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A vital link

The CSP’s network of stewards plays a vital role in supporting members and keeping the organisation abreast of key workplace issues. Gary Henson meets three of them.

Across the UK, 750 stewards are the face of the CSP for thousands of members as they advise, support and organise in NHS workplaces and beyond.

Stewards are also the society’s eyes and ears, providing invaluable intelligence to help full-time officers regionally, and the CSP nationally, to assist members’.

Often the first point of contact for physiotherapy staff in need, stewards strive to make sure CSP members have a dignified, safe, secure and rewarding working environment as they seek to deliver the best possible service to patients.

Whether it’s a failure to consult staff  properly, a disciplinary, a case of bullying, or proposals to downband staff, stewards are there for members.

And that’s not to mention their wider organising role, mobilising for the massive NHS pensions strike in November 2011, for example, or in local campaigns against cuts to service or outsourcing.

Chair of the union’s industrial relations committee Alex MacKenzie says: ‘All our reps are volunteers, often devoting large amounts of their own time to campaigning and negotiating for better working lives – as well as representing and recruiting CSP members.

The work can sometimes seem never-ending and sometimes a thankless task. But without committed reps in the workplace, the CSP would have no voice and no presence.’

For the uninitiated, the role of a steward – tackling problems faced by individual members and supporting the collective interest of physiotherapy staff in their workplace – can sound rather daunting.

With many stewards routinely putting in considerably more hours than that provided by ‘facility time’, it certainly is a big responsibility.

The main focus of the stewards’ activity is providing advice, representing and communicating with members in around 300-odd employers across the UK, a 2012 CSP survey found.

The almost constant restructuring of NHS services and deepening cuts are also major issues reps are grappling with today and are likely to continue to do in the foreseeable future.

Yet alongside ‘challenging’ and ‘demanding’, stewards most frequently describe their role as ‘enjoyable’ and ‘interesting’, and they believe they are strongly supported both by the society’s regional full-time senior negotiating officers and CSP training, the survey found.

Members taking on this role need to be highly organised, good with people and to take a collaborative approach with members, managers and other union colleagues. Above all, they need to be determined.

And as the many glowing comments received from members nominating stewards for the Society’s annual Rep of the Year Awards attest, for their day-to-day delivery on employment matters for physiotherapy staff, the society’s stewards are well appreciated.

Claire Sullivan, CSP assistant director for employment relations and union services, echoed that sentiment: ‘I would just like to say an enormous thank you to all CSP stewards for their tremendous work on the society’s behalf. We quite literally couldn’t do what we do without them.

They are volunteers doing this on top of their day jobs, yet day in and day out they represent CSP members with great professionalism and commitment. In a rapidly-changing health landscape, the top priorities of stewards have remained constant – advising, representing and communicating with members.

These vital tasks are even more valuable to members in a time of uncertainty.’
 
Ronan Walsh was thrown in the deep end after being elected as a CSP steward at a trust in north east England in which health unions faced an unprecedented challenge to terms and conditions.

Mr Walsh is one of three stewards at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust. Together, they represent more than 90 CSP members at 10 sites, which include three hospitals.

Elected as a steward last September, Mr Walsh, 25, took the lead in meetings, alongside senior negotiating officer (SNO) Rosie Lloyd, tackling a proposed  withdrawal of sickness enhancements.

Reflecting on his experiences, the band 6 musculoskeletal (MSK) physio says: ‘It was a steep learning curve because it was the first consultation and campaign I was involved in.’

He realised it was vital to have good communication links with members, with CSP head office through the SNO, and with management.

‘It was important to make sure we were available to members when they wanted to discuss and feed back to them. With members on different sites that’s sometimes been challenging.

‘We try to be as organised as we can and keep lists of members and their contact details up to date,’ said Mr Walsh.

The campaign was a good example of trade unions working together. Unison, GMB, Unite, RCN and other unions represented more than 5,000 trust staff who were affected by the proposals.

‘We made sure one of us was at every meeting,’ said Mr Walsh. ‘Although physio numbers in the total workforce are low it was important that we made sure our voice was heard and we had some influence.

‘A lesson I learned was that having good relations and working together with other trade unions put us in a stronger position and with a louder voice.’ Regular communication meant that problems came to light far sooner than might have been the case, said Mr Walsh.

‘Preparing for meetings and keeping up-to-date with developments makes us more effective as a trade union and able to support our members.’

