Depending in which state or territory you live in the chances are you have met job reps, union delegates, worksite representatives or job delegates. Despite varying titles, the role of an ANMF job rep (however titled) is clear cut – to represent nurses and midwives in the workplace and drive change to improve conditions. Robert Fedele takes a look at what is involved in the position and how it can empower volunteers both personally and professionally.
Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (ANMF) Federal Secretary Lee Thomas considers delegates as the union’s most valuable asset.
“If we don’t have job reps as a conduit between the members and the union office then we would be lost,” she says. “If it wasn’t for the hard work that job reps do every day, advocating on the ground and notifying the union when issues crop up, our union wouldn’t be as strong as it is.”
An active union member from the start of her career, Ms Thomas put her hand up to become a job rep while working as a midwife at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Adelaide in the late 80s.
Ms Thomas recalls a handful of industrial issues sparking her sense of duty, including management attempting to reduce workers’ annual leave.
“The most important objectives for me were about maintaining people’s rights, workers’ rights, including my own at the time, and ensuring that people were treated fairly, whether it concerned working conditions or whether it was about individuals as members ensuring that they got treated with natural justice and procedural fairness if there was disciplinary action.”
Today, the ANMF boasts thousands of committed job reps across the country.
Ms Thomas nominates the training and education all job reps undergo as a crucial step, suggesting the knowledge gained around organising, campaigning, legislation, workplace health and safety and advocacy proves invaluable.
“It’s quite motivating because it gives you a real insight and some ability to be able to advocate on behalf of members collectively and individually,” she says.
“It puts you in a mind-set that allows you to be confident about what you’re doing with the back-up of the union behind you when you come across situations that perhaps you’re not so familiar with.”
Ms Thomas says nurses and midwives advocate on behalf of patients every day and choosing to become a job rep is an extension of that obligation.
“We say delegates are our most valuable asset. Of course, all our members are but it’s our delegates that are crucial because it extends the union in a very visible way into the workplace on a day-to-day basis.”
Ms Thomas, who rose to become the ANMF’s Federal Secretary, says change ultimately requires action and members stepping up.
“If you’re really determined to make everybody’s working life different then you’ve got to be involved. You can’t do it from the outside. You can’t affect change. Collective action is always going to be the thing that achieves the best outcomes for all our members.”
Registered Nurse Vanessa Hoban has been a fixture in the public sector for almost two decades.
She currently works in a General Medicine Unit, a ward which looks after a variety of complex patients including those suffering co-morbidities or psychiatric patients requiring medical care.
The 47-year-old became a union delegate five years ago.
“I don’t think there was any one incident that led to it,” she recalls. “There wasn’t visible delegates at the hospital and I just felt we needed representation.
“Back then you only ever sort of called the union when there was a problem, not just to check in with people. I like to check in before things become a bushfire, before it escalates to this huge problem when it could have been de-escalated weeks ago.”
Vanessa carries the “golden EBA” with her everywhere she goes.
“For me, the task is visibility,” she explains.
“People need to know that the union is a professional body and that they are there to support you as a member, you as a nurse and you as a professional.”
In leading her workplace, Vanessa aims to protect the rights of her colleagues and empower them to stand up for themselves.
A recent example involved attempts by her employer to change shift times which would push start and finish times back half-an-hour.
Vanessa says the seemingly small adjustment would likely have a big impact on nurses’ schedules.
Through campaigning, members have been able to put the moves on hold, correctly highlighting such changes cannot be enforced in the middle of an EBA.
For Vanessa, the collective action helped her reinforce the power of a unified voice.
“It got people talking about ‘well why am I in the union?’. It was great because they went ‘Wow. Look what we can do when we band together and say No.’”
Still, Vanessa admits engaging members as a job rep has its ups and down.
“It’s difficult as a delegate to try and explain to members that things take time to change and a lot of people don’t see what you do behind the scenes. That you are firing off emails, getting petitions together, getting around to every ward.
“It’s hard when time and time again we’re short-staffed, time and time again we’re not getting our annual leave, we’re dealing with aggressive patients and it’s hard to keep them engaged. You think to yourself just hang in there it’s just not a battle that’s going to be won overnight.”
Vanessa says becoming a union delegate has improved her confidence, ability to communicate with members and courage to challenge management.
“Now I know how to spark up conversations to get people talking about what they’re passionate about in our profession,” she says. “It’s a way that I can protect my colleagues. I get a great sense of satisfaction knowing I will do my utmost to protect them because when I was training and when I was a junior nurse I had a delegate on our ward who always had my back.”
TAKING A STAND
An RN in the Emergency Department of the Flinders Medical Centre in South Australia, Kyla Glover opted to become a worksite rep two years ago in a bid to safeguard working conditions.
