‘As a woman, my rights are not reduced by my LGBT+ comrades’

UNISON’s 2024 women’s conference kicks off with statements of solidarity on LGBT+ rights and Palestine

Conference delegates hold up green voting cards. Credit to Rosie Powell

The first day of UNISON’s women’s conference, chaired by Sharon Foster in Brighton, passed several motions relating to LGBT+ rights, flexible working and female representation in the union.

The day began with an impassioned speech from the union’s president Libby Nolan, who paid particular reference to Labour’s new deal for workers and the ongoing crisis in Palestine, describing it as a ‘war on women’.

First, Ms Nolan said she was “determined that 2024, the year of LGBT+ workers, leaves a strong legacy.”

Commending Labour’s new deal for workers, which promises day one rights for workers and a repeal of minimum service levels legislation, she said: “we need strike action to negotiate if we’re going to get money in people’s pockets, so they don’t have to go to food banks. It’s not a last ditch attempt, it’s always a threat. It has to be a threat.”

Women in Palestine

Ms Nolan also spoke at length about women in the ongoing crisis in Gaza. She said: “We cannot stand here without thinking of Gaza. Of Rafah. There are approximately 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza and 40% of those pregnancies are described as high risk. It’s not a war, it’s an assault.

“They are in a situation of fear and trauma, with no sanitation or clean water. No medicine, no healthcare infrastructure, no pain medications, anaesthesia and no ability to perform C-sections.”

“As women, we must never stop marching and calling for a ceasefire. However powerless we feel, we have to keep Palestine in the news. Gaza will always be a trade union priority. We will continue to demand for a permanent ceasefire and to allow humanitarian access and stop the blockade of aid.”

“There is so much work to be done, but we’re all united as women in this room. We can pull together, and we can win.”

2024 Year of LGBT+ workers

The first motion passed was to “embed LGBT+ equality within the union”. Introduced by a speaker from the national LGBT+ committee, the motion called for the national women’s committee to promote UNISON’s Year of LGBT+ Workers.

Supporting the motion, Liz Wheatley from UNISON’s NEC made a clear statement in solidarity with trans rights. In acknowledgement of the current climate of transphobia in the UK, Ms Wheatley said: “As a woman, my rights are not reduced by my LGBT+ comrades, they are reduced by Tory bigots who try to divide us.

“Together we are stronger, and when we fight together, we can all win more rights.”

Another speaker, who worked in adolescent mental health, made reference to the government’s new trans guidance for schools, which has been criticised by Stonewall as “not fit for purpose”.

She said: “In the 1980s, the trade union movement was at the forefront of the campaign to repeal Section 28. In this Year of LGBT+ Workers, we need to equip ourselves, again, to campaign against policies like that and to take on the rhetoric of the far right.”

Flexible working

Introducing a motion on flexible working, Alison Chisnell from the union’s national women’s committee said: “Flexible working is not a perk, it’s a necessity. But although you have the right to request it, the employer doesn’t have to provide it.”

The motion calls on the women’s committee to raise awareness on women’s rights to flexible working, recognising that women’s need to balance caring responsibilities with paid work.

Speaking in support of the motion, Linda Elvin from Canterbury City local government described how UNISON’s support was integral to her securing flexible working after her first application had been denied. She said: “Around five years ago, I was juggling being a child carer, looking after my mum and working. Thanks to the backing of UNISON, I got my flexible hours.”

Other motions passed included measures to increase the representation of women in leadership positions across the union, increase the support for young women members, improve health and safety conditions for women in the workplace and promote the ‘right to disconnect’ within flexible working policies.

UNISON women’s conference runs from 15-17 February 2024.