Staff and unions standing together at North Tees resulted in the imposition of a local variation to national terms and conditions being beaten back.
 
Shona Cain is the CSP’s current Steward of the Year.

The neuro physio has represented the 50 members at Stafford and Cannock hospitals for three years. Her father, a trading standards officer, was a trade union rep.

At the 2013 Steward of the Year awards ceremony in Manchester, Ms Cain was praised for her readiness to assist members through difficult cases such as bullying and sickness absence.

Colleagues who nominated her said: ‘Thanks to Shona’s involvement in the investigation and willingness to support us, the case that we put forward was successful.

Shona’s willingness to be involved shows how much she cares about serious problems in the workplace. She is passionate about ensuring that the working lives of CSP members remain positive’.

Stafford Hospital is now in an administration process, and all services are being reviewed, which could mean TUPE transfers, a fragmentation of services and service redesign, potentially impacting on patients and staff.

In times of financial uncertainty and organisational change, Ms Cain’s key message is that members should speak to their steward sooner rather than later if they are worried about their jobs or patient services.

‘They should try and keep motivated and let their stewards know if they find any problems. In that way, we can raise those issues with the appropriate people in the organisation.’

During what is a very stressful time, sickness absence has increased and a number of staff are having sickness absence monitored, Ms Cain explains.

‘Members obviously want someone in there with them so what’s being said is accurate and the process is being followed accurately.’

As a result of the Francis report into Mid Staffordshire, the trust has been under intense scrutiny and many staff are battle weary as a result.

‘People are a bit more motivated now and understand the issues concerning the impact of the administration process.’

Ms Cain was a band 5 when she first started as a steward. ‘I became acutely aware of the issues in the NHS and I wanted to get involved. I wanted to speak up for people.’

It’s been a rich learning experience.

‘You get an understanding of the processes and an appreciation of how you can influence change within the NHS environment.

‘I’ve got a greater appreciation of how to manage staff by sitting on the other side of the table to management.

Despite all the publicity that surrounded the release of the Francis Report, there’s much to be proud of at Mid Staffordshire, said Ms Cain.

‘We’ve improved our partnership working between management and staff within our department.

‘It’s really rewarding being a steward,’ she concluded. ‘You’re working with management to shape your trust for the better, for staff and patients. And you’ve got real support by the CSP.’

‘People think if you’re a steward you’re left on your own. But my SNO is always on the end of the phone.’  fl

MSK physio Emily Lovell is one of two CSP stewards representing 80 members at South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. ‘I love it. It’s very rewarding being able to give something back to your colleagues and very satisfying to be able to help them on a personal level.’

Keeping members informed about what’s going on is a top priority for a steward.

‘We’re regularly emailing members giving them info about things to be aware of, particularly to do with the outsourcing of services which we have a lot of in the south west.’

When she is not emailing or updating the CSP notice board at Torbay Hospital, Ms Lovell goes to an array of meetings.

She is vice chair of the trust’s ‘staff side’ unions and also sits on the local consultative negotiating committee.

Ms Lovell stresses that if members have a problem they need to get in touch as soon as possible, and not let anything fester.

‘Get in touch proactively rather than reactively. It’s a lot easier and enables us to do our job a lot better because we can, for example, seek support from our colleagues, and we can save valuable time.

But stewards can’t do it all. Members need to get involved too. It’s a team job.

‘We do make members aware that they need to do some of the work as well, such as getting information and timelines,’ said Ms Lovell.

Ms Lovell is particularly proud of the recent success in resolving a re-banding issue of an associate member. ‘To be part of that and assisting was really satisfying.’

She was elected as a steward five years ago. ‘I started doing it when I was a band 5. We were short on reps in the trust. Someone said: “You’re conscientious, you look after your colleagues and you’re a team player. You should go for it”.’

There are many challenges: ‘It can be very difficult juggling your time and being able to do this. ‘We do have time off to do trade union duties, but you’re always doing more so it can be a struggle.

However, she adds: ‘Being a steward has made me better as a physiotherapist and as a technician as I’ve learnt how to prioritise and how to get things done.’

Ms Lovell recently became a band 7 team leader. ‘I wouldn’t have got such a position without my steward experience, which has helped me personally.’

In a final plea to anyone starting or moving to a new job, she added: ‘Please, when you start your job, make yourself known to your local steward.’

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