Project Description

Sophie Hottat,
Union Syndicale Representative

Hello Sophie, please introduce yourself ?

I began my career in the European institutions in 1995, firstly on a national contract, as a childcare worker in one of the European Commission’s crèches. Ten years later when the crèches were internalised and I was responsible for everything concerning the transfer of staff to the Commission as I was a trade union delegate at FGTB. I worked with Union Syndicale who helped in finalising the two-year negotiations and the full transfer of staff (109 people). We collaborated and worked in very good synergy and when I became a Contract Agent, I decided to continue my involvement in trade unions at the Commission by joining Union Syndicale.

What is your job at the Commission?

Initially, I represented the staff of the delegation of childcare workers, in the local staff committee. At the same time I continued to work in one of the Commission’s childcare facilities. It was not always easy to combine the two: I continued my trade union work in the evening when my work as a childcare worker finished. I became more and more involved by running for the ComExCom (the union’s decision-making body, at Commission level) where I was elected Deputy Secretary General at the last elections, as well as for the Federal Committee. I am also a member of the USF Federal Bureau.

My commitment has evolved and with it the time I spend in my trade union work. For the past 4 years I have been seconded full time to defend all staff. I realised at that time that it was very important for me to use my skills to help people, regardless of grades or category. I have been working for 5 years in the Joint Committee for the reclassification of contract agents but also in the Central Staff Committee (CCP). In time, I specialised in issues related to the PMO and Contract Agents.

When you started your trade union work, what issues were you most interested in?

The thing that is closest to my heart is the well-being, in particular, all the issues related to harassment. In fact, I was very much involved in the consultations because well-being at work is paramount. A person who feels well in their work environment will do a good job and give the best of themselves.

It is important for me to listen to people: whether they are members of US or not, they come to discuss their case. Sometimes, we are blocked by the Staff Regulations. For certain situations, I unfortunately do not have a magic wand. However, it helps that people are able to speak and be listened to. Giving them my time really helps them. Even if they do not always leave with a solution, they feel reassured as they were able to express their discomfort or their feelings.

I also like very much to support people prepare their self-evaluation, help them for their interview with their manager, precisely by advising them what they can write in their evaluation. My work on the reclassification committee for contract agents is a long-term job which takes a lot of time because there are a thousand pages to read but which, for me, is very rewarding. It allows me to understand the situation on the ground, to better understand the staff, the procedures and the management constraints.

I also organise a lot of mock interviews teaming up with other colleagues (such as Nicolas Mavraganis, president of the USF), whether for new hires in a new department or to prepare for certification. I try to help our members, for example, with their presentations. In terms of career follow-up, I help both civil servants and contract agents. I do not overlook any category.

For me, our members do not have grades, they are colleagues who ask for help. Sometimes I even help non-members because no matter what the problem is, if a person needs help, you support them: whether it is a problem at the PMO or with a manager. If they join afterwards, so much the better. Solidarity is a good thing for everyone.

You are very attentive to the staff, whether they are members or not, and very committed. Do you think that the administration is listening to them?

This is a very complex question. When I talk to people, I am very honest and, as I often say, I play the devil’s advocate. I am not interested in promising them that I am going to find a miracle solution… In some cases, I know the administration’s answers and I know that there are things for which we will not have the solutions they expect. I am always very frank with people who come to see me: I do not invent solutions for them that do not exist. I try to help them, to have contacts with the administration to find solutions. Fortunately, in many cases, and I am happy for them, we manage to reach an agreement.

With regard to concertations, files as harassment, promotions, sickness, contract agents, are much more difficult, and, unfortunately, they involve very long-term negotiations. Often, we have to review them, because we find a solution, but we realise that it works only on paper, not in the field. In such cases, we need to review everything and find alternatives.

We try, with the other unions, to value the staff, to put forward their well-being, but as everywhere, we do not win all the battles.

With teleworking, have your contacts with members changed?

I am someone who personally never thought of teleworking. It was difficult for me to combine family, home and work. It was really something I had not considered. I really had to reinvent my work because I am a person who likes eye contact, it is essential. It is very different listening to someone on the phone or face to face: you need to reassure them differently, reach them in a different way than with non-verbal communication, which is very important.

Therefore, it was more difficult. Before, I used to answer a lot by email. Then, knowing the difficulty of a confinement (because I experience it too), I telephone a lot more spontaneously. We have many expats among our colleagues, they are far from their families and they do not necessarily have someone to talk to. I think it is important that they hear a voice (even on Zoom or Skype) because it is reassuring for them as well as for me. These face-to-face meetings are essential, but they have become more difficult because of everything becoming electronic and teleworking.

