Gerry “A new NHS Chief Executive asked to see me and he said ‘you have a ferocious reputation’. I just said that’s good because you’ve got a management team who are all bullies. If you stop that then perhaps my reputation will soften. With other trusts I was alright. As a union rep you have to adapt to the situation you’re working in.”
Elizabeth “I think that’s a hard thing to take on the chin that often in times of conflict you’re asked to adopt an aggressive position and then when it comes to other issues you’re expected to come from a Swiss girls’ finishing school. You have to be able to box quite fast between different positions.”
Gerry “You can get a group of members who are angry about bullying and you have to have the confidence to do something. In many cases you have to adopt a lead and agitating role. Then there comes a time when your position switches when you’re looking for resolution. So you’re almost going from an agitator to a meditator.”
Elizabeth “I used to do mental health work with trade unionists and we had some fruity debates about the politics of mental health. But actually the thing that really stuck – quite similar to health workers – that you’re forced into a position where you have to express the emotions of people who cant do that at work. Anger is the big one because although there’s a lot of anger around conflict and nobody wants to lose their job. Trade unionists are put in a position where they have to be angry when their members can’t. The trouble is how do you calm yourself enough to then negotiate and then not be a complete nightmare in your personal life. You can’t be angry all the time.”
Gerry Elizabeth “”You don’t lose your temper, you find it. One thing I always say to members who are having trouble with mangers is, what would you like me to say to them that you can’t say? That’s quite powerful for individuals that someone will go in for them and say what needs to be said.”
Elizabeth “For me the job of a mental health worker and a trade unionist aren’t so different because the job is to help people to articulate the things they cannot say. You’re taking a position on something that’s not right at a time when other people are vulnerable and can’t say it. Intellectually they may know it but emotionally it may be impossible to say. That’s also the privilege of working as a rep.”
Gerry “One of my closest colleagues is a community mental health nurse and we used to talk about the parallels in the job. I used to watch him and sometimes say gently you’re looking at this as a mental health nurse there now needs to be, you know, a little bit of action.”
Elizabeth “So now we’re coming to the politics of therapy – its not enough to understand it you’ve got to do something about it! That’s the Marxist in me coming out, its all about praxis. It’s about knowing the world and changing the world. And there’s a big debate in health about where the emphasis needs to lie. Doesn’t matter what your ideology is though, what we know is that working in health is now very political. The winding down of welfare, inequality, poverty of wages.”
Gerry “Yes, its a time bomb. And much of this is about discrediting public sector workers to discredit public services, so that it shifts to a different system. I hope people wake up to that.”
Elizabeth “The other thing that’s being lost is the experience of saying what you think without somebody beating you up or shooting the messenger. At their best, unions used to offer a space where people were protected and could say what was happening at work. There’s the hope that with the revival of grassroots organising that we can talk about the future, but the problem for health workers is that many are precarious workers who are frightened and when they’re part time don’t have time to go to union meetings.”
Gerry “I was in a meeting the other week and the rep said how are we going to deal with these changes and I said we’re going to go and talk to the people who its going to affect. That should be our default position. If trade unionists don’t talk to workers then they’re not doing their job. The policies should develop from the people at the workplace.
Elizabeth “In trade union education we’re very strict about this – you never start any meeting telling people what the issues are you have the respect to ask “what are the issues?” and listen to the answer. It’s from that that we build a collective response. We build solidarity by showing respect enough to ask the question “what do you think?”.”
To hear the full conversation with Gerry Looker and Elizabeth Cotton go HERE.
To listen to the podcasts of this conversation click on the links below
Surviving Work in Healthcare is a free online resource Surviving Work in Healthcare designed for people working on the frontline. The website is a joint project by Surviving Work and the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust offering podcasts, videos and survival guides that take a jargon free, de-stigmatizing and practical approach to addressing the real problems of working in healthcare.
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