Hannah Slade became a UNISON learning rep aged just 23. She currently leads a team of around a dozen reps alongside her job as web information officer at Nottingham City Council.
Why did you first join the union?
I used to work for HMRC in a really pro-union office. On my first day I pretty much got collared by one of the reps to join! But I also came from a family where I’d only ever heard positive things about unions. Both my parents were quite involved – my mum was always talking about how important they were, and my dad was a health and safety rep.
What exactly is a learning rep?
Our job is to promote lifelong learning – to ensure all our members have opportunities to learn, whatever role or grade they are and regardless of their background. We also signpost people to opportunities and work with employers to make sure people are given time during their working day to access the training they need.
Why is that needed?
Historically. people on lower pay grades tend to get fewer professional development opportunities. My job as a union learning rep is about ensuring that people on lower grades get training that really benefits them and gives them options for the future – not just training for the job they’re doing now. Better literacy and numeracy skills can really improve someone’s life outside of work.
What does the role involve in your current workplace?
I started working at Nottingham City Council about eight years ago. At HMRC most colleagues were doing clerical or technical work, but a council has people who collect bins, plan roads, look after museums … So my role as learning rep became much more diverse. For example, there’s more focus on helping people improve their maths and English. There’s plenty of demand for those courses: some people left school without any qualifications, and some need a refresher.
We don’t just look at formal learning. UNISON puts on a lot of courses – things like confidence-building and managing stress have become more and more popular in recent years.
And we are trying to break down barriers. Sometimes there’s a stigma to admitting you struggle with reading or numeracy. By promoting opportunities to everyone we’re building that culture of learning.
Why are unions still relevant today?
There are so many things we take for granted but they’re only there because of unions – the fact that your employer has to sit down with unions and negotiate, for example. But it’s almost a form of insurance: if anything should go wrong, you’ve got people who can support you. Joining a union is about a lot more than just going on strike!
What’s the biggest value of the union for you personally?
Seeing people grow from learning. You’ll see someone start with a short course in stress management, but then say they want to take the next step and do courses in English, maths and IT. It’s great seeing that appetite for learning and the confidence that comes with it. That’s the biggest thing – the fact that you can make a change to someone’s life.