‘We remain strong and defiant’

Christina McAnea salutes a year of successful striking and campaigning, in a rousing conference speech

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea today praised the thousands of members and activists who have “risen up and grabbed the opportunities of our campaigns and action.”

Ms McAnea opened a wide-ranging and quietly passionate speech to national delegate conference with a simple observation – “What a year we’ve had” – before presenting a list of achievements that were “changing history” and the lives of members throughout the UK.

These were “the picket lines, demos, rallies and campaigns that UNISON has either led, or supported, across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all through the past year.”

Industrial action across most public services was front and centre of a speech that was often met with cheers and hollers of approval.

She praised the NHS members whose biggest strike action in decades “won the hearts of the public” and forced the government to finally come to the table with more money, and the Environment Agency, Care Quality Commission and university staff who are still in dispute.

The future of our union is in safe hands

“There have been some brilliant moments on the picket lines,” she said. “Our members braved hours of freezing weather to stand up for what’s right – not only for themselves, but for their colleagues and for the future of our public services.

“Hearing our members describe their work – telling their own stories on why they’re taking action – was the most powerful part of our media strategy. It helped the public to see ­– and feel – the importance of what we were doing.

“And I was struck by how many young people – particularly young women – there were on the picket lines. It gives me confidence that the future of our union is in safe hands.”

With strike ballots currently open in local government branches in England and Wales, and about to open in Scotland and Northern Ireland, she urged those members to also vote for action. “Not just to get the better pay that you deserve, but to save our services and shine a spotlight on the chronic underfunding of these essential services.

“Local government services are too often overlooked. It’s only when there’s no-one there to fill the potholes or empty the bins, or when that urgent care package isn’t there, or your child with special needs doesn’t get the support they need at school, that people realise just how important these services are.”

Photograph from back of national delegate conference hall, showing members in seats and the backdrop showing image of Christina McAnea speaking at the podium

Ms McAnea also paid tribute to the union’s organising, campaigning and legal wins.

“It’s not just industrial action that changes history. UNISON wins for members every day, in so many other ways. This past year, local campaigns have sorted out pay problems that have persisted for years. When a low-paid healthcare assistant suddenly gets as much as £17,000 in back pay – that’s life changing.”

She also cited paid holiday for thousands of term-time workers, “countless” successful insourcing campaigns, regrading for homecare workers, and improvements to terms and conditions.

“Conference,” she said, “wins like these don’t happen by themselves.”

The general secretary’s attacks on the Tory government included its failure to provide a functioning care service and “the scandal of so many care home residents dying needlessly of COVID.” She noted UNISON’s launch during conference of its roadmap to a national care service. “One of our top priorities, our next task is to get a future Labour government to adopt it.”

Ms McAnea frequently returned to the “inspiring members” she has met in her travels around the country during the past year, and her desire to empower more of them in the union.

Turning point

Commending the speakers in Tuesday’s debate on empowering low-paid women in UNISON, she said: “These inspiring people are the real strength of our union.”

And on the Year of Black Workers in UNISON, she said: “While it’s important to shine a light on key groups and issues, this is not just, ‘do this for one year and move on’.

“I don’t have lived experience of racism. But my job is to do everything possible to make space for our Black members to speak up for themselves. To make sure their voices are heard loud and clear.

“We will build a legacy – one that grows our Black activists and increases Black representation in our union’s democracy.”

Referring to the government’s continued attacks on trade unions, she commented: “The Tories are looking nervously over their shoulder at us. And we know they are rattled by our movement’s recent show of strength, because they’ve brought in even more repressive anti-union legislation, legislation that would make the UK one of the most difficult places to strike in the democratic world.

“But we remain strong and defiant.”

Ms McAnea reminded delegates that this could be the last conference before the next general election.

“This is our chance to shape the future. After all we’ve been through – COVID, the cost of living crisis – this feels like a turning point for us.

“In the past two years, our service groups, our bargaining groups, you as branches have really stepped up to the mark. You’ve shown leadership, you’ve looked outwards and taken on employers and governments.

“We’ve now got a new NEC, and these next two years will be critical. We must all work together, all parts of our union, we all have a part to play. We’ve achieved so much this past year… Let’s not lose that energy and momentum, let’s build on it.”

Concluding to a standing ovation, Ms McAnea noted that in July UNISON will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. 

“Conference, public services are our shelter. They protect and support us. And public service workers are our guardians. Always looking out for others, making sure our key services are working to protect us all.

“But who protects them – who protects our guardians?

“Governments come, and governments go. But UNISON has been around for 30 years. Throughout that time, we have been defending our shelter and we’ve been standing up for our guardians, when their work and livelihoods are disrespected.

“Thanks to UNISON members, all is not lost. We will keep our public services going.

“Because when this Tory government is finally thrown out, we will still be here. We will still be strong and defiant.”