Why Trade Unions Need the Young Pregnants (and how they can get them)


Speaking at a Unions 21 meeting on how to best use digital information, TUC communications  chief Antonia Bance  linked shocking headlines lines on discrimination related to pregnancy at work to the young workers we need to  recruit to survive as a movement,  and who just happen to be pregnant in significant numbers

Young workers are a notoriously and persistently a hard demographic for us to recruit as a recent TUC report emphasised only too clearly.  So, argued Antonia, if we could tailor our recruitment message to be particularly appealing to young pregnant female workers – just the group who know from other research are facing bullying, harassment and discrimination at their workplace – we would be pushing at more or less an open door

Tailoring recruitment in this way is just one avenue that is being pursued under the TUC initiative. But let us suppose we have done the tailoring and are reaching out.  What message are we giving?  What service are we offering?  What is the follow up when someone clicks the button or image on their smart phone to say “yes” I am interested; “yes” I need help.

Because offering help is not the same as providing it. When someone clicks on that button, we  need to be able  to respond in a meaningful way. (Don’t, for example,  print foreign language recruitment  fliers when  there is no one at the end of the recruitment hotline who can speak that language)

Let’s take now the situation of a pregnant worker in a franchised shop, restaurant or other business unit. She sees the advertisement on her smart phone and clicks to respond.

First problem: where does that response go?  Our trade union movement is too fragmented and, in my own view, too reluctant to truly collaborate, to offer a clear-cut route to advice and support.

But let’s say we have reached a level of understanding that means a number of unions have collaborated effectively. We have a common entry portal.  We offer a nuanced service so that basic advice and information is free, but when it comes to something more meaningful or more detailed, there is a requirement to enter into a more formal commitment.

Such an arrangement can and has worked in other environments. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions initiative was predicated on just such collaboration.  The nuanced membership regime that our own National Union of Students operates with its NUS Extra Programme shows how you can differentiate between levels of service and levels of membership.

So having seen how we can deal with the “reception” side of the equation, what happens when we turn our attention to the transmission – a pregnant worker who has made the call?

Of course it is wonderful if she is now receiving a tailored, co-ordinated, coherent service. But she is now exposed, still worried, her employment perhaps increasingly precarious as a very real fear of being victimised takes hold.

Here we need to acknowledge some of the methodology used by the Public Concern at Work charity that recognised explicitly the risk/likelihood of victimisation.  However, whistleblowers in many circumstances are protected under law whereas raising concerns about discrimination at work is not yet a protected characteristic.

There is an obvious and immediate step forward that can be achieved were legislation introduced to expand the remit of the Whistleblowers Act to include complaints about denial of a statutory right (such as payment of the National Minimum Wage) or unlawful discrimination.

That could be reinforced by giving Employment Tribunals the power to compel reinstatement, or award more significant compensation (although awards for discrimination are currently uncapped, precedent constrains the amounts actually cited).

There could even be a dismantling of the procedural and cost barriers that act as a disincentive for employees to pursue Employment Tribunal claims – if there was the political will.

Quite apart from the absence of a progressive political climate  which  might  make such  reforms to employment protection legislation  possible,  is it not also the case that prevention  is so much better than cure?

Whatever sanction is imposed on the perpetrator; the pregnant worker who has been bullied and harassed has already suffered. Much better   to create an environment in which the likelihood of harm is greatly reduced.

“Hear, hear” readers exclaim – but how is this to be done?

This is where the political climate is surely benign. Most if not all reputable employers would agree that discrimination is wrong and that includes acts against pregnant workers.  It is not just an ethical or legal question, but a financial and operational  one too.

So a declaration of best practice for pregnant workers should attract widespread support.   And the combination of a desire to do right with fear of being caught out doing wrong is a huge fillip  to compliance.

And to emphasise the importance of this as an issue, employers   can achieve  a “kite mark”  as a recognition of their good practice.  And why would any woman, especially of child bearing age,  want to work for an outfit  that  is not accredited under this scheme.

So we design-in good practice. And we spread from large employers   through trade confederations and  other routes to  smaller ones and eventually to all employers. So that even the pregnant worker in the franchised, small workplace, has confidence that her employer, her manager and her colleagues understand, intuitively, what is required.

It is a real indictment that so much of this remains to be achieved. It is wasteful economically and destructive in human terms.  It is also unnecessary and avoidable. And it can change if we want it to.


