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The inner circle: how lay reps support the fight for fairness at work
9 December 2020
As a Nautilus lay rep, you can help protect colleagues and build better conditions in your workplace. Deborah McPherson talks to experienced lay reps about what it's like to represent colleagues in this rewarding role.
What is a lay rep?
Nautilus lay representatives are members in the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland who play a vital role in the Union's negotiations with employers and provide support for colleagues at companies that have a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with Nautilus.
Nautilus has four types of lay representatives across its three branches, who are selected in different ways through formal or informal processes.
- Liaison officers (UK branch)
- Partnership at Work (PAW) delegates (UK branch)
- Kaderleden – Dutch lay reps (Netherlands branch)
- Vertrauensleute – 'trusted people' (Swiss branch)
In the UK, the type of lay representative you are is dependent upon which type of committee has been established with your employer through Nautilus.
UK Liaison officers are nominated and elected, while UK 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.
The Nautilus lay reps system in the Netherlands differs from that of the UK branch. Their appointments are less formal than in the UK, and an indication of interest from a member can mean they are immediately appointed. They carry out many of the same functions as their UK counterparts, or an individual Dutch lay rep may be appointed for the duration of a particular project.
Kaderleden can also be asked to join officials in meetings with companies, to provide officials with details of companies or issues within a company, or to serve as an intermediary between colleagues and the Nautilus Netherlands branch.
The Swiss branch also has a less formal structure, with a smaller number of lay reps known as vertrauensleute. Currently there are four members from four different companies within the inland navigation sector, including rivercruise, who serve for four years. All are members of the Union's Swiss National Committee and they are also involved in CBA negotiations.
All lay reps help to strengthen the Union by recruiting colleagues to become Nautilus members.
Under UK law, liaison officers (like shop stewards in other industries) are entitled to benefits and facilities in order to undertake their role, and PAW delegates also receive a degree of support and protection.
Lay representatives work under the direction of the full-time industrial organisers and are fully integrated into the structure of Nautilus and its Council.
What does the role involve?
A lay representative has many roles: organiser, communicator, advisor, listener and spokesperson. They also help to recruit new members.
In practical terms liaison officers ensure fairness at work for members and their colleagues by representing members at pay and other negotiations, disciplinary hearings and grievance hearings.
Liaison officers in the UK can formally represent members at negotiations, disciplinary hearings and grievance hearings, while PAW delegates are mainly communicators of information from the employer and Union to the members, or they might only be mandated for a specific purpose such as a pay review. UK liaison officers are sometimes seconded ashore.
Dutch senior executives carry out activities such as organising campaigns and assisting industrial officers in the CBA process.
Swiss lay reps can also help negotiate, organise members, keep the Union up to date, and join Union meetings such as the National Committee.
What training is required?
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 industrial department at Nautilus.
Nautilus plans to re-launch further UK lay rep training in 2021, when the Union will move to using the Trades Union Congress's online modules.
Lay rep training in other branches is also available.
How to become a lay rep
If there's a vacancy for a lay rep in your workplace, Nautilus officials 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.
Some workplaces require election to the position, while at others members can simply volunteer.
Other Union branches have less structured arrangements. Swiss members, for example, are notified of vacancies by the Swiss branch and asked if they want to volunteer to work more closely with the branch. Those that volunteer are put forward for election at the National Committee.
Meet some Nautilus lay reps
Experienced liaison officer at P&O Ferries Phil Lees, a third engineer, has been working with Union officials and colleagues to resist a second round of pandemic redundancies at the Dubai-owned operator.
Mr Lees has been a liaison officer for 10 years and says the current redundancy situation is the worst he's ever experienced in this industry. 'What greatly concerns me about this, is that are there are a lot of young people starting on a career path being made redundant.'
Mr Lees believes the fairness fight and time spent in the role is worth the effort to create a future legacy. 'This Covid-19 situation is not going to be around forever. Ferries will struggle to survive on freight traffic alone and we do believe these draconian job cuts are extremely short-sighted.
'Some people coming up to retirement might think "Well, I will leave with a pocketful of money" and can't understand our stance, but we are fighting for the legacy we need to leave for future officers.'
The pandemic negotiations were particularly harrowing for Mr Lees, as he also lost his wife to bowel cancer. He said his personal loss was helped by the fact his wife encouraged his passion for his union work.
Chief officer Dave Gatenby, a Nautilus seconded-ashore RFA liaison officer, who will shortly retire, says commitment is important to be a liaison officer and the work is varied.
'I deal with members' issues, grievances, disciplinary hearings as well as ill health retirement meetings. I also am involved with pay submissions, policy rewrites, health and safety, ethics and occupational health meetings in HQ to name but a few.
'Job satisfaction is paramount especially when members are not fully fit, and you are assisting with return to work plans and severance packages. Retaining jobs also is a priority where people may need support or more guidance to move forward.
Luke Vincenti, a liaison officer who is serving his second term, says the role is often about being a buffer between the company and employees.
'More than anything I believe a liaison officer serves as a conduit between members and employers or operating companies.'
Mr Vincenti has also taken part in Joint Consultative Committees (JCCs) which are comprised of management, union, and employee representatives, for 'jointly examining issues of mutual concern in order to identify, tackle and resolve issues together'.
One of his most memorable negotiations was successfully negotiating an amendment to pay and conditions within the CBA, around a particularly tricky clause.
'It's definitely challenging, but the Union provides you with the guidance and support you need. More importantly, your colleagues can provide you with the same. It's a great opportunity to learn more about the inner workings of the industry.'