Guest Post: Contacts, Walkabouts and Branch meetings in London

This week, we feature THREE guest blog entries from London organiser Laura Flynn highlighting the work that three London branches are doing to build their local organisations. Lesoco (formerly Lewisham and Southwark colleges) are imaginatively adapting UCU’s local contacts initiative to their particular institution.  Laura also tells us about how Kingston University UCU have been getting over the fear of being seen as ‘cold calling’ and walking their floors systematically, talking to colleagues about what the union is doing. Finally, University of West London have been using a branch meeting to build their contacts list and encourage members to talk to their colleagues about joining. Now, read on…

1. Adapting the local contacts concept to fit your branch:

We discussed the local contacts idea at LeSoCo (formally Lewisham and Southwark colleges) and at the Southwark Waterloo site they have decided to make it a network of ‘Room Reps’.

This came out of the workplace organisation not really fitting the departmental model. Also, all of their staff are in shared offices, with about 15 of them across the site.

We sat down and mapped where each of these offices where. We then went through them one by one and the branch thought of someone they could approach to be the ‘Room Rep’, whether it be the person who always turns up to meetings, or someone they’d done casework for that may want to give back to the union. The only rule was that it couldn’t be someone who was on committee or an existing rep.

We also said allocated who was going to make the approach to these people and then armed them with a copy of the UCU role description for local contacts. We also noted offices where we didn’t have any members and a committee member has ‘adopted’ them for the moment until we can recruit some members and then hopefully a local contact.

We might change the title to ‘Room Contacts’ if we find the term rep is discouraging, but the branch likes the alliteration for the moment!

2. Walkabouts: the importance of going to members rather than waiting for them to come to you

The idea of ‘cold-calling’ to someone’s office door can be daunting and something that many are not comfortable with.

Yet  people respond very well to the union coming and visiting them in their offices, rather than waiting for them to come to us, which usually only happens if there’s a problem; the classic customer-provider relationship from servicing. If you start by giving your apologies for disturbing them, and you will only take up a few minutes of their time, you will very likely get a positive response.

Walkabouts show members – and potential members – that the union is active and visible. It can also send that message to management, which can be very useful during negotiations. They are also something that becomes quite normal very quickly and no longer daunting.

I usually approach a walkabout by having both a leaflet and something that we are asking people to do. Leaflets and newsletters are good as they give you a reason for visiting them rather than purely to recruit. They are also useful if people are not in their offices as you can leave them under doors or on desks so that staff know the union has been to visit them.

Holding a branch meeting a week after a walkabout gives them something they have to do from your visit, both to attend themselves and to spread the word to their colleagues – making them feel like they have some responsibility for the union’s success, that they are the union. It can be particularly useful to make a branch meeting members only in this situation, especially if the meeting includes an important update to a campaign or dispute, as this may be a motivation for them to join in the intervening period. This gives you an opportunity to ask if they are already a member, if they’re not, you can then hand them a membership form and talk about why they should join. If they are a member, ask them to take a form and approach someone who isn’t.

We’ve had particular success with walkabouts at Kingston University. One walkabout where we handed out a leaflet publicising a series of branch meetings gained us 9 new members in the following week, with 4 joining either that day or the day after.

For another walkabout, we focussed on getting signatures for the branch’s Open Letter to the Board of Governors requesting they halt management’s proposals on promotion and progression, and promoting a lobby of the Governors the following week. The walkabouts contributed to the branch getting over 400 signatures and a strong turnout at the lobby.

As well as the main site, we have also conducted walkabouts at of the smaller campuses at Kingston, as staff at smaller sites can feel more than most that the union is remote and detached from them. We had a good response with people appreciating our efforts and feeding back useful information.

 3. Using a branch meeting to Build the Union

At the University of West London we are using negotiations over contracts and role profiles to build membership and develop contacts in the schools.

We took advantage of a well attended branch meeting by asking everyone there to take away a membership form and try and recruit one colleague to the union. We spoke at the beginning of the meeting about the importance of strengthening our negotiating position through increased membership and how recruiting one colleague was something positive that each one of them could do to contribute – how the members were the union, not the negotiators or reps at the front of the room.

We stood at the door and handed everyone a membership form as they left. Some people even wanted to take two or three!

We had nine new members join in the week after that meeting which is a huge spike and very important for a branch that has shrunk more than many over the last few years through university cuts.

We also used branch meetings to try and recruit local contacts. We prepared a sign-in sheet to send round and included on it a tick-box for people to say they would like to hear more about being a local contact. We introduced the concept at the start so people knew what we were talking about, and also got the committee to ‘sign-in’ first and tick the box to get the ball rolling, so to speak. The uptake wasn’t huge, but we got a couple of people saying they were interested and it is another way of trying to get potential local contacts to come forward.