Margaret McKee was a catering assistant at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for nearly 40 years. During that time she became a union rep supporting her colleagues affected by domestic violence.
Before Margaret became a union rep, she supported her colleagues with issues over pay. She found out that all the cooks – who all happened to be men – were being paid for overtime and when they were off sick. This was news to Margaret and the other catering assistants – who were all women – even though they also worked extra hours. Margaret took up a grievance with management and won.
She says: “We needed to look after women’s interests in the workplace. The other union reps could see I wanted to help and encouraged me to train to become a rep.”
Margaret attended her first disciplinary hearing with a younger colleague, who had a case made against her for being repeatedly late to work. On the walk to the meeting the woman confided in Margaret that her husband had been violent to her and she had made him leave the house. She now had to work two jobs to keep a roof over her children’s heads.
Margaret shared this with the managers and they spoke about how best they could support the woman. They changed her hours at the hospital so she could start later.
On the back of this, Margaret created a domestic abuse policy for the hospital. She says: “There’s a stigma around the issue and it needed speaking about. It was no good the policy being shoved in a drawer. It needed to be followed.”
The HR director and UNISON helped Margaret to get backing from senior managers. The union reps became mediators so that people who were experiencing violence could speak to them in confidence about needing time off, advances in pay or help with disciplinary issues. People were supported rather than punished.
Fast forward a few years and Margaret is now the president of UNISON. But she still finds time to be a union rep and spends her holidays at her local UNISON branch, supporting members with a range of issues. “When I help someone to solve an issue, I make a connection with that person,” explains Margaret. “There’s nothing more rewarding than being able to help.”