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Trade unionism is all about fighting for people's rights, and that starts in the workplace. Sarah Robinson looks at the opportunities available to represent your fellow members in negotiations and Union governance
Do you sometimes think 'I could have done a better job of that myself'? Then you are just the sort of person who would make a good Union representative.
This could mean standing for election to the Nautilus Council but the majority of Nautilus members holding a Union position are lay representatives – commonly known as lay reps.
What is a lay rep?
Nautilus lay representatives are members who provide support for their colleagues in the workplace. In other industries, you may have heard a lay rep called a 'shop steward'. Most lay reps operate in workplaces which have a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with Nautilus.
Nautilus has four types of lay rep across its three branches, who are selected in different ways through formal or informal processes:
- liaison officers (UK branch)
- Partnership at Work delegates (UK branch)
- kaderleden – 'executive members' (Netherlands branch)
- vertrauensleute – 'trusted people' (Switzerland branch)
UK liaison officers are nominated and elected, while Partnership at Work (PAW) delegates are either elected or volunteer for the role. The Union can also accredit UK liaison officers in companies where there is no CBA.
In the Netherlands and Switzerland, Nautilus lay rep appointments are less formal than in the UK, and an indication of interest from a member can mean they are immediately appointed.
Lay representatives work under the direction of the full-time strategic and national organisers on the Union's staff and are fully integrated into the structure of Nautilus and its Council.
What do lay reps do?
A lay representative has many roles: organiser, communicator, advisor, listener and spokesperson. The main principle is to ensure fairness at work for colleagues by representing fellow members in negotiations.
Lay reps can also play an important support role at disciplinary and grievance hearings, and they all help to strengthen the Union by recruiting new members.
Do lay reps get training and financial support?
Regular free training is provided throughout the year for novice and experienced lay reps on how to support your colleagues in the workplace, and lay reps work closely with the organising department at Nautilus.
In almost all companies, Nautilus lay reps are volunteers rather than salaried post-holders, but you may be entitled by law to time off to carry out your trade union duties, and expenses claims may also be a possibility. Your strategic/national organiser will be able to advise on how things work in your national branch.
How do I become a lay rep?
If there's a vacancy for a lay rep in your workplace, Nautilus will let you and your colleagues know, and then you'll either stand for election or simply volunteer, depending on the situation at your company and the type of lay rep position available. UK lay reps (both liaison and PAW) serve for a fixed term, normally three years, but the situation may be different in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Lay reps making a difference in rivercruise
Wherever possible, Nautilus involves its volunteer lay representatives in inland navigation and rivercruise sector negotiations with employers.
Switzerland branch national secretary Holger Schatz explains: 'Currently, for example, this has worked well in discussions with employers and authorities in the context of the revision of the crewing rules in inland navigation. Two of our lay reps regularly take part in hearings at EU level or within the ETF (European Transport Workers' Federation).
'Three of our lay reps are active in official bodies in their companies. One is a member of the works council; another is on the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiating committee; and in the rivercruise sector we have a lay rep in a CBA company who works for the company across all vessels.'
Lay reps are regularly briefed by Nautilus staff and provided with information and empowered to take action themselves onboard, noted Mr Schatz.
In the relatively new and growing rivercruise industry, Nautilus is particularly keen to find new members to take part in Union work, and will help them grow into a lay rep's role, he added.
'For this purpose, we try to hold presentations and workshops at crew meetings, in addition to the usual ship visits, in order to inform people about Nautilus and the possibilities of getting involved in the Union.'
Nautilus Council: members governing the Union
Nautilus International is governed by up to 32 elected members: the Council. All full members can stand for election, and the term of office for members of the Council is for up to five years between elections.
The membership of the Council is designed to reflect the Nautilus membership base, with representatives drawn from the different branches and from different employment backgrounds within the maritime and inland navigation sectors.
The Council typically meets three times a year, and has an essential role guiding Nautilus policy and scrutinising and signing off on the work of the secretariat (Union employees).
Before the 2023 elections, some Council members told the Telegraph why they had stood for election.
'Being an elected member of Council has enabled the members I represent to have a voice,' said one. 'Our concerns may take a long time to be acted upon but at least we have a platform in Nautilus that we can use for the benefit of all.'
For another Council member, the career benefits were also an important reason to sign up. 'It looks great on your CV and demonstrates a commitment to shore-based businesses. Don’t be put off by the commitment required from the role, as technology makes it easy to participate: video conferencing now means more seafarers can take part in Union activities while at sea.'
The latest Council elections took place in early 2023, and the results were available at the end of April. When the next elections come around, you will hear about them in plenty of time, and if you think you would be interested in standing, log into the My Nautilus area of this website, where there is more information.