Women are at the heart of UNISON’s industrial action

General secretary Christina McAnea praises the many inspiring women who are leading disputes and negotiations ‘to change lives for the better’

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea gave an impassioned and rallying address to the union’s national women’s conference today, urging members: “Don’t give up in the face of these challenges.”

With the union’s members involved in a string of pay disputes, across sectors, Ms McAnea noted: “Women are at the heart of the action we’re taking now. I’ve met many of you on the picket lines.

“The right-wing media – and Tory politicians – still like to use the language of the ‘70s when attacking trade unions. They talk disparagingly about ‘trade union barons holding the country to ransom’. Yet again, they’re showing just how out of touch they are, as it’s women who are fronting so many of our disputes and negotiations. And I don’t just mean me. Our lead negotiators across most sectors are women.

“I meet amazing women every day in this job,” she added. “Women whose lives have been changed for the better by our union, who then go on to change other people’s lives for the better.”

Ms McAnea reminded delegates of the nursery nurses’ strike in Scotland in 2003, which was the biggest strike in Scotland since the miners’ strike and was led and planned by the women involved.

“At the end of it, every single nursery nurse was getting higher pay. One of the leaders was our own Carol Ball – who I met through the strike. She inspired me and many other women to get involved and be active in our union.

“I’m sure many of you in this hall will have your own story to tell – and will know someone who is just like Carol. And that’s what a union ought to do: give everyone the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to lead – if that’s what they want to do. That’s why it’s so important that we support each other and don’t give up in the face of these challenges.”

In relation to the multiple crises gripping the UK, she said: “For years we’ve warned successive governments of the urgent need for more investment, planning and change in public services. But they ignored our warnings. And now we find ourselves struggling to make headway in the midst of a perfect storm.

“Across all our public services, the cost-of-living crisis is forcing people to leave jobs they love, because they can get more money working in a supermarket or an Amazon warehouse.

“But conference, this government reckoned without our members. Hasn’t it been fantastic on strike days to see a sea of green and purple on our TVs?… Despite the upheaval and the impact on our public services, polls show we still have huge public support for the action we’re taking. People aren’t taken in by Tory propaganda. They understand our actions are to secure a safer and better future for everyone. And in our critical sectors, our members are still keeping people safe.”

Finally, Ms McAnea asked delegates to think about what they wanted the world to look like, 20 or 30 years from now.

“I know what I want to see – a world where the very idea of your being different because you’re a woman, or a Black person, or disabled seems strange. I want a world where LGBT+ and trans people can be exactly who they want to be, without fear of assault and persecution. Where being Black doesn’t mean you’re more likely to be passed over for promotion or be disciplined at work. And where having a disability isn’t a barrier, but a fact of life. Where it’s not disabled people who have to adapt, but society and work that have to change.

“I want a union where women leaders become the norm – not the exception. So I’m determined to build on the work we’ve already started, developing and supporting women leaders – and Black leaders – in our union.

“I want to make sure that women’s voices are heard at every level. And we can all play our part in making it happen. There will be no turning back from this. We need to be focused, we need to be bold, we need to be loud, and we will make change happen.”