Peter Smith was a new and conscientious health branch secretary, with some 1,900 members in his charge, and thousands more on two hospital sites who were crying out for recruitment.
But swamped by case work, and with only a handful of active stewards, he was finding it impossible to recruit.
That’s when a crack team of fighting fund organisers swept in and, as Mr Smith puts it, “made an amazing difference to my work.”
In just three weeks, the five-strong team had signed up 250 new members in the Chorley District and Royal Preston hospitals.
And at least as significantly, perhaps, they had also enlisted 60 new stewards, drawn from existing and new members.
UNISON’s fighting fund organisers have a range of roles, depending on need, but recruiting is an important part of their job description.
And in a major new initiative in the North West region, three teams are going into larger branches to do just that.
Tim Ellis is a regional organiser who has been asked to manage the fighting fund organisers. He led the team that has been assisting Mr Smith in the Central Lancashire Health branch.
“We’re very aware that we need a qualitative change as well as quantitative change to workplace organising,” says Mr Ellis.
“In the past, we’ve made the mistake of thinking that a couple of reps in a branch the size of a hospital is enough. But with all the case work, the negotiation, they get swamped.
“That’s why we’re concerned not just with new members, but new stewards. These new reps will then meet people every day in their workplace and keep recruiting.
“Any recruitment exercise has to be sustainable.”
For three weeks, Mr Ellis and his team visited every work area in the hospital – wards, the pharmacy, diagnostics, outpatients, catering, administration – talking to thousands of employees.
“In those first conversations we don’t distinguish between members and non members. And we try to talk to everyone on a one-on-one basis,” he says.
“One thing we ask them is to name two or three things they would change in their work place. That’s when people really start talking. Their issue may not be about pay, it might be that there isn’t enough toilet paper or cleaning supplies.
“It’s not rocket science, but back-to-basics recruitment. You localise the discussion, deal with day-to-day issues that members have, and involve them in dealing with those issues.”
Mr Ellis’s litmus test of the project’s success was whether his team were engaging a new rep for every work area.
The key, since, has been to get these new reps engaged. Having been recruited in September, 90% of them have already undergone their steward’s training.
One of Mr Ellis’s team continues to visit the branch, monitoring their development. And Mr Smith ensures that every new steward gets to shadow an existing rep as they conduct case work.
“We also get the new stewards to map their areas, in terms of members and non-members, which gives them an instant sense of connection,” says Mr Smith, who has just been re-elected as branch secretary.
“And every new steward has to recruit new members in their areas in their first few weeks.
“It passes on the baton from the fighting fund organisers to our stewards, and keeps things moving.”