Former archaeologist Ben Middleton describes how he ditched the trowel and mattock to become a union organiser.
How did you get into archaeology Ben?
A friend suggested I look into archaeology as I was interested in social science: I completed an HND course at Bournemouth University before studying for a further two years at York University. I graduated in 1995 with a BA Honours and went into fieldwork.
Why do archaeologists need to join unions?
It’s not a secure profession: finding work often relies on planning permission being granted for large-scale infrastructure and building projects. Archaeologists often lead an itinerant life. You have to go where the work is and that’s typically with a range of different employers.
I became a member of Prospect when I worked on the new Terminal 5 site at Heathrow. The project brought together a large number of archaeologists, employed by two different companies (the Oxford Archaeological Unit and Wessex Archaeology). Working in mixed teams, we discovered we had different terms and conditions and pay, which caused friction between the employees and the companies.
Union membership was low at this time, so I did a lot of organising and recruitment work to encourage colleagues to join. The Heathrow project led to a large spike in membership among archaeologists as there was a growing realisation that there was scope to improve our working conditions.
How did you come to work directly for Prospect?
The companies weren’t happy that I was trying to encourage people to join the union. They identified me, and a few others, as ringleaders, and made us redundant under fairly spurious circumstances. It was tantamount to being blacklisted, as archaeology is a closed circle and people know each other, so this made it difficult to find further regular work. With limited options in archaeology, I decided to apply to the TUC Organising Academy to train to become a union organiser.
So the Academy gave you a step in the door?
Yes, I was sponsored by Prospect to go on the one-year training course. After graduating in 2003, I was offered full-time employment at Prospect and the chance to carry on with my studies.
Tell us about your work at Prospect
Being made redundant was a shock as my future career was mapped out in archaeology, but working for Prospect is rewarding. It’s a privilege to work in the trade union movement helping members.
I did a lot of work with the aviation industry for the first 10 years, negotiating— ironically —on behalf of members employed by Heathrow. Since then, I’ve worked with the civil service and energy sector.
Recently, I’ve taken on responsibility for members working for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Prospect is helping to revise terms and conditions for survey and inspection staff, who are posted to UK and overseas ports, often at short notice. Against the backdrop of austerity and the public sector pay cap, it’s important to negotiate the right level of package for the level of disturbance members are facing. It’s far removed from my archaeological digging days.