Frequently asked questions

'Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ James Baldwin

What is a trade union?

  • A trade union is an organisation with members who are usually workers or employees. It looks after their interests at work by doing things like:
    • negotiating agreements with employers on pay and conditions
    • discussing big changes like large scale redundancy
    • discussing members’ concerns with employers
    • going with members to disciplinary and grievance meetings
  • At Birkbeck, we have three recognised unions - Unison, Unite and UCU - and between us, we represent the entire staff body at Birkbeck.

How does unison work?

  • Unison is a membership organisation, where you pay a subscription fee to the national union, who assign you to your local branch. A proportion of your subscriptions are then returned to the branch in the form of training and support. 
  • Your local leadership and support is provided by a branch committee, who are elected annually, at the Unison Annual General Meeting, held in March every year. Throughout the year, if committee members step down, or if someone wants to join the committee, we are able to co-opt new committee members by branch committee vote.
  • When you vote to elect branch committee members, you delegate them to speak on your behalf in negotiations with the senior management, and you can also ask them to stand with you when you encounter formal problems at work.
  • Our branch committee is formed of volunteers, who will help you as best they can according to their training and judgement but they are not paid by the union and are here to help, not to serve. We are not solicitors or barristers, though if your case is serious enough, your membership may entitle you to access those services from the union.

Why should I join a union?

  • Who would you turn to if you had to go through a disciplinary procedure at work or if you had to bring a grievance against Birkbeck? If you were being bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work, what would you do?
  • At Birkbeck, members turn to their union for help. Our representatives are trained to advise, support and represent our members, to the best of their ability. This means that, if you are a member of Birkbeck Unison (or indeed either of the other unions), you won't have to go through whatever you are facing, alone.
  • But even more than that, being a member of a union gives you a say at Birkbeck, as the unions are mandated to negotiate on behalf of their members with the senior management team. And, in a world where increasingly people don't have access to a union, you are privileged to work at a place where not just one, but three unions are recognised by our employers.
  • However, we expect something from you in return: if you're a member of Unison, we ask that you get involved, you volunteer and you support your local branch committee. Our union is only as good as the members and the volunteers who represent them. And our volunteers will only be willing to volunteer if they believe that the membership supports them and is prepared to stand by them and with them.

Will my manager penalise me for joining the union?

  • This is a concern that people frequently tell us they have. But here's the thing: it is illegal to penalise someone for joining the union. At Birkbeck, there are three recognised unions, which means that the college has contracted to negotiate with the unions on behalf of their members, and you are legally entitled to union representation if you are a union member and are subject to formal procedures. So this means that your manager isn't actually allowed to prevent you from joining the union, they're not allowed to penalise you for joining the union and the college wouldn't support them in either of these actions.
  • So if you think your manager will somehow 'come after you' for joining the union or mark you down as a troublemaker, the best thing to do is to ensure that everyone in your section joins the union - and also let the branch committee know of your concerns.
  • Our members aren't troublemakers - but they do want to ensure that Birkbeck is a fair place to work. That's why we're all part of the union.

What is the employer duty of care?

  • Do you know about the employer duty of care? Employers have a duty of care to their employees, which means that they should take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. Demonstrating concern for the physical and mental health of your workers shouldn't just be seen as a legal duty - there's a clear business case, too.  It can be a key factor in building trust and reinforcing your commitment to your employees, and can help improve staff retention, boost productivity and pave the way for greater employee engagement. Find out more about the duty of care - and if you think Birkbeck is failing in its duty of care, contact the union.

Which union should I join?

  • If you are a member of professional support staff at Birkbeck (although professional support staff on Grade 9 and above usually join UCU), you should join Unison.
  • If you are an academic member of staff, a teaching and sessional staff member, or a researcher, you should contact UCU.
  • If you are a member of technical staff or a craftsperson in Estates and Facilities, you should contact Unite.

What has the union ever done for members?

  • We often hear people ask this. They'll tell us that they're wasting their membership fees, as we aren't doing anything for them.
  • This couldn't be further from the truth. We do an awful lot for our members: we save people's jobs; we help them through disciplinaries; we engage with the college on health and safety; we push for equality; we challenge the college on policies and implementation - much of what we do is negotiated throughout the year, and we know we don't always tell you about everything we do (mainly because we don't have enough resources to write up our successes), but you definitely benefit by being a member of our union. Two particular examples of where we have made a difference to your life:
    • Have you studied a course at Birkbeck, funded by Birkbeck? You should thank the unions - the college was considering scrapping this particular benefit or at least cutting it back, when the fee regime changed, but the unions pushed for it, and we managed to negotiate up to 95% funding for Birkbeck staff to study. If you haven't benefited personally from this, we're sure you know someone who has - and it's a perk not offered by many other London colleges.
    • Have you seen how much London weighting you get (now incorporated in your salary)? Your Unison branch committee members initiated a campaign to increase your London weighting as a way of offsetting the low pay increases we have received for more than seven years - an increase of 16%. You would not have received that increase otherwise.
  • At a national level, you may have heard that employment tribunal fees will be scrapped. That's because Unison nationally took on the government to challenge the imposition of fees - which means that, outside of the union, people could no longer afford to challenge illegal practices at work. Read more about this case.
  • So next time you ask, what has the union done for me? Consider - we normally get involved when members are going through a formal process, and need help. If you haven't required that support, be thankful - and consider volunteering for the union instead!

