'That's how we turn the tables'
Unite shows the value of face-to-face conversations as it raises union's profile at Royal Welsh Show
The Royal Welsh Show, held in July every year, draws more people over the course of its four days — 240,000 according to a recent estimate — than Glastonbury.
A celebration of Welsh agriculture and rural life, the Royal Welsh Show may not be quite as rock n’ roll as the UK’s biggest music festival, but it has something for everyone interested in all things countryside – from sheep shearing to wood chopping competitions, local artisan food and crafts stalls, towering tractor displays and more.
People from all walks of life come to the Royal Welsh Show but for many, the workplace may be the last thing on their minds when they descend on the rural village of Builth Wells in mid-Wales for a day out with their families.
Unite has looked to change this as the one and only trade union with a presence at the Show, now for the tenth year in a row. Championing the idea to maintain a Unite stall at the Show is Unite Community Wales co-ordinator Pasty Turner. He told UniteLive why this initiative was so important.
“We’re here at the Royal Welsh Show to make sure that Unite is visible – not just in the agricultural sector but to other members of the public,” Pasty (pictured below) explained. “We’ve got to have a presence at major footfall events.”
Although Unite is bucking the overall downward trend of union membership — with up to 4,500 members joining Unite a week, according to its latest figures — Pasty warned that we cannot rest on our laurels: to remain visible in our communities is an ongoing effort.
“Unless we go out and continue talking to the public, having those face-to-face conversations about what trade unions are and what we stand for, then we’ll become like so many things – a relic of the past,” he said.
Pasty highlighted too that the way people join trade unions has changed over the years, and so must the way unions reach potential members.
“When I started work all those years ago, you had three pieces of paper put in front you – your work contract, your pension, and your union membership form,” he explained. “This was happening even after closed shop. It was just a given that people joined the union. Now, there are so many people that don’t even know what a trade union is – young people especially. If they do know, many people don’t think they need one. We need to be out there convincing people that trade unions are a requirement – that we are the true voice of working people.”
With Pasty and other Unite members speaking to passers-by at the Royal Welsh Show, many didn’t need much convincing – Pasty and his colleagues signed up several new members at the Show. But Unite’s presence at the event was more than just a recruitment exercise.
“It’s about education and raising awareness, too,” Pasty pointed out.
Although Wales has maintained an Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), now known as the Agricultural Wages Advisory Panel, which protects wages and terms and conditions for farm workers, the biggest problem is lack of enforcement and awareness.
This lack of awareness was especially evident at the Royal Welsh Show. Pasty spoke to hundreds of people throughout the week — many of them young farmworkers — about the Agricultural Wages Advisory Panel. In the end, Pasty and his colleagues handed out more than 125 booklets with detailed information outlining the pay and terms and conditions farmworkers in Wales are entitled to. Pasty said that the vast majority of farmworkers he spoke to did not even know a wages board existed.
Iwan, 22, (pictured above) told UniteLive that it was helpful to learn about the rights he had at work as a farmhand.
“I had no idea that farmworkers were entitled to a higher minimum wage in Wales,” he said, adding that he would have to notify his employer – his father – that he should be paid more.
Unite rep and Port Talbot steelworker Ian Williams, who helped Pasty at the stand, also highlighted the importance of educating people through simple conversation.
“It’s been really positive speaking to people at the Show,” Ian (pictured below) said. “As a steelworker, it’s been good speaking to farmers about the tractors here – that every single one of them is made with steel – to demonstrate the importance of maintaining a steel industry in the UK, which is now under threat.”
Like Pasty, Ian said that while signing up members at events like the Royal Welsh Show was important, it was also equally vital showcasing all that Unite has to offer.
“People we’ve spoken to might be members of Unite, but they don’t know much about all the support we can give,” Ian explained. “We’ve got courses through Unite Learn, we have Unite Community, as well as mental health support, and so much more.”
Many Unite members stopped at the union’s stand for a quick chat, including Tom, who works in engineering and estates for the NHS.
He lives in Cardiff and travelled with his family to the Show. He told UniteLive he was really pleased to see Unite’s stand.
“Our shop steward recently left our workplace so for the moment, we don’t have a Unite rep,” he explained. “That’s why it was really good to see Unite’s presence here – to re-establish that connection.”
Meanwhile, Unite member Cris Tomos (pictured below), who works for the Welsh charity Planed, also said it was “great to see Unite” at the Show.
“We’ve used many of Unite’s services including their legal and insurance services,” he noted.
Unite rep Tracey Lea, who works at Lloyds, travelled all the way from Cheshire with her family to the Show, to which they come every year.
“It’s fantastic to see Unite represented at the show – and that they’re highlighting all that the union does,” she said.
Many of the Unite members UniteLive spoke to highlighted the issues they’re facing in work, as well as the challenges of living in rural areas.
“Our employer has been relentlessly cutting flexible working,” Tracey (pictured below) explained. “We’re now campaigning against this.”
She also spoke passionately against the ruthless closure of bank branches, many of them in rural areas. Her comments were especially fitting at the Show, given that the big banks like Barclays set out stalls throughout the week — but are nowhere to be seen when local communities in the area need them.
“We’ve had 172 branches shut in a single year,” Tracey explained. “It’s really tough on elderly and disabled people especially. The banks say they should switch to online banking but people like mum don’t go online – they don’t trust it. What are they supposed to do?”
Unite site convenor Robert Dawtry, who works at Port Talbot steelworks but lives in the village of Port Eynon on the Gower Peninsula, also highlighted the disparities facing rural communities.
“When you live in a rural area, you have to plan everything,” he said. “It’s difficult to access many of the services people often take for granted. Our nearest bank branch is over 15 miles away. The banks want you to use their online services but the internet connection in rural areas can be very poor.”
Robert went on to highlight the importance of the Port Talbot steelworks to his rural community.
“The steelworks is of course vitally important for both the UK as a whole and Port Talbot itself, but it is also the lifeblood of rural areas nearby,” he said. “Whether steelworkers are on holiday or live in these rural areas, they spend money in these communities. It keeps the Gower going.”
Unite member Martin Waters, like Robert, works at Port Talbot steelworks. The Royal Welsh Show is very dear to his heart – he shows cobs every year.
Martin (pictured above) said he was surprised that more unions weren’t at the Show.
“All unions should have a presence here and at other similar events, and it’s fantastic to see Unite leading the way,” he said. “People need to realise that the reason wages are going up in some workplaces and sectors is because of trade unions and the actions they’re taking. We really need to promote the difference that unions like Unite can make in people’s lives.”
Pasty couldn’t agree more.
“Many people get their ideas of what trade unions are from the media – that all we do is strike,” he said. “Industrial action may well be our most powerful tool in the workplace. It certainly is the part the public most sees if you like. Away from the spotlight, we’ve got to define who we are for ourselves. We’ve got to have those face-to-face conversations with as many people as we can – that’s how we turn the tables.”
By Hajera Blagg
Photos by Mark Thomas