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Unions 21 at work - Sue Ferns

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For the next six weeks we will be working hard to grow our individual supporter base through our #ForMeForMyUnion campaign. The key driver behind this activity is to showcase that joining Unions 21 as an individual isn’t just about personal reward. People who join us repeatedly tell us that their union and wider colleagues have also reaped the benefits.

A key part of the campaign is introducing some of our individual supporters and some of the key players within Unions 21. This interview with our Chair, Sue Ferns is the first in a series of blog posts to showcase why they are involved with Unions 21, what drives them and what goes into their work on a day- to-day basis.

About Sue:

As well as being Chair of Unions 21, Sue is Deputy General Secretary at Prospect and her her responsibilities include leading the union’s work on equal opportunities; legal services; skills; campaigning and communications; and on science, engineering and sustainability.  

Tell us about the things your working on at the moment

There’s never any shortage of issues to address but Brexit, industrial policy and public service reform are three very big issues for Prospect.  We represent thousands of non-UK EU citizens in science, engineering and heritage who are personally affected by the government’s refusal to guarantee their professional security and there are thousands more who may be impacted by the uncertain future of the Euratom treaty. We’ve already done a lot of lobbying on these issues, but really we’ve only just begun.

We’re very concerned about the pressures building on our public services and those who provide them, and believe that there is an urgent need for a better informed debate and longer-term vision. Prospect members are often the invisible glue holding Britain’s infrastructure together – our challenge is to raise awareness of the services they provide and their universal importance.

I’m also working to embed equalities into the day-to- day activities of all Prospect colleagues and representatives. I’m firmly convinced of the need to talk more to people who don’t instinctively see the benefits for all members or who are concerned that equalities is a zero-sum game.  Unfortunately there are still significant cultural challenges to address but, with employers increasingly concerned about skills shortages and gaps, there’s a moment in time that we need to grasp.

Who are you talking to on a day-to- day basis?

Within Prospect I talk to colleagues in a wide range of roles to plan and deliver a work programme that helps us to meet our objectives to around relevance, reputation, improving services and growing our membership. I want to make sure that we focus our resources where they make greatest impact in the workplace and that we communicate effectively about the work that we’re doing.  I also talk a lot with colleagues in other unions, the TUC and Unions 21 so that we can add value by working together, for example in building our evidence and understanding of the changing world of work and how unions can best respond to labour market and economic challenges. Prospect is an independent union, so I also talk regularly to politicians and their advisers on a cross-party basis where I think that this can make a difference to issues that Prospect members care about.

Last, but not least, I talk a lot to employers and professional bodies. Whilst it is important to influence policy agenda, ultimately members will judge the value of union membership on the difference it makes to them at work.

What the biggest challenge you face?

The current political and economic environments pose significant challenges for all unions. Probably the biggest challenge of all is to make our voice heard and listened to, whether in the political corridors of power or the 86% of private sector workplaces that are not unionised.  Independent collective voice offers the only sustainable route to better and fairer employment practices and, from that, to high quality economic growth.

What do you most enjoy?

It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to do a job that is so varied, provides constant opportunities for development and, above all, offers the opportunity to make a difference to members’ working lives.

What motivates you?

Prospect represents many thousands of members who do interesting and important jobs. It’s hugely motivational to learn about the work that they do and the value it brings. Yet these days professionalism and expertise confers no protection against the growing pressures of working life.  Prospect members, like all other union members, need an independent friend at work. That is our role.

Why did you decided to get involved in Unions 21?

I think it’s important to make time to build our own capacity – learning from evidence, good practice and the wider voluntary-sector community – about new ideas and what works well. We need to recognise that the experiences and expectations of our future members are constantly evolving. We can’t take awareness of unions for granted but need to offer credible and effective solutions – albeit in an environment that is not of our choosing.  Unions 21 plays a vital part in helping the trade union movement think about all of these aspects and is a fantastic place to learn from each other.