Young people working in the energy sector convened for their Young Reps’ Week earlier this month – a new Unite course that immersed reps in all the work that Unite does in and out of the workplace, from political lobbying to organising to legal work and more.
The course ended with a trip to Parliament – for many of the young reps, this was their first up close and personal experience they’ve had with politics before.
Unite shop steward Sam Jones, 25, was one rep who participated. He now works for EDF in maintenance, where he started as an apprentice five years ago.
Sam told UNITElive that he didn’t quite know what to expect from the course.
“To be honest, I thought it would be a bit boring,” he said. “But in the end I was very impressed – it was a really good experience. The tutors presented all the information in a way we could relate to and understand.”
Sam said he was particularly challenged by the public speaking exercise, in which the reps had to speak for three minutes straight without stopping.
“I didn’t think I would be able to do it – it was difficult but really boosted my confidence,” he said. “As reps, we have to have that confidence in order to represent our members well.”
It was the first time that Sam had visited Parliament, where the reps were given a full tour and spoke with Labour MPs, including deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle, shadow energy secretary Barry Gardiner and Lisa Nandy MP. The reps also attended Prime Minister’s Questions.
Sam highlighted how the experience dispelled some preconceptions he had about government.
“I always had this impression that MPs were snobby and unapproachable but they were the exact opposite,” he explained. “They answered our questions and genuinely listened to our concerns.”
Unite equalities rep Lisa Higgins, 33, who works for Western Power Distribution, agreed.
“As workers in the energy sector, we had the opportunity to get our own views across to the shadow energy secretary and other MPs, and they took us seriously – I was surprised by how open they were,” she said.
“I learned more about our government and how our democracy works in that one day than I have in years at school. It made me feel that government is in fact accessible to all of us – that we can make a difference.”
Lisa noted that the course, along with the trip to Parliament, helped her to link together all the different ways that Unite fights for its members.
“I learned exactly why Unite is affiliated to the Labour Party – because those political links form part of a strategy to achieve our industrial aims, to gain better pay, terms and conditions for members, for all working people.”
Both Sam and Lisa emphasised the importance of young people joining trade unions.
“Young people must carry on the work of the trade union movement, to be the voice of working people,” Sam said. “We’re living in very uncertain times right now – we need trade unions now more than ever.”
Lisa agreed. “Young workers in particular are facing different challenges than previous generations,” she explained. “Take zero-hours contracts for example – the vast majority of people on these contracts are young people.”
“Digitalisation is another workplace issue that will largely affect young people who are just now entering the workforce,” Lisa added. “That’s why unions need to recruit more young people – because young people understand and are living through these big changes in the workplace that we’re experiencing now.”
“And young people need trade unions too because they’re entering the workforce without having any idea of their rights – it’s not something they teach in schools.”
Unite national officer for energy Kevin Coyne, who organised the Young Reps’ Week said the feedback he’d received from both the reps and tutors was “fantastic”.
“We also had four women on the course, which was terrific when you consider how male-dominated the energy sector is,” Coyne noted.
“Amid an ageing workforce, we at Unite must find ways to engage our young members, and Young Reps’ Week was one way we hoped to do just that,” he added. “The reps were delighted and you could tell that the whole group really gelled together.”
Coyne hopes the course will continue to be offered in the future and will serve as a blueprint for young reps courses in other sectors.