £40 million surplus). The University issued the legal notices, and this triggered a 90-day consultation with proposals including a 10% reduction in wages (though with management not saying for whom) and a proposed four-day week with staff losing a day’s pay. Interestingly, this was around the same time that British Airways were attempting this, indicating that one bad employer will encourage another.

For Rawlinson this was the first organising campaign that he had been involved in at the University, and the crisis energised the branch. Tactics to engage workers included putting QR codes around the campus that linked to a survey asking, “Can you afford a 10% pay cut?” The branch also discovered that the Vice Chancellor, unlike many other VCs, would not be taking a pay-cut and thus took the forthright step of ‘naming and shaming’ them. The result was that union membership soared, and no fire and rehire efforts took place as management withdrew the Section 188 notices forty days into the ninety-day consultation.

Another campaign, this time in 2021, involved expanding into a previously largely un-unionised workforce with the cleaning staff who were all on 15-hour contracts and paid the real living wage from 2019. This required a different approach, and a lot of physical legwork involving meeting the cleaners in the early hours of the morning as they were on their way into work and disseminating a survey amongst them. Rawlinson explained that surveys were crucial to get workers involved and provide them with agency during their dispute.

The result was that the workers involved decided to push for £10 an hour (even though the branch thought that this might be optimistic, they thought it was a good opening gambit to secure the actual goal of a real living-wage). The main method of leveraging the University management in this instance was to take pictures of workers holding ‘pledge cards’ which stated that the worker in question pledged to take strike action if their demands were not met. This was essentially a more expedient way of conducting an indicative ballot for industrial action and demonstrating prospective strength to management. The result was that a £10 an hour rise was secured.

Rawlinson was keen to state how supportive the union’s Regional Officer (Harriet Eisner) and the Organising and Leverage Department (which was then headed by Sharon Graham, hence why the University of Branch supported her campaign for General Secretary) had been during these disputes. This represents a tangible demonstration of how paid trade union officials and lay representatives can work together, complicating the rank-and-file Vs bureaucracy caricature that is often applied to union organising. Of further interest was the fact that all the branch’s victories had been achieved without having to resort to strike action. This was not because the branch was not willing to strike, but because it was able to exert effective leverage without having to put its members through the difficulty of strike action. This is not an option that is available to all workers in dispute, but it is worth noting given how much strike action is often valorised.

Branch business is not all about securing the ‘big wins’ it is also about securing the more mundane victories. For instance, cleaners at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre site were provided with different uniforms which they felt unfairly segregated them from the rest of their colleagues; therefore, one of the success of the branch was to secure them the same uniforms. To an outsider this appears minor, but these small expressions of agency are vital in peoples’ working lives and build members’ confidence that they can win on bigger issues. 

Alongside the smaller workplace issues, there is also the consistent churn of branch casework. This can often seem mundane and involves navigating public sector bureaucracy in instances of sickness absence meetings and disciplinaries. However, for the worker involved these processes are often difficult, stressful, and can quickly spiral if they do not have access to the support of a trade union representative. Alongside periodic campaigns, casework is the bread and butter of trade union branches and vital for membership retention, though not every case can be won and the branch tries to ensure that hard cases are allocated to senior stewards who will not be too disheartened by defeat. Rawlinson described the branch’s strategy as looking to run a campaign over a particular workplace issue every few months, while in the interim making sure that branch meetings continue to happen, and casework is fulfilled.

There is already another dispute with the University on the horizon, which concerns union busting. The University has recently refused to provide the branch with staff lists (on the grounds of GDPR legislation, a legal interpretation that the union are contesting) and barred them from attending inductions for new staff. Essentially, the University is attempting to stop the branch from accessing the supply of un-unionised labour for recruitment, despite the union’s recognition agreement (a prerequisite for an effective branch) promising staff lists and access to inductions. Rawlinson did not feel that the branch could reveal what it had planned as a response.

Unite’s branch at the University of Sheffield is just one example of the forms that a local branch can take, but it shows that healthy local branches, and volunteerism, are the lifeblood of the trade union movement. Hopefully the current increase in industrial militancy leads to a revival in local branches’ organisation and efficacy, if it does not then the long-term impact of the strikes will be minimal.