Panel debate kicks off UNISON’s national disabled members’ conference

Speakers touched on a number of issues relating to post-COVID bargaining for disabled workers’ rights

UNISON’s national disabled members’ conference convened in Liverpool last weekend for the first time in two pandemic-dominated years.

Some 300 delegates attended the fully socially distanced conference, where ventilation was increased and session times reduced to ensure minimum time spent in the hall.

Conference heard debate on motions covering three themes:

  • the challenges that disabled workers have faced during COVID-19;
  • the group’s campaigning priorities for the coming year; and
  • building an effective and efficient union.

The weekend began with a lively panel debate on post-COVID-19 bargaining for disabled workers’ rights.

Graeme Ellis, vice-chair of the national disabled members’ committee, chaired the event, with four speakers raising a range of topics before answering questions from the audience.

Assistant general secretary Jon Richards began by outlining how, over the pandemic, UNISON had “totally refocussed our union and our bargaining resources to protect members in the workplace”.

This included successes negotiating agreements with employers at a national level around working from home and special paid leave, negotiating for individual risk assessments for disabled workers once lockdown eased, and producing bargaining guides for reps to continue the fight locally.

Looking to the future he said: “We will need to continue to focus on the safety of disabled workers – health and safety has taken on a new importance at the core of our negotiating work, and we have trained up hundreds of new health and safety reps to help with this.”

National secretary for equalities Gloria Mills spoke of the importance of “using all the tools in our toolbox, including the public sector equality duty, to bargain for disabled workers”.

UNISON NEC and national disabled committee member Sian Stockham spoke about her role as UNISON’s representative on the TUC’s disabled workers’ committee and what the TUC’s priorities were on the topic of the debate.

She began with the issue of sick pay. “We know the £96 a week isn’t enough to live on, and that’s just for those who are eligible. The pandemic showed us that some disabled people felt forced to go to work when they had COVID because they just couldn’t afford not to. Bargaining for better occupational sick pay needs to be a priority for all unions.”

Reporting the results of a survey of disabled workers that the TUC carried out over the summer, Ms Stockholm said that it found that pre-existing inequalities had been increased by COVID. “Nearly one in eight workers did not tell their employer about their disability, health condition or impairment. Why? Because they believed it would lead to negative consequences, to being treated unfairly.”

She highlighted a number of other issues which the survey raised, from disabled workers reporting being passed over for promotion to missing out on training opportunities, as well as being bullied and harassed at work. About half of workers said that they did not get the reasonable adjustments they needed to do their jobs.

Rounding off the speakers, Deirdre Costigan, UNISON’s national officer for disabled equality, spoke of the inadequacy of the government’s new disability strategy but, on a positive note, hailed the release of a new disability employment charter, of which UNISON is a founding member.

More coverage to follow on the motions passed at the conference