How much does it cost to join a union?

  • Each union charges membership fees, and you can find out more about them on the relevant website (see what Unison's membership fees are).
  • However, you should know: it isn't expensive. And it's worth it.

What kind of support can I get?

  • As a member of Unison, so long as you have been a paid-up member for a minimum of four weeks, you can get support or representation for issues like the following:
    • health and safety concerns, such as bullying/harassment issues
    • disciplinary hearings
    • performance management hearings
    • problems related to your terms and conditions
  • If you're not sure whether you qualify for support, please contact the branch secretary in the first instance.
  • Please note: the role of the union is to give you support if you are unable to resolve issues by yourself. A rule of thumb is that if you have tried to do something about an issue, and haven't gotten anywhere, then it's probably time to contact the union (unless you've been told you're subject to a formal process, such as a disciplinary process. If you receive a warning [formal or informal], it's time for you to contact the union. Also, if you are ever invited to a meeting and you find that HR have been invited as well and you have concerns, contact the union immediately). If you haven't said anything to your manager/colleagues/whoever the source of the problem is about your concerns, then it probably isn't appropriate for the union to step in - although we will be able to advise you on what you should do in the first instance.

How long do I need to wait to get representation or support?

  • To ensure that we can provide appropriate support, Birkbeck Unison follows a policy of only providing support and representation to members who have been part of the union for a minimum of four weeks. This is for two main reasons:
    • Like insurance, unions only work if you become a member in advance of any problems you may have. You wouldn't be able to claim insurance for a car crash if you weren't already insured; the same goes for Unison. We can only determine the amount of resources we need by knowing how many members we have, which means you need to join before problems arise.
    • Our representatives are volunteers. The Unison reps who represent our members are volunteers, who have to balance the demands of the union with the demands of their jobs. Although Unison has negotiated time off during working hours for members who are engaged in union work, often the people who represent you do so using their own time, in order to ensure they provide the best possible support. Our members will get support from the branch committee, but they get it because the branch committee believes that our members are committed to the union and support their work - and will stick with the union, even if they don't have particular problems.

I want to make a complaint, but I don't want to be involved in resolving the issue

  • It is not uncommon for members to come to us to make a complaint about something, but then ask that we resolve the situation without being involved themselves.
  • This is not how the union works - we do not act for you, we act with you. And if you want something addressed or sorted out, you need to be willing to stand up with us to address it. We cannot act on hearsay. We can act on evidence, but not alone.

Will i have to go on strike?

  • Strikes in higher education happen rarely - and only if it is impossible to reach a resolution to a dispute through negotiation, and the majority of the union's members vote for it. There are other kinds of industrial action that can be taken: working to rule (no unpaid overtime) is an effective way of making your point without going on all-out strike (indeed, higher education runs on employee goodwill, which includes a willingness to work unpaid overtime, so losing that goodwill can have a significant impact on higher education).
  • However, if the union calls you out on strike, you will be expected to go on strike with the rest of your branch - this is part of what being a union member is: abiding by the will of the majority of the membership, and not personally benefiting when other members sacrifice a day's pay in order to achieve a resolution to a dispute.
  • Under the law, we can only call a strike if the members have voted in favour of it in a secret ballot.

What can i do as a member of Unison?

  • Our union relies on members getting involved.
  • All of our representatives are volunteers, and there is always more work that we could be doing if only there were more people to help and more time. Besides the official roles in the branch, there are many ways an ordinary Unison member can help. Getting involved in your branch offers a chance for you to influence the decisions of the branch – and in turn make a difference in your workplace.
  • Volunteering brings personal benefits too:
    • You can get free training and learning opportunities – and time off work while you learn.
    • You gain valuable experience in new areas.
    • You can create a better workplace and better public services.
    • It looks good on your CV.

If you haven't yet joined the union and you are experiencing problems at work, we advise you to contact HR in the first instance.

If you need help or support and you are a paid-up Birkbeck Unison member, please contact the branch secretary, who will assess your case and allocate someone to help you.