8 September 2021

Organising in the workplace: ‘I realised the rep could be me’

FCDO rep Sarah-Jane Holtam has been working hard to recruit and build a PCS presence in their relatively unknown workplace, with great results.

When Sarah-Jane (SJ) Holtam realised there should be union representation in her relatively unknown FCDO workplace, she had a “lightbulb moment” – why not do it herself? She has since been working hard to build the presence of PCS among their small team and has recruited around a third of the workforce so far.

“I’m now the main rep in Wilton Park (WP), which is an executive agency of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and part of the PCS FCDO branch.

When I first started here the union was mentioned briefly in the induction but that was it; there were no PCS reps here. I had never been in a union because I jumped around from job to job and travelled a lot. But I was well aware of unions and my parents had always been members.

A good friend of mine was involved in her union and we had conversations about it. I said I didn’t think we had a union but she said there must be one.

There were changes happening at WP that some people weren’t happy about, so I decided to actively seek out our branch at the main FCDO office and I joined up.

From there I went on to do the PCS Advocates course. I learned so much from that about what we could do in our workplaces.

I helped a couple of people with their issues and I started to see the value of it. I thought ‘we should have a union rep here to do this stuff’. It was a bit like a lightbulb moment. I thought ‘that doesn’t have to be someone else, it could be me!’

Induction introductions
I joined the BEC and did the reps course and I’ve been building things up in our workplace since then. I did the (Jane McAlevey) Organising for Power course and it was just fascinating.

When I asked around at WP, there were three other members. Then a few more joined.

I set up a couple of lunchtime Zoom sessions on PCS – what we do and why it’s important that we have one voice. We got a few more members after that.

I’m really lucky because we’re such a small team – of around 75 – that we know everyone by name.

I then asked HR if I could do something within the induction. I said I wanted to be listed as the rep and have a meeting set up with every new joiner.

For the last few months, I’ve had one-to-one meetings with every new starter.

It’s a get-to-know-you chat as well, and then I ask them what they know about unions. If they know nothing I’ll whack out my Powerpoint presentation and talk them through the benefits, including PCS Plus etc, and why it’s good to have representation within WP to influence change. I send them the relevant links afterwards and stay available for questions.

I try to relate it to something tangible. We get the annual email about the pay settlement but a lot of people haven’t stopped to consider where that comes from. I say the reason we get that email is because the union is in negotiations and they are trying to protect our T&Cs and pay, but they can’t do that without members.

We are up to about 23 members now.

Maintaining momentum
Our issues are quite simple, but they are important to our staff. For example, pulling the employer up on processes or challenging them over the breaks between shifts.

When we started working from home we followed up on the provision of equipment with a quick survey of all the staff, including non-members.

Things are more transparent now.

With uncertainty over the [FCO and DFID] merger, our FCDO branch membership has been growing. But in WP people don’t often equate that to our business. I remind them that it could affect our T&Cs. That was another reason I got involved in the BEC – to make sure we don’t get forgotten about.

I am trying to keep up the momentum with organising and recruitment. I message the members to check they’re okay and whether they need anything. It’s about making sure people are aware of their rights.

It’s a good place to work and in many ways it’s like a family, but just as in families there are issues. I’m trying to help give people that confidence to call things out. Because they have a union rep I think they are more comfortable now about speaking up.”