Advice for Students Who Want to Work as Social Activists: A View From a Trade Union, UK

Workers of the World UniteGary Pattison provides advice for students interested in becoming trade union officials, including how he moved into his profession and how sociology helps him achieve better conditions for workers.

Gary Pattison

I work as a trade union official with GMB, supporting members in their workplace / collective organisation. GMB is an amalgamation of many organisations formed over 100 years, and operates as a general trade union. I work with local government employees and within the political, legal and voluntary sectors. I am involved in policy development, negotiating terms and conditions of members’ employment agreements, and I coordinate political organisation, by collaborating with other unions.

I moved out of university life to escape from temporary contracts. I found it impossible to work with rigid hierarchical managers with little educational attainment who simply wanted to undermine everything that I did and prevent my delivering anything. After winning an equality case on my own behalf I became involved in the union. After about two years I changed job and started working full time for the union.

My background is in sociology and politics. This fits well in the role. It helps with attempting to develop democratic bottom-up activism through to the application of critical social theory in explaining to members why power relations are as they are. Previous teaching experience also comes in useful.

My advice to a student considering my line of work is to establish strong connections by joining a trade union. No formal qualification is needed for my job, so I am not sure that sociology directly helps, although it always forms a useful context. For example, the specialist skills that I use in my job include quantitative and qualitative research skills; policy writing; organisation skills; knowledge of employment law; health and safety; industrial organisation; equality. A good grounded basis in sociology of work and social theories, such as Marxism and of diversity studies is essential; this includes knowledge of: gender; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT); race/ethnicity; political sociology; and the sociology of organisations. Wider conceptual work such as critical thinking is also essential. The more general skills that are needed include negotiating; communicating; public speaking; writing and managing projects; and non-hierarchical management of people. There is no minimum requirement of on-the-job experience or additional training, although I have taken other courses such as in employment law. Publishing is important, although not academic writing.

In my working environment, I work alone. I do not fit in at all. Qualifications and having an academic background can lead to discrimination from others. Sociology is seen as elitist.

The benefits and rewards of my job are that I get to use my professional salary to challenge the state and capitalism. Seriously—it’s very satisfying to win cases, especially for low-paid employees who very often lack confidence to run with things themselves. While I do not work as a sociologist in terms of the name of my job description, I do see myself as a sociologist because my work is all about making society a better place for union members and for the wider collective political ideals that the union supports.

SAW logoArticle copyright: © Gary Pattison 2010. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Article citation: Pattison, G. (2010) ‘Advice for Students Who Want to Work as Social Activists: A View From a Trade Union,’ Working Notes, Issue 1, June, online resource:

Image credit: Banksy. The photo of this image was sourced from Draanor (2009) ‘The Best Graffiti Aerosol Can Spray – 26 Pictures for You to Enjoy’. Info Barrell, online resource accessed 23 June 2010:

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