- The University , Employee
Unions also put social safety high on the agenda
The three trade unions active at TU/e – the General Union of Educational Personnel (AOb), the Christian National Trade Union Federation (CNV) and the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) – are jointly trying to improve employment conditions. In doing so, they’ve put social safety high on the agenda. In the below interview, three representatives of the unions make a case for setting up an emergency fund for the expenses incurred in swiftly dealing with people who display blatantly undesirable behavior.
Marjo van der Valk, for many years the spokesperson for the three unions and active on behalf of the CNV, officially said goodbye to the university a year ago, but is still in the process of rounding off and handing over a few cases. She answers the question what the value of a union is in these times of declining membership matter-of-factly: “Who else will stand up for the employee?”
So does that mean that the demand announced by the unions’ a month ago to raise the salaries at the universities by 14,3 percent was met with applause? Van der Valk: “That’s not something local representation concerns itself with, as the collective labor agreement negotiations where these kinds of decisions are made take place at the national level.”
She goes on to give an example of something local representatives will address: respecting employees’ private time. “That’s something easily overlooked in this day and age, as everyone can be reached all the time and colleagues and supervisors therefore regularly get in touch with one another about work-related issues outside of working hours. But your right to free time is clearly laid out in the collective agreement the unions have entered into with the employer. So that’s something we’ve thrown open for discussion within our institution.”
Van der Valk and her colleagues Jan Vleeshouwers (FNV) and Anneroos Dijkhuis (AOb) are happy with the collaboration with that local employer, i.e. the Executive Board. “They for instance never question if we’re still representing anyone,” Van der Valk says with a smile. Vleeshouwers adds: “When we’re talking to each other, the unions and the Executive Board, it’s to see if things can be improved. As their go-to people to talk to, we also offer them a sense of continuity.”
Van der Valk admits that in the past, those meetings were sometimes seen as going through the motions. “You had to have a certain number of official meetings per year. If also felt a bit like ‘us versus them’ and the differences between the unions were bigger as well. But now we are seen as a serious conversation partner and we also help the Board by clearly explaining policy measures to our constituency, the employees. If things are not going right, we tackle them. And yes, sometimes it does still take a while before something is actually done, but at least things are no longer being dismissed altogether.”
The three union representatives are also seeing an increase in the attention for social safety, although they do think a lot still needs to be done in this area. Dijkhuis, from AOb: “It’s often about how certain supervisors treat the people below them. The best intentions that are poured into the organization from the top often have trouble finding their way down. If we want to make any changes in this respect at TU/e, we have to start at the senior level.”
Vleeshouwers explains what the problem is: “We may be dealing with someone who says they’ve had a certain management style for twenty years and therefore refuses to see why they should make any changes. It’s hard to get someone with that kind of attitude to budge.” Van der Valk also sees how the Executive Board struggles with these kinds of cases. “When something has been escalated all the way to them, it gets tricky, as fear of litigation and reputational damage come into play. We at the unions think those considerations should be left out of the equation. Intervene, do something about it, preferably as early on as possible.”
Vleeshouwers calls it a ‘tough issue’, but one that the Executive Board needs to address nonetheless. The three union representatives therefore make a case for setting up a kind of emergency fund, to cover the expenses incurred by the Board in dealing with someone who has displayed blatantly undesirable behavior. Van der Valk: “If we as a university start tackling this issue in a consistent manner, a fund like that won’t have to exist for that long. It also benefits our reputation, as we’re collectively saying: “We won’t accept that kind of behavior here.”
Of course, the local unions address many other issues besides the above. Take the allowance for commuting, they say, whose costs make a greatly varying impact from one employee to the next. Or they bring up the workload and employment conditions of the security personnel, on whom Van der Valk thinks great demands are being placed. And attending a course on leadership, of which the university offers a wide range, should be less take-it-or-leave-it as far as the unions are concerned.
Van der Valk: “Those who are currently taking these courses are generally the people who are already doing well as supervisors. But the group that would really benefit rarely enrolls. A bit more pressure might be put on this group to attend a few of these courses.”
She would also like it if during one-on-one meetings with an employee, supervisors were a bit more open to receiving feedback on their performance. “This is known as 360-degree feedback and we should do more of that at our institution. Everybody makes mistakes, but there are too few people serious about learning from them. The ability to give and receive professional feedback benefits the entire organization.”
It goes without saying that workload is always a current topic for the unions. Vleeshouwers: “We constantly pay attention to this, particularly when it comes to the wellbeing of the employees. For example, the university farmed out a lot of work in the past, including in the areas of catering and cleaning. But if these are structural activities, then why aren’t they structural positions within the organization? If I look at those groups of employees now, I often see the negative sides of such a system. As a university we hardly have any say in the workload and wellbeing of these people.”
During her time as union representative, Van der Valk has seen a definite improvement in the relationship with the Board. For one thing, she’s very pleased with the appointment of an ombudsperson in 2021, something that the unions had advocated for years. “The Board and the unions treat each other with respect and trust. With my actual farewell to the university rapidly approaching, I have faith in it continuing that way.”