“Some union reps take the softly, softly approach when dealing with managers,” says Tesco employee and union rep Maureen Loxley. “I try to nip problems in the bud before they escalate, but I’m not afraid to be a pain in the butt when needs be.”
Maureen has been a health and safety rep for Usdaw, the shop workers’ largest union, since the mid-1990s. She says she took on the role to “become a voice” for those less able to speak up for themselves: “I couldn’t stand seeing anyone being treated unfairly.”
Sometimes the issues that workers raise can be resolved by talking to managers. If not, Maureen follows formal procedures. “I don’t like putting in grievances because it can be stressful for the members, but I’m not afraid to do it if I have to.”
Her toughest challenges usually come with company restructures. She insists on fair treatment. “We need to make sure that each member is dealt with equally and not disadvantaged in any way,” she says. In one case, a worker who’d been with Tesco for 15 years had her hours changed, while another who’d only been there a few months did not. After Maureen intervened, the long-serving staff member was able to keep her schedule.
There have been some subtle instances of racism at Maureen’s workplace, such as managers giving overtime to white staff but not to black or Asian employees. But union backing makes it possible to tackle such cases. One manager thought he was just teasing someone, “but he was actually picking on them all the time,” she says. “I had to sit in on that grievance. In the end, the manager got moved.”
A strong union means the employer has to listen to workers. “The more of us who join, the better voice we have, especially on wage negotiation,” says Maureen. “The company doesn’t have to give us a pay rise each year — it’s the union that negotiates for a good deal.” It’s also thanks to Usdaw that 16-year-old staff members, who used to get paid lower rates for doing the same work as older colleagues, now get the same rate of pay.
Maureen always encourages workers to focus their efforts on proactive, realistic suggestions. Recently, the union asked for discount cards for workers’ partners. “It took some time, but we got it,” says Maureen.