Autism: What your union can do
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From the TUC Handbook, Autism in the Workplace:

Be aware that your membership (nationally, in your region, branch, workplace, etc.) is neurologically diverse, even if no-one has identified themselves to you as being on the autistic spectrum or having another neurological condition. Your union’s strength comes from uniting its members and mobilising the talents of all its members.

Defend your members

Represent autistic members and members with caring responsibility for autistic dependants as effectively as possible.

“I represented a member – ironically, a social worker in a learning disability team, my team! She has three children, the oldest of whom is a young adult with a learning disability and autism who lives at home with my member, who is the main carer.
“The member was having problems getting the leave she needed for specific things, such as community dentist appointments, which are very stressful – even when the leave was recommended by the professionals who were supporting her.
“She was also experiencing problems with long-term flexible start times. Her daughter is picked up to go to college but times vary, and she needs to be at home until the bus arrives. This should not be a problem in our team at all.
“Trade union representation helped her a great deal, as when management saw she would challenge them and had support, they backed down.
“And our union has benefited too, as she is now chair of our Black and Minority Ethnic members’ group!”
Lynne, UNISON rep in a London borough council

Organise and mobilise union members in support of workmates who are facing discrimination or unfair treatment at work.

Mo works in a ticket office for a railway company, and has a young daughter who has autism. His daughter needs a very stable and predictable home routine, but Mo’s roster meant that one week, he was doing early shifts, the next week late shifts, etc. His daughter was very distressed. He applied for ‘flexible working’ to have regular hours, but his manager was hostile. She grudgingly agreed to a short period of fixed hours, but undermined it from the start. A trade union representative accompanied him to all meetings and challenged the manager’s attempts to put him back on the round-the-clock roster.
Union members organised a petition of his workmates supporting Mo’s fixed-hours arrangement, which made the manager look rather silly when she claimed that his workmates had complained about it!
The case was reported to the union branch, and members would have been willing to take industrial action in support of Mo.
When the manager failed to follow the policy and tried to cancel the fixed-hours arrangement, the union appealed to a higher-level manager, and got Mo’s hours restored to what he needed.

Use collective bargaining

Demand that employer adopts an autism/neurodiversity policy.

Organise!

Does your union cover organisations which provide services to autistic people (eg. in education, social care, local government, supported employment, the voluntary sector etc). If so, get those workplaces unionised!

Produce recruitment materials aimed at autistic workers and carers.

Use ‘know your rights’ guides to make workers confident about demanding their rights through collective union organisation.

Communicate effectively

Ensure that union materials are clear and accurate.

Use a variety of formats – graphics, cartoons, videos etc. as well as words.

Do not allow union meetings to become dominated by jargon and cliquey banter.

Fight the cuts

Defend autism services under attack from austerity cuts.

Ensure that protests are autism-friendly where possible. The major TUC marches in recent years have had a quiet section – and bear in mind that chants are probably more bearable (and more political!) than whistles and horns.

Nothing About Us Without Us

Ensure that the union has representative structures for disabled members, that these structures and their activities are publicised, and that autistic members know that they are welcome to get involved.

Make contact with autistic people’s organisations.

Make union events and meetings autism-friendly

Meetings should have a clear agenda and run to time as far as possible.

Procedures should be clear, so that members know when and how to raise the issues that they want to raise.

Keep good order in the meeting.

Consider the physical venue that you use for union meetings, particularly regarding sensory issues. Choose a venue (or arrange the venue that you already use) to ensure: minimum background noise; adjustable light levels; away from strong smells, etc.

Consider the location of your meeting venue – can you help with transport if it is hard to access?

Offer help with childcare/carers’ costs to enable members with autistic dependants to attend meetings.

Training

Provide training for union reps about autism.

WEA London Region runs one-day briefings on Autism in the Workplace for trade union representatives. You can publicise these briefing days to reps in your union; and you can request that the course is run specifically for your union. For more information, contact Monica Gort mgort@wea.org.uk or Janine Booth, j.booth@rmt.org.uk.

Make sure that all your union’s training is autism-friendly.

WEA London Region is developing a training day for tutors to help you do this.

Promote understanding, tackle ignorance

Display materials at work which promote greater understanding of autism.

Distribute this handbook to union reps and branches.

Educate members about language, and challenge unkind or inappropriate comments at work and at union events.

Hold a discussion at your union branch meeting about autism; perhaps invite a speaker.