“Some of the people who had been worksite reps at that time were sort of coming to the end. They didn’t want to do it anymore and having such a large number of staff members in the ED, we need more than one rep.”
At one of the busiest EDs in Australia, Kyla highlights safety and staff ratios as problematic issues.
“The working conditions at times can be extremely unsafe for patients and for us as nurses and the doctors as well. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re fighting for. It’s the patient safety aspect of it.
“In emergency it’s a one to three patient ratio, on the ward it’s one to four. So we need to just keep that as one to three. There’s no way we can manage a one to four ratio in our ED.”
Kyla represents about 150 staff in the ED. She believes being a good worksite rep demands knowing the EBA back to front, being proactive about workplace issues and liaising with members and the union.
She credits the role with giving her a broader perspective on the union’s purpose.
“It doesn’t matter what profession you’re in you tend to work in your own bubble and you’re actually only aware of your own department,” Kyla suggests.
“But once you do a worksite rep course, with other worksite reps from other avenues, country, city, wards, departments, it enlightens you – wow there are far worse conditions than what we’re fighting for.”
Talking to staff, promoting the power of the collective and banding together for better working conditions and patient care typify Kyla’s objectives as a job rep.
“Some members want to be a member just for the money, as in you don’t have to fight for a pay raise. They forget that actually it’s not always about the dollar. It’s about the working conditions that we have to fight for and the patients that we care for that we need to protect.”
After being a worksite rep for the past two years, Kyla says she keeps fronting up because there’s a need.
“We say amongst ourselves [delegates] if we don’t do it who’s going to put their hand up to do it? I think new blood is always great but there’s no one rushing to put their hand up because they can see what we’re all doing at times and it does put them off.
“The union has to have somebody in the department that they can actually come to. Both the union and the members have to have somebody to voice their concerns or issues to and be a liaison between the two.”
BECOMING A JOB REP
Job reps assume countless duties – representing members in the workplace, recruiting new ANMF members, providing resources and advice, and referring members to the union to seek further information.
They also bring members together and build relationships with management and the union so they can help shape the industrial and professional framework in which nurses and midwives work.
Before becoming a job rep, candidates undergo comprehensive education and training to get themselves up to speed.
NSWNMA Branch Organiser Michael Kirby recruits and trains potential job reps.
For some settings, this means reaching out to members and building capability.
“For sites that don’t have that union infrastructure, the job becomes more about walking in, finding people who are interested in the union, finding people who have their own workplace issues and then unionising around that and building a union from the ground up.”
Michael says job reps are predominantly taught how to provide assistance and support to their colleagues.
One of the most important responsibilities is understanding what rights and responsibilities nurses and midwives retain under the EBA, he adds.
“When they’re having conversations with people, rather than letting an issue float away they can identify ‘Okay you’ve mentioned a problem about your workload there or about unpaid overtime…’ and it’s important just so they’ve got the education to know that a break in the Agreement’s been made and then they can start teaching their colleagues about ‘Ok well actually, that’s not meant to happen and this is what we can do as a group to fix it’.”
After three years covering the public sector, Michael is now tasked with supporting members working in aged care and attempting to “awaken that sense of class consciousness inside them” so that they rally to protect their rights.
When pitching to potential reps, he spruiks the power of the collective.
“If you want to win this right for yourself and want a better world then you need to become a rep,” he advises.
“If you’re a leader in the workplace and bring colleagues together it’s the only way that you’re going to get a better deal.”
Rather than having just one job rep at a workplace, Michael suggests it is wiser to encourage different personalities with diverse qualities to pool together.
“On bigger things, like trying to win better hours or more staff, you need someone who’s articulate, who’s prepared to be strong with management and not cower away at the idea they might get bad rosters.
“So you need someone who’s competent, articulate, I think they need to be a bit audacious as well. But within that you need a whole scope of people. Union work brings on all types of different problems and it takes all different types of personalities to resolve them.”
Michael says influential job reps are worth their weight in gold.
“It’s all good and well to have members on site but real union strength comes from activity and the activism participation of that membership. Job reps are absolutely crucial for not only getting people active but to keep maintaining that activism throughout a campaign and even when campaigns are over and there’s those little lulls, making sure those structures remain.”
Northern Territory RN and job delegate Amanda Gill views her position as an opportunity to trigger change.
“I want to be able to be a voice for all nurses,” she says. “I want to be able to help educate and get staff to be aware of their roles, their responsibilities, their rights and entitlements.”
Amanda has been a job delegate twice, the first occasion when working as a remote area nurse (RAN), and now at her current post in the education team of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre (NCCTRC) based at Royal Darwin Hospital.
