Unite union learning rep wins prestigious award

Unite union learning rep wins prestigious award

16 April 2013

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has announced that the recipient of this year’s STUC Helen Dowie Award for Lifelong Learning is Sonya Cassidy, a Unite union learning representative (ULR) at Royal Bank of Scotland in Greenock.

Sponsored by Inverness College UHI, the award was presented today by first minister Alex Salmond MSP.

Unite the union is incredibly proud of Sonya’s achievement in receiving this award. This is the second award Sonya has received for her work as a ULR, having recently been presented with the regional ULR of the year award by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey.  This is also the fourth award in a row to be received by a Unite ULR, following Janette Dunbar receiving both the 2012 Helen Dowie Award and the 2012 TUC ULR of the year award.

The learning programme organised by Sonya at the RBS Mortgage Centre at Greenock is a fantastic example of the positive benefits lifelong learning can bring – benefits for organising, learning or membership numbers, and huge benefits for our members at the grass-roots level, with more and more accessing opportunities which previously they have never been able to.  

Julie Gorman, RBS Customer Maintenance, said on returning to learning: “I thought it would be quite nerve wracking, but the courses have been absolutely brilliant. They’ve designed them so that everyone learns at their own pace, so I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to doing more."

Fellow learner Craig Mills, RBS Reconciliations, is keen to encourage others to take part in courses, saying: “There are many courses available and you don’t always have the funding, time or support to take up studies any other time. Sonya is very approachable, helpful and supportive. She is a great point of contact and this is a service not always available with other learning methods.”

When Sonya first started as a ULR her workplace only had one rep; it now has four reps and its own workplace committee. This new visible and energised union structure has given confidence to the workforce which is increasingly willing to speak up and take action over important issues. The increased morale in Sonya’s own workplace has led to interest from other sites, and new ULRs being recruited.

The buzz created by Sonya’s learning programme has been remarkable; the increase in member density at this site surpassed expectations, rising from just 6 per cent in November 2010 to over 25 pert cent today.  This is hugely important as the Greenock site is a '100% Campaign' target, and the success the reps have had through combining learning and organising is clear evidence this strategy works and could be a key path to increasing Unite’s membership in all sectors.

The hard work and dedication which Sonya has put into bringing this all together has paid off, as the programme has been a huge success from the very beginning. The range of courses was a powerful demonstration of how Unite can quickly respond to its members’ needs, and how union-led learning is truly driven by the needs of the learners themselves. The enthusiasm for the courses is enormous; it has enriched the lives of the members who attended, and is proof positive that Unite is seen an active and relevant force in the workplace.  

The turnaround in attitude towards the union of members, non-member and the company management had been of key importance in the sector, and Sonya’s success has been used as a beacon to encourage others to get involved.  We have seen enthusiasm spread not only within her own employer but in the sector as a result of her hard work and dedication.  Sonya is a shining example of what can be achieved even in the most low-density workplaces, and how there is always an opportunity to turn things around and bring trade unionism to the fore for the benefit of all.

The STUC established the STUC Helen Dowie Award for Lifelong Learning in 2006 to commemorate Helen Dowie’s lifetime achievements in lifelong learning and to recognise other outstanding trade unionists who demonstrate their commitment to union values and lead the learning movement forward in Scotland. The award is administered by Scottish Union Learning.

Pat Rafferty, Unite Scottish Secretary, said: “I warmly congratulate Sonya for her achievement, and her outstanding contribution to both her members and the wider union movement.  Lifelong learning is hugely important to Unite, and we recognise the valuable opportunities which Sonya and our Union Learning Reps are able to bring to Unite members.  Sonya’s success is solid proof that lifelong learning should continue to be a core part of Unite’s strategy for growth.  Sonya thoroughly deserves to win this award and I wish her all the best for what will undoubtedly be a bright future.”

Grahame Smith, STUC general secretary, said: “Sonya’s work in giving her members life changing opportunities to expand their knowledge and develop their skills is an outstanding example of the dedication and expertise of our union learning reps. Not only has she won over her employer to embracing the vital role of union learning she has demonstrated its organising potential, boosting membership in her workplace by 500 per cent. The benefits of her work for learners, the employer and to the union are clear for all to see. She is a worthy recipient of this award.”

First minister Alex Salmond said: “I present awards every year when I visit the STUC Congress. I always applaud the commitment and zeal of the recipients – and I take particular pride when their achievements have been supported by the Scottish government’s investment in union learning.

“Sonya Cassidy is a very worthy winner. The work she has undertaken at the RBS Mortgage Centre in Greenock, as rep for Unite, is making an enormous difference for both her colleagues and her employers. It is a fantastic example of the sort of progress that can be made by workplaces and trade unions working together to develop a more highly-skilled and more fulfilled workforce.

“Partnership with the trade union movement is a key element of our work to transform Scotland.”

David Hosey, vice principal Inverness College UHI, said: “Inverness College UHI is pleased to again sponsor the Helen Dowie Award for Lifelong Learning.  We have a close working relationship with Scottish Union Learning and are very aware of the many benefits learning in the workplace can bring.  Sonya is a very worthy recipient of this year’s award.”

Sonya Cassidy, recipient of this year’s Helen Dowie Award for Lifelong Learning, said: “I was very pleased to receive this award which recognises the work I am doing as a ULR.  I very much enjoy my role in organising and delivering learning and I’m keen to offer every single person in my workplace the opportunity to participate in learning which is accessed through Unite the union”.

Gary Shaw, the RBS centre manager has given his full support to Sonya, and has said: “The lifelong learning programme Sonya has launched within RBS Greenock has been a fantastic success. She has enabled over 100 of our staff to participate in courses - from basic computing to accountancy - that support their work life to British Sign Language and Italian that enhance their personal life. Sonya’s dedication in making this happen and personal sacrifice in seeing this through has meant we have a fantastic opportunity for our staff - our staff are more engaged, they have gained new skills and many have re-found their desire to learn and develop.  It's a fantastic result for my centre and credit for this falls to Sonya.”


Notes to editors 

For further information please contact Peter Welsh, campaigns, communications & policy unit, Unite Scotland, 07810 157931. 

  • Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.5 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.