What is complicated with teleworking is that before, when we left our office at 18h, we really left it. Nowadays, we are constantly connected and I am not a person who disconnects easily, although I have that right. As long as I work for the union, my priority will be to help people and unfortunately this health crisis does not allow me to do so, at least not as I would like. I still try to make my family and professional life match but it is not always easy.

Has the exclusive digitalisation of contacts with members made your work more difficult or easier? What are you doing to compensate for the lack of contact caused by teleworking and how have you adapted in your work, your way of doing things?

As far as our trade union work is concerned, it is more difficult for us because before, you could go to the office to ask a question to your colleague, to exchange ideas, organise meetings to reflect about a problem, etc. Digitalisation changes everything because not everyone has the same availability. It was easier and more spontaneous before. Videoconference meetings take a lot of time and are more tiring: organising meetings of 10, 20 or even 40 people and giving them equal speaking time, the time to express themselves is much more difficult. Sharing and collaboration are no longer the same. As a result, solutions are perhaps slower because the exchange of ideas is less direct. As far as our work with members is concerned, bridging the distance is complicated. I miss being present in the office. For me, it is important to be present to understand a given situation.

Do you think that digitalisation can seriously impact trade union work?

The work, whether it is trade union work or staff work, is deeply human. Digitalisation takes this characteristic away from our work, in the sense that even if we see each other by videoconference or hear each other by telephone, the exchange is not at all the same. I think we will have to completely reinvent ourselves. We will have to find alternatives, even if we are going to return to normal (as soon as possible, I hope), we will have to meet people because they will have been very lonely. Also, I hope that I will meet colleagues who have been present in the office throughout. I am thinking of the so-called “critical” staff who have never been able to telework. They have worked with fear in the belly, and they will need to be listened to beyond a simple phone call or virtual meeting.

In your opinion, what are the challenges that Union Syndicale will have to face in the coming months with the digitalisation in place? What balance should be struck between telework and face-to-face work?

We are all already thinking about this, during our meetings we obviously talk about it a lot. We have understood that we are going to have to reinvent ourselves. We have also all understood that we are going to have to put people back at the centre of our actions. Somehow, this situation has allowed us to question ourselves and realise that improvement had to be made. It forced us to get out of our comfort zones. So that is entirely positive.

The human side, more than before, will have to be taken into account. The challenges will be the same, but they will have to be expressed in a different way. Questioning ourselves is essential for a union, because otherwise we are no longer listening and aligned with what the staff are going through, which is never positive.

I also call young people to get involved in the union because they are essential. Older members have the memory, and the young ones bring us new perspectives, a way of understanding things differently. This synergy is very important, and it is one of the challenges we have to face. The cliché of the union being used to strike must be swept away. There are other means of action to protect working conditions, to help and to provide services to staff.

With the well-being workshops, Union Syndicale realised that the well-being, mental and physical health of the staff of the institutions was being undermined by this increased digitalisation. Is this something that Union Syndicale wishes to pursue face-to-face?

Absolutely. The isolation of all the staff, and even more so in our institutions where quite a few people have their families abroad, must be taken into consideration very seriously. We must be able to help them to find a certain form of well-being, which is undermined by teleworking. As a result of our questioning, we want to evolve with the staff and be attentive to what they are going through. This translates into the monthly well-being workshops, that we organise.

On a more personal level, what is the impact of this period for a trade union representative?

I think I am like everyone else. It has been just as difficult. However, I think I am someone who tries to turn things around in a positive way. That is what I try to emphasise to the people who contact me.

Even though I think I am a very good listener, when I turn off my computer, I try to balance things out and establish a boundary between my work and my private life. Sometimes it is not easy to avoid thinking, during the time I spend with my family, of what happened during the work day. And it is even harder right now because instead of having a commute which allows me to disconnect and decompress, here I just have to move from one room to another room.

Finally, what were your reasons for joining Union Syndicale? Would you say that your commitment has evolved?

I must admit that it is pure chance. I started working for the Commission’s creche at a very young age, when I was twenty-one years old. I realised then that there were gaps in my pay check (laughs). So I went to consult a Belgian trade union and that is I discovered that the pay slip was not correct.

Afterwards, I launched the initiative for this national union (FGTB) to join the Commission because there were more than fifty of us and we were entitled to a full delegation. I really invested myself in this area and it was a natural step. Before that, it was not something I was considering, I did not say to myself at twenty years old: “you are going to be a trade unionist“. Yes, I have always been attentive, and the social and human aspects are essential for me, but it was not a vocation in the beginning.

One thing led to another and when we were internalised, we had to prepare everything, transfer the staff, take the EPSO competitions, etc. I stayed on. As they say, once you have tasted something, it is difficult to get rid of it. It started by chance and then my trade union involvement evolved naturally and became a lifestyle choice.

Sophie Hottat

Deputy Secretary-General of Union Syndicale Bruxelles European Commission,
member of the USF Federal Bureau and Committee.

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