IN three months' time, Neil Buist will officially take over as General Secretary of NACO (National Association of Co-operative Officials) – since 2002, he has been the Assistant General Secretary.
That experience, he hopes, will prove a significant weapon in the fight against declining engagement in trade union activity – at a time which he admits has been a challenging one generally for the Co-operative Movement.
"2005 proved to be a very difficult year with re-structures in the Co-operative Group, the sale of ACC to the Dairy Farmers of Britain and very demanding trading conditions for all societies, which have had an impact both upon recruitment opportunities and the individual representation needed to ensure we support our members.
"We are only as strong as our membership base, and inevitably, recent changes have led to a reduction in our membership. A couple of years ago NACO was two to three times the size it is now. But we need to concentrate on the many positives we can offer.
"Trade unions by their nature tend to be fairly reactive to events but I think we have another duty to provide members with new skills via the conferences and seminars which we run. That's something we would like to get societies more involved in. We also need to be able to share ideas of best practice."
Neil's interest in trade union negotiation started many years ago when he studied industrial relations at Keele University.
He is a former assistant general secretary of UNIFI, the banking and finance union, where he gained extensive experience as a negotiating officer. Before that, he was a senior staff representative with the NatWest Staff Association, dealing with individual casework in relation to disciplinary, grievance and performance issues.
"At the NatWest Staff Association I became part of a small team that provided dedicated support to the members. My experience with NACO has mirrored this essential element – to provide for strong and successful trade union activity and a focused support for our membership ensuring all questions, queries and requests are responded to quickly.
"Our administrative support allows for a smooth and professional operation with direct membership participation."
In the months to come, Neil will be addressing key issues such as a decline in the active involvement of the membership and getting members more involved with the union's democracy.
"We need to develop opportunities to become more involved with the democratic structures of NACO. The involvement of members in the General Council and other committees has been essential to develop policy and direction for NACO.
"The marked decline in recent years of activity of many trade associations is a matter that requires a great deal of attention."
One thing that won't be changing is the fact NACO membership is confined to people working within the Co-operative Movement.
"In this way the union provides a service that remains concentrated on protecting terms and conditions within the Movement.
"This does not mean, however, that NACO will not continue to look also to open membership outside of the traditional retail sector to the wider Movement, including housing
co-operatives, credit unions and other members of the Co-op sector – as well as developing relations with international colleagues if this can build upon the services we can offer the membership.
"Our focus will remain on providing an excellent service and commitment to ensuring we have a strong and successful trade union, which continues to represent the interests of the membership.
"We are also committed to a programme of continuous professional development encompassing legislative and professional changes to ensure our membership receive the best advice possible."
All in all, there is a pretty busy schedule ahead for Neil, who is married with two small boys and lives in Cheshire.
"NACO is a nationwide organisation so that means a fair amount of travelling but in the majority of cases I manage to get home at night. I'm quite lucky in that my family has grown up with this kind of work."
"As NACO continues to develop contacts with like-minded organisations, both nationally and internationally, I hope this will enhance the
services offered to the membership and provide opportunities for increasing the influence that the Co-operative Movement can exert in the marketplace.
"The Co-op Group has taken a long hard look at how to remain alive in the 21st century and that has meant some difficult decisions. But I believe the Co-op has a unique advantage in the marketplace.
"As far as Fairtrade goes, we have been a market leader and will continue to be.
"We have a team of dedicated managers and professionals who give their time to supporting the role of the Co-op sector in the wider UK economy and it's the role of our union to provide the support they require."