“We are pioneers this week.” That’s how UNISON president Josie Bird opened the union’s special delegate conference this morning – the first time the national gathering of activists has gone virtual.
While UNISON had to abandon its national delegate conference last year, as the country was still struggling to cope with COVID-19 and lockdown, to do so a second time was never an option, she said, as the gathering was “the most important cog in the machinery of the union’s democracy.”
Ms Bird was speaking from a studio in Congress House in London, where she was joined live by her vice presidents Sian Stockham and James Anthony, UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea and former general secretary Dave Prentis.
In her last speech as a two-year president – her tenure doubled by the pandemic – Ms Bird said that the past 18 months had seen “the best of humanity”, not least from the union’s own members who had been “absolutely essential” in keeping the country running during the crisis.
She added that the union’s activists – its branch officials, stewards, health and safety officers and others – should also be regarded as among the key workers of the pandemic, as they had tirelessly fought for adequate PPE on the front line, for better treatment of staff and patients in care homes, in continuing to protect jobs and pay for all members.
In contrast, she condemned the government for once again failing public service workers by introducing yet another pay freeze in November.
Far from the “great leveller” that ministers have tried to claim, the pandemic had actually “exposed and exacerbated structural inequality,” she said. That’s why the union would continue to press for “a genuine end to austerity” through its ‘no going back to normal’ campaign.
Ms Bird also paid tribute to Dave Prentis (above, with Ms Bird), who retired as UNISON general secretary on 31 December last year, presenting him with an honorary life membership of the union.
She called him a “true giant of the trade union movement, who had always been “happiest and at his best” when visiting branches, meeting members and fighting on their behalf.
During his 20 years as general secretary, the union had become, like the man himself, “decent, caring and outward-looking,” she said.
“We can’t under-estimate the impact of his work, leadership and dedication.”