Preparing for the future

‘We are the first and main line of defence,’ higher education conference hears

Christina McAnea speaking at the rostrum at UNISON higher education conference

UNISON higher education members gathered in Milton Keynes today, conscious that they were at the first of the union’s conferences since the general election.

And that was a point highlighted by assistant general secretary Christina McAnea.

However sick of thinking about the election delegates were, she said, “the landscape of the UK looks and feels very different” and “it would be irresponsible of us as a union not to prepare and plan for life under a Tory government with such a huge majority for the next five years”.

Ms McAnea, a former national secretary for education and now responsible for bargaining, negotiating and equalities across the union, said she highlighted the election result “not to depress us but because it is now the reality within which we have to work and negotiate.

“But above all I say it because it emphasises why our union, and indeed the union movement, becomes even more important: we are the first and main line of defence for workers and public services.”

Whatever reason people have for joining UNISON, she added, whether as an insurance policy, because they want better pay or because of local issues such as parking at work, they “believe and know that the best way to get what they want is through being part of a strong union – having a collective voice; that being part of a group is stronger than being on your own.

“And that’s important, because that belief in collectivism can change things.

“And,” she told delegates, “it’s important to remind ourselves that unions weren’t set up because everything was going well. We came about because of injustice and unfairness in society and in the workplace.

“We were set up to be a voice for working people and because there is strength in a union.”

And UNISON has demonstrated that strength over the past 10 years of Conservative governments and austerity, she pointed out. The largest union in the UK didn’t just batten down the hatches and hold on to what we had – “we kept up the fight”.

Recalling the first national strike in the health service in health service for 25 years, Ms McAnea, pointed out that UNISON saw off moves to introduce regional pay bargaining, forced an end to an artificial pay cap, took on the government and won in key legal cases, and had the biggest equal pay victory in history in Glasgow.

“When we organise, we can win,” declared Ms McAnea. “So in this new decade, we need to be prepared for this new empowered Tory government.”

And while that means negotiating with Tory ministers and with employers funded and driven by Tory policies, operating in a political, legal and industrial framework of a Tory government in Westminster, the union will be “ready to fight for fairness and justice when it becomes necessary.

“We’ve shown across the union over the past few years that we can win disputes. Yes, it is hard work. It means building density and organising long before we need to have have a ballot.

“It means building on issues that matter to our members; it means having an impact when we do take action,”

Or, as service group chair Denise Ward, expressed it when taking up the theme as she moved the annual report: “Yes, we’ve got a horrible government. But, yes, we’ve also got each other and we’ve got UNISON.

“Because we know there’s safety in numbers, there’s strength in numbers.”