Safe Spaces and the “Right” to be Offended

The “safe space” debate has been given new life at the start of this fresh academic year.  Theresa May condemned them as a restriction on free speech. But NUS vice-president Richard Brooks defended the policy – “some people have more equal rights than others.” This is one issue that is not going to die down any time soon

Following this path,  this morning NUS President Malia Bouattia defended the position  on  BBC’s Today  programme   by correctly  pointing  out  the contradiction  –  I might say hypocrisy –  of those who have so much power and influence, and use it  to create a climate of fear, balking at attempts  by those without such advantages  to assert the right to  a safe space

In my experience, it is not just what is being said, it is how language is used too. The most violent language does not need to contain graphical images or a torrent of swearing.  Similarly, foul words can be and are used for comedic effect.  An angry tone can turn the most innocuous expression into something destructive.

By the same token, just because a racist, homophobic or sexist argument may be presented with intellect, charm, and self-deprecating humour, it is no less offensive.

I championed safe spaces as a students’ union officer many years ago, and I use them now to encourage under-represented groups to become active in my union.

We said “No” to racists and racism, to sexist homophobic rants. We called it “No platform” not “safe spaces” (The mood of the time is captured here)  And in my time, it generally worked, possibly  because it was a clear and narrow  definition.  Debate was lively but kept within reasonable bounds.  And now,   in a  male dominated  organisation,  we  run  networks for young women members and the feedback  we  universally  get  is  positive – these safe spaces give  under-represented groups space  to  breathe,  freedom  to  talk,  the  real ability  to  organise.

So, especially in a general atmosphere of intemperance a cacophony of intolerance, the need and value for safe spaces is real.

But as an active member of Liberty and former press regulator,   I know the value and limits of free speech.

And in adopting   a cast-iron mantra  of democratic self-determination, are  we not uncomfortably close to the point at which  those within a self-declared safe space become as xenophobic, and as angry and as intolerant as those they are seeking  refuge from?

Have we perhaps lost the plot somewhat? There is a world of difference between feeling threatened and being offended.   And surely in a democracy, we have the right to be offended?

Well yes and no. Where is the dividing line between being offended and feeling threatened?  And that’s the crux of the debate.  The media is full of stories of  alleged misjudgements on this,  with people, plays, gigs and debates banned first  on grounds that  they  would contravene the safe space policy  but  then, more worryingly,  because of fears by  university administrators of  reputational, financial and legal  consequences.

And that’s the often  unappreciated  worm eating  away  at the  good intentions and  principled debate around this issue – who  truly  benefits  from a messy  debate on safe space?

Progressive ideas and the very notion of diversity itself end up getting  trashed and undermined –  sometimes  by  over enthusiastic  or uncritical  supporters – and the little power  we have asserted for ourselves seeps back  to the already  rich  and  powerful.

And that is the key issue for me: What is the balance of power in society? Anti-discrimination, anti-hate legislation is good and important, but even if it was perfectly framed and universally implemented, it would not be enough to create a sense of safety, tolerance and respect. You need determined government action  for that.

I think you can’t and shouldn’t vaccinate or insulate yourself against being offended. But in these highly insecure times, you can’t be surprised if people try. Safe spaces are surely a symptom more than anything else.

  This piece also appears in the Huffington Post


Is the National Trust at War with its Tenants?


 At a crossroads? The NT is at loggerheads with its tenants’ organization.

Photo credit: Emma Durnford, Getty Images


Trouble is brewing at one of Britain’s best loved institutions. Papers released last week show that the stage is set for a showdown between the Board of the 4 million-strong National Trust and the only organization exclusively representing the Trust’s tenants, at the former’s AGM next month.

In 2014 the Board decided to end 14 years of funding of the Tenants’ Association of the National Trust (TANT), saying that it was no longer appropriate to treat it differently to other tenants’ groups, and pointing towards fee-paying subscribers as the way forward.

Surely fair and reasonable? Not everyone thinks so and you can see why. TANT’s case is based on value-add. It’s great but challenging being a NT tenant they argue. Beautiful buildings but also frequently run-down and high maintenance. Also many properties are “working buildings”, being key parts of the Trust’s operational – and income generating – estate. TANT says they make sure concerns are raised and acted upon before they brew up into costly legal, regulatory or reputational problems. All for £15k a year (or around  0.0003% of the 2015 NT’s rental income.)

Oh this is crazy, you may be thinking. Even if this is imperfect, why try and fix something that is clearly not broken.

But there are other arguments. The Board’s position is that they are not providers of social housing, that there are other stakeholders, that TANT would speak with more authority if they did so on behalf of a paying membership.

