Keeping the connection through a global pandemic in the prison, correctional and secure psychiatric system

Phil Fairlie says staying in touch has meant doing things differently in order to provide representation.

Working out how best to stay in touch with your members during a global pandemic has been testing. Finding ways of keeping them informed at a time when they are desperate for information, on matters that are a bit more serious than some of the day-to-day bread and butter issues is a challenge that all unions have been grappling with. In our case like many others, having a membership who had no option but to attend their work and for whom working from home wasn’t an option, means telling them you cannot attend the workplace to address their concerns doesn’t go down too well with some.

Prison is a 24/7, 365 days a year environment where staff need to be in attendance. With that in mind, members who have had to endure that environment have also had a specific set of fears and concerns that they want some assurance on and answers to from those they elect to be their voice. Being told branch meetings are not an option, or that face-to-face dialogue is forbidden, are responses that were generally understood, but did nothing to quell the fears or anxiety of the members.

To that end unions including ourselves had to look at making a better use of the alternative means of communicating and getting really important messages and answers out to the members so as to be timely and helpful. Social media, of course, has its part to play, and most unions have some element of social media presence. However, it is not a good medium for certain work groups, and prisons is one of those groups. There are matters involving prisons that simply cannot be safely, or effectively communicated on social media and the kind of regurgitated coverage prisons generally get in some print media quarters is all the evidence we need to know that.

It’s astonishing how many who have never been in a prison in their life could reel off exactly what the Xmas menu is in every prison such is the medias obsession with telling you. When it comes to how many staff have been assaulted, how long they are off their work for, or are suffering from work-related stress, predictably not so much.

The volume of circulars to the membership has increased enormously through COVID, as you would expect. The local branch officials in each prison have had to do the same locally, as well as deal face to face with members, often on issues that would be matters for the national reps, except for the fact they were for long periods, unable to attend the prisons.

During periods when the rules were relaxed, our national reps were in the establishments as often as was required, trying to provide a presence for members and answers to their backlog of queries and enquiries. That face-to-face contact helped. It always does.

The POA has spent considerable sums on its website in an attempt to utilise it in a way that quickly and accurately gets information out there. It is slowly drawing more hits from members as they become aware of its wider content. National officers and officials doing video messages seems to be popular and an area for greater use going forward. It is set up in a way to allow for more interaction and a two-way sharing of information, which has allowed for members to feel more included, more involved, and to provide them an opportunity to communicate in a more immediate way with the trade union.

The partnership arrangements we have with the employer in the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is arguably one of the best in the country in terms of resources afforded to the union. That has helped enormously during the pandemic for having reps available across the country that members could contact. We have someone in each prison who is the recognised daily point of contact for members, and it is fair to say they have never been busier than during the pandemic in fielding the issues being brought to them.

The partnership also has a shared communication strategy where we jointly agree messaging to the staff groups in the service, which gives us a very helpful influence on what the key information is that needs to go out, and an influence on the language used to convey the messages. This has been extremely helpful to the union and the employer when communicating with the staff during new, untested periods of high anxiety.

As a union, we regularly use workplace ballots for elections or for matters such as pay offers. Ironically, the prison service has just come through the last of a 3 year pay deal so there has been no need to attempt a ballot during the various lockdown periods. Having seen this year’s public sector pay policy and comparing it to the cost of living each and every one of us is living through at the moment, there is no question that we as a union will be fully utilising the pay ballot procedure on any offer that makes its way on to our table. I can confidently predict that neither the SPS nor the Scottish Government are going to get the same overwhelming support achieved in the 3-year deal with anything that is offered this time round. Once we reach that point, I think it is highly likely that our next ballot will not be a workplace one but one required to be conducted through an external balloting agency.

Phil Fairlie is the Assistant General Secretary for the POA (The Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers) in Scotland