Established in 2002 in the wake of the Bali Bombings, the NCCTRC is the Australian government’s disaster and health emergency response centre and tackles sudden health emergencies both onshore across Australia, and offshore throughout South East Asia.
The NCCTRC prepares Australian clinicians for deployment and local emergencies through unique education and training programs.
One of Amanda’s current challenges within the workplace surrounds balancing necessary work related travel against the Northern Territory Government’s Travel Policy and Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) entitlements.
The policy stipulates staff must travel within working hours, yet many courses delivered by the NCCTRC require staff to travel outside of working hours, thus nurses can sometimes be disadvantaged.
Amanda says she is happy to step up and support staff not strong enough to voice their concerns.
“The trauma team work shift work. In our office, our courses run different times, days, nights, weekends, we travel a lot and I want to make sure that our staff and nurses are well cared for.”
Amanda lists listening, support, advice and the courage to raise issues as the most important parts of being a successful job delegate.
“I think you have to learn to be diplomatic. Like anyone else, I get a bee in my bonnet over a specific thing but you have to pick the fight that you can have and take the wins you can. You have to just keep nipping away at it.”
She adds that attending regular delegate meetings and finding out about other issues going on outside her workplace and how they’ve been tackled and resolved help her appreciate the union’s national footprint.
NSW RN Claire Bathgate works in residential aged care in Tweed Heads, caring for complex patients experiencing a range of health issues.
“It can be physically, mentally and emotionally demanding because of the number of residents that you are looking after, the complex needs that you are responsible for, the interplay between family members that we become involved in and the huge variety of things we are responsible for,” Claire says.
Claire was inspired to become a union delegate after witnessing tough working conditions.
“When I started nursing, I was really shocked at how constantly hard, good decent nurses were working. Everyone expects to work hard and fast to meet a deadline, but these nurses worked so incredibly hard all day, every day. The stories we all hear about missed breaks, staying back without pay to complete your notes or to finish something, and so on, they were played out every single day in the hospital I worked in. I just felt it was wrong.”
As a union delegate in aged care, Claire strives to protect her colleagues.
“I see my main roles as listening to members, offering support and information and at the moment, being involved in EA negotiations.
“To me, to provide a place where my colleagues can vent, get support and information is very satisfying. I feel it’s a natural extension of caring for my residents – to care for their carers.”
DEVELOPING A VOICE
Victorian Enrolled Nurse Nicole Brown was working at private hospital Epworth Richmond in surgical admissions when she felt compelled put her hand up to become a job rep.
The decision was triggered by the 2016 Private Sector EBA and widespread lack of knowledge around rights and entitlements.
“We were a ward of about 60 staff and only had one job rep and she was transitioning to retirement so left our ward to work somewhere a little bit quieter within the hospital and we were then kind of left with nobody. Members had no idea about what their rights were or anything like that so I put my hand up.”
Nicole attributes the lack of knowledge around industrial issues and the role of the ANMF to the ward’s relatively younger demographic. After investigating what it took to become a job rep, Nicole undertook training at the ANMF (Vic Branch).
Several months later she would boost her skills by commencing the Anna Stewart Memorial Project, a two-week development program run by the Victorian Trades Hall Council for women who want to get more involved in their union.
Nicole spent time at Trades Hall and the ANMF (Vic Branch) where she immersed herself in the union movement and increased her knowledge in areas such as recruitment and organising.
“There’s things that you learn that you didn’t know before about how to approach situations, how to communicate effectively with people, from recruiting to having grievance conversations and disciplinary conversations with people and being able to give people reassurance in times that aren’t so certain.
“The biggest thing was getting that holistic picture of where your money goes that you pay every fortnight and how hard everyone actually works.’
Nicole quickly put her new skills to use as a job rep.
“It opened doors for me to bond with colleagues. People who I maybe wouldn’t have spoken to the way I did if I wasn’t a job rep. Forming relationships with people which then kind of led onto working better as a team and better patient outcomes. You have a members’ meeting and everyone then kind of feels part of a unit and like they support each other.”
Nicole says becoming a job rep “completely changed my life”.
After taking on the role, she recently left to pursue a position as a Branch Organiser with the ANMF (Vic Branch).
“The job rep role, career wise, it made me a better communicator, it made me a more active learner and listener and just professionally, it’s completely changed my career direction.”
Asked to reveal what legacy she hopes she left on her former workplace, Nicole offers a culture of empowerment, questioning issues and knowing your rights.
“It comes back to a nursing thing and being able to help people. Leaving people after a conversation knowing that you’ve given them a little bit of education that they probably didn’t have before.”
To read more articles from ANMJ, view the full journal online at https://issuu.com/australiannursingfederation/docs/anmj_october_17_book_issuu