UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea spoke of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on disabled people, when she addressed UNISON’s national disabled member’s conference on Monday.
She said that the fact that almost two thirds of those who have died of the virus had a disability was “so shocking, it’s almost hard to comprehend,” adding: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones of all those who lost their lives during this pandemic.”
With almost 200,000 disabled members, UNISON is one of – if not the – largest organisation of disabled workers in the country. Of this, Ms McAnea said: “This means our role representing disabled workers is so important, and never more important than during COVID.
“Many of you were a vital source of support and guidance for the members in your branches through an incredibly challenging time. For that, and for so many other things that you do for our union, I want to make sure you know how grateful we are for your contribution.
“So, on behalf of our whole union, thank you.”
Highlighting what UNISON has achieved during the pandemic, she said: “We kept calling for better safeguards for disabled workers, increased sick pay, the extension of furlough for those who couldn’t go into their workplace, and for accessible information for deaf people.
“We lobbied the UK government until they finally agreed to update their official shielding guidance, to acknowledge that many shielding people had jobs and were entitled to protections under the Equality Act.
“I wrote to the chancellor and met with Treasury officials, demanding they invest more money in Access to Work and extend it to home working. So, it was good to see the chancellor finally listened to what UNISON and other campaign groups were calling for.”
These victories culminated in the launch last week of the new Disability Employment Charter, of which UNISON is a founding member, and which now has over 40 signatories.
The general secretary continued: “All of these successes are down to you knowing exactly how to organise, negotiate and campaign. You knew that to be effective during COVID you had to stay organised and, to make sure the needs of disabled workers were kept at the forefront of the union’s negotiating and campaigning efforts, you had to keep fighting.
“It’s your non-stop campaigning spirit that is keeping our campaign for a new right to home working alive. We have to keep up the pressure for these things, because we can’t rely on the government.”
UNISON vice president Andrea Egan added her thanks to delegates. “Even in the most challenging of times, you’ve continued to function and to provide an important platform for our disabled members. You are the best of us,” she said.
Adding to the long list of their achievements, Ms Egan cited the fact that activists had continued to organise through the successful Disability Live! event and online branch disability officer training.
“UNISON members and activists have worked through some difficult times these past 18 months,” she continued. “I wish I could stand here before you today and say that’s all in the past – and that we can now focus on a less inhospitable future.
“But of course, the challenges facing our members, our public services and our communities have not gone away – they have become greater.”
Ms McAnea called the Westminster government’s long-awaited disability strategy “another disappointment”, adding that there was no new investment, just a “re-hash of announcements, nothing concrete and nothing that will make a difference to disabled workers.”
Next year is set to be UNISON’s Year of Disabled Workers, and the general secretary outlined the work still to be done. “We are calling on the government to do so much more to improve the working lives of disabled people.
“You shouldn’t have to wait so long for even the simplest workplace adjustments. The government should give employers a two-week deadline to agree changes to offices and equipment, and we also want disability pay gaps to be published.
“I want to hear from members and activists what we can do to give them more support, what are the barriers to getting involved and what can we do to change that.
“I want to work with our disabled members committee and other SOGs [self-organised groups] across the union on these very issues, because SOGs aren’t an ‘add-on’ in our union.”
Finishing her speech, she said: “For me, our commitment to equalities is central to what we do. But it’s easy to think these things are all sorted.
“Don’t take hard-fought-for rights for granted. Fight to protect them. I give you my commitment, that I will always fight for them with you, and beside you.”
More coverage to follow.