‘Solidarity isn’t just at the gate’

Conference key vote on reps’ mental health issues support

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Unite policy conference held a spirited debate on Wednesday (July 12) about mental health support for Unite reps and activists, which conference agreed was an absolute necessity.

Unite delegate Tom Queen (pictured above) moved the composite, highlighting a key part of the motions’ demand – counselling for reps as and when needed, paid for by the union.

Tom told conference of the struggles he’s faced as a rep, recounting how he’s lost sleep worrying about the various issues facing individual members he’s supported.

“We’re not counsellors, we’re not legal experts – but we are on the frontline, and we take on the burdens of our members. Whether or not we know it, there is as build-up of trauma.”

Unite delegate Steven Jones seconded the composite, echoing what Tom said, saying he was “disappointed” that the Unite mental health assistance programme that is available to reps isn’t better publicised, and doesn’t include paid counselling as and when needed.

Unite’s Executive Council (EC) asked for the composite to be remitted on cost grounds, but the debate continued after Steven, the seconder, said he could not remit.

In a moving intervention, EC chair Andy Green, vowed that Unite would take the issues presented in the debate seriously. He highlighted that he himself had witnessed the death of a member when he was a rep, something he and his colleagues continue to be traumatised by, and that his own father took his own life when he was 21.

“I don’t want anyone in the conference hall to think that there is any point when we’re not going to take these issues seriously because I will give you my personal guarantee that I take things like this extremely seriously because I’ve got personal experience,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the EC, Steven Thompson (pictured below) highlighted that nearly all the demands in the composite for mental health support for reps have already been met by Unite. This includes mental health training as well as comprehensive mental health support through a reps assistance programme that will be more widely advertised in the future. Notably, the assistance programme includes six sessions of free counselling.

The debate continued, with many delegates emphasising that the support that is available must be better publicised, with others sharing their personal experiences struggling with their mental health in their role as reps.

Unite delegate William Jarrett said that far too many reps are suffering from burnout and have to quit their vital roles.

“Keeping solidarity isn’t just at the gate or on the picket line – indeed, it’s with each other,” he said. “The greatest cost I can think of is not [the cost of counselling] but losing one of my brothers or sisters.”

Meanwhile, Unite delegate Davorin Dobrovic emphasised that he felt both general secretary Sharon Graham and the wider union fully supported reps, but he thought “sometimes things are missed”, as he called on conference to support the composite.

Unite delegate Trish James told conference how she was left traumatised after a member she was supporting took their own life.

“Eight years on – and I’m still distraught,” she said. “We need to have support in place.”

Unite delegate Christine Edwards also made a stirring intervention as she highlighted how she became a passionate advocate of mental health during a BA strike, when she and other reps received relentless online abuse.

“Our reps need free counselling whenever they need it – not just six sessions. Training needs to be regular and available,” she said.

Referencing Sharon’s keynote speech earlier in the day, Christine said how Sharon had spoken about the importance of supporting reps on strike and when they’ve been disciplined.

“The trauma that we suffer every day as reps is huge,” Christine said. “Sharon said she’ll support us with whatever we need – we need more help to mend our broken reps and to keep them fighting on the frontline.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham personally intervened in the debate, assuring delegates that Unite would ramp up its mental health support for reps.

She said the support that is now in place and being rolled out “is a good start…but we will look at doing something even better”. She vowed to ensure that any support now in place is well publicised and that in the meantime, Unite will look at enhancing the support they offer.

After a show of hands, the result of the vote was unclear and had to go to an electronic vote. In the end, a clear majority supported the composite – in a victory for union democracy and passionate debate.

By Hajera Blagg

Pic by Mark Thomas