to strike or not strike? a comms dilemma

A strike is likely to take place on July 10 in local government and comms people will have some hard thinking to do. In this post one professional thinks aloud over the difficult choice they face.

by A Local Government Comms Person

Sitting at the heart of a local authority within a corporate comms team often brings about conflict between the decisions and policies of the organisation and your personal views. However, it is the job of the professional to separate the two, and to present the organisation in the best possible light, enhancing, preserving or defending its reputation. 

Since I joined my first local authority as an assistant PRO I’ve been plagued by one particular conflict. Can you be in a union if you’re in communications? Or perhaps the question is, should you be?

On 10th July, I may have to walk past colleagues on the picket line to get into my office to do my job.

I have been both in and out of a union. When I was in, I’d joined partly because I felt I should - members were paying to defend my terms and conditions so I should contribute and support too – and partly because my own team was undergoing restructures and budget cuts. We felt we would be more able to negotiate and fight our corner from within the union’s ranks. During this time, I took part in a strike over changes to pensions.

When I was out, I did cross a picket line. It was at the start of what we used to call the ‘credit crunch’ and it didn’t feel right to be complaining when many in the private sector were in a worse position than us. We weren’t getting a pay rise but other people were losing their jobs. My colleagues were diplomatic and gave me leaflets as I drove past their banners and placards.

My dilemma continues to be less about the morality of striking but about the conflict between being a comms person and a striking union member. This issue is something I feel is different for almost any other council post except maybe those in HR.

Day to day I craft and shape words and sentences to explain council business to colleagues across my organisation. It is me who puts words in senior managers’ mouths, giving them the vocabulary to tell employees everything from our corporate priorities, restructures and redundancies to our long service celebrations and staff awards. Particularly now, as my job is solely internal comms, I can see only a forked path between union membership and being a PR professional.

It is me who writes and sends out the message from the Chief Exec which says no leave will be granted on 10th July. It is me who carefully explains changes to terms and conditions which mean my co-workers (and me) have smaller figures in the bottom right hand corner of our payslips. It is me who puts out the rally cry that all line managers should be communicating face to face with their teams because that’s what they want, that helps them feel informed and that’s how we keep our staff on side.

How can I then walk out on 10th July? How can I be taken seriously by union colleagues who know it was me writing the bulletins to staff? How can I maintain my reputation and my solid working relationships if I’m the poacher turned gamekeeper.

But how can I not walk out? Will it do more damage to that reputation and those relationships if I walk past the comrades on the picket line?

There is always thinly veiled wariness of those officers who work at the centre of the organisation. Those who chat about last night’s TV with a senior manager while making a coffee in the shared kitchen are viewed as privileged or protected by those away from the town hall who get to see the mythical characters at the top of the organisation less frequently. Will persuading colleagues from the depot or the children’s centre to engage become even more of a challenge depending on whether I’m in my office or outside the town hall in July?

In reality, unless I join a union between now and 10th July, I will have to cross the picket line. My authority has banned all new requests for leave and does not (like at least one other I know of) allow non-unionised staff to not turn in, so they don’t have to cross the picket line.

What’s the answer? I put it to you my comms colleagues. Do we stand alongside our local government colleagues on 10th July? Do we cross the other line and join the NUJ? Or do we need a unionised arm of the CIPR perhaps, to reflect our unique profession and the positions we hold.

Which fork in the path would you choose?

This post was written by a local government communications professional who wishes to remain anonymous.