Whilst you can see from the maths that each tenant would need to fork out only £3 a year to match the central soon-to-be-withdrawn funding, that is not the issue. Becoming a member-based organisation dependant on subscription income may be desirable in pure democracy terms but it is not cost or challenge free. Crucially, the overheads inevitably increase and the focus of the organisation as a service provider (delivering value for tenants and the Trust) is diluted by the distraction of having to organise to recruit and retain members.

The Trust have been quite cute here, offering assistance on an “in-kind” basis that could easily add up to more than the current annual grant. But the net result is the likelihood that the ability of tenants to raise issues and seek a non-fuss resolution will be reduced.

TANT claims a degree of bad faith here in being blocked out of the all-member Trust magazine, not being given any advice on independent fund-raising, and denying access to the addresses of tenanted properties. The Trust has issued a lengthy statement in support of their position

This fear is perhaps confirmed by the Board’s decision on who to support in the annual elections to the NT Council, which in turn appoints the governing body – setting aside the unfortunate all male, all white recommendations (hardly reflective or encouraging of diversity in the organisation!). One of those not supported for re-election is a senior officer of TANT (who happens to be a woman).

The Trust seems to me to be in a difficult position, vulnerable to the suggestion it seeks to be less accountable, inclusive and representative rather than more. This would be a shame because modern Britain needs the National Trust and the many things it does uniquely well more than ever.

So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in my 15 or so years as a Trust member: Vote at the AGM. After all there’s no point complaining that democracy doesn’t work or that change is impossible unless you use it to try to make a difference.

Details of the National Trust AGM are at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/agm-2016-booklet-.pdf

A version of this article also appears in the Independent

For Freshers and Their Parents Everywhere


York Minster from the City Walls (Credit: John Lawson, Getty Images)

My mother cried when I went to university at York. My father looked a bit pinched. It wasn‘t the place, it was the going.

I’m sure they could not have known for sure how convoluted regular contact would become. Queuing with a pile of coins cupped in both hands by the three payphones either after six or at weekends. Cheap rate as opposed to peak rate, you see. No mobiles. No skype. No answering machines even. No, they couldn’t have foreseen that level of detail.

I think it was possibly some anxiety about the unknown. Dad didn’t go to university. Mum studied in the city where she lived, and she was looking to escape unhappy school days and stifling home life. But their first-born, going to the other end of the country (although as we all know York is an island of the south marooned in North Yorkshire), leaving behind (they thought) an idyllic set up at home? How could he? Would he be ok? Worry, worry and tears.

I just couldn’t understand this at the time. This was a biggish deal, sure, but it was something that had been planned, talked about, I was ready and raring to go. Hell, it was their idea in the first place..

But maybe, maybe it was a self-centred fear.

Perhaps they knew that it wouldn’t just be the lengthening distance that made for tenuous conversations, a strained relationship. Perhaps they had a fear of being left behind or a fear of being left out?, Perhaps, based-in-their own ignorance, fear for me.

Chances are they may well have been right: I didn’t give the tears much more than a passing thought. I didn’t look back.  I didn’t come home. Too youthfully arrogant. Even  the predictable things that went wrong came as a surprise.

With our young daughters, we  made a weekend return  to  York,  wandered the walls and snickleways, did the Jorvik  and embedded in their young minds  that  going to  university  was a natural, unavoidable  stage in life. Then along came the hike in both student numbers and fees that made old thinking largely redundant.

But that was before Heslington East. Langwith and Goodricke  were still where – in my mind – they always will be. When there  were  still only  six colleges,  when  York  was just  our place, and not – as Wiki now says – a global powerhouse  amongst academic establishments.

And delightful as it is, York isn’t York any more either. No cascades of cyclists tumbling over Skeldergate Bridge  when Pilkington’s knocked off –  or pouring out of hte BR  engineering works.  Coal dust in the air as you walked from campus down Hes Road into town in winter.  No whiff of cocoa and burnt sugar when the wind blew inwards from Terry’s and Rowntrees. Flood marks and an inescapable smell of damp in the old Odeon cinema

Years later and I find myself leaving our eldest in Edinburgh on a bleak late September afternoon. She kisses and hugs me goodbye on Waverley Steps. I am caught by surprise and have to hold back at the tears. Watching the city disappear from the train, I feel that unique bittersweetness and finally begin to understand a bit more about both parenting and life.

A version of this article first appeared in yu magazine