How trade unionism transformed me and my career
My family aren’t trade unionists or activists. In fact I grew up as a daughter of Indian immigrants learning that you don’t make a fuss and you accept your lot.
But life has a way of surprising you. I became a trade union member and an activist at the same time in my mid 20’s. My branch secretary asked me to stand as the woman’s officer; I wasn’t a member and had to join my union first and then stand for election – I did this simultaneously. I agreed because I wanted to do an event for women workers, but I didn’t know much about trade unions. At the time I was working for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and in that political climate my work as a policy officer wasn’t particularly satisfying.
My trade union activism transformed me. My life before activism was a quieter one but it was less fulfilling. My activism gave me confidence, it made me think critically, it made me fight for justice and it gave me unique career opportunities.
I learnt conflict management skills and negotiating and bargaining with senior managers. I learnt HR policies and worked to ensure they were properly implemented.
In one of my cases I represented an older worker who was at risk of redundancy as a result of a re-structure. It was the first time that head of service was overseeing a restructure and the employee – my member – was extremely anxious. I remained calm under pressure and carefully explained the employers legal duty to avoid all compulsory redundancies and find the employee suitable alternative employment. They did and he remained in work.
Activism also propelled me into writing and campaigning. Once you start to speak out you can campaign on issues that matter to you the most. I wrote about tackling violence against women, mental health, literature and current affairs. I was also invited to compere an event at SOAS University for women of colour; I have spoken at Cambridge students union on the experiences of mental health for BAME communities and I have been a guest lecturer for clinical psychology students at Kings College London.
And now I work at the TUC. Being a trade unionist not only gave me the confidence to speak out, develop an excellent understanding of negotiating and bargaining but it also helped me forge a career that brought together my policy skills with campaigning. I work on disability and LGBT equality policy and have campaigned on mental health at work and the issues impacting young LGBT workers. I also organise major conferences and represent the TUC in wide ranging media campaigns. My favourite so far has been discussing sexual harassment at work on the BBC – possibly a career highlight!
Trade union activism is extremely fulfilling but you have to embrace the challenge. For me this meant asking for cases, in particular those with an equalities dimension and going on training. I developed good working relationships and was able to effectively influence HR policies (such as the workplace violence against women and girls policy).
It’s a well kept secret that that trade unionism can help you develop new skills and even steer you towards a whole new career. It may be a challenge but, for me, was well worth it.