UNISON exists for its members: to protect them and defend them and their interests; to win recompense when things go wrong and to make sure they’re treated fairly and equally.
At a time like this, when public services and the people who work in them – whether for private, public or community providers – are facing challenges like never before, the union’s work with and for our members is needed like never before.
And sometimes it’s useful to remind ourselves of just what our members, our activists, and our services and staff can do.
Three recent wins in just the past month show just what being in UNISON can mean for public service workers.
As hospital rep Fiona Isaac noted after a successful dispute won pay rises of up to £1,900 a year for members in Wales: “We have demonstrated that you don’t have to accept something when an employer is in the wrong. You can challenge it and, by standing together, win.”
Staff working in the sterilisation and disinfectant units at the Morriston, Neath Port Talbot (pictured above) and Princess of Wales hospitals were paid less than people doing exactly the same job at neighbouring health boards.
Operating theatres, wards and clinics could not function without the work of the skilled professionals involved in decontaminating hospitals and surgical instruments.
Across Wales they are employed on Agenda for Change pay scale band 3 – except at Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board hospitals, where they were on an out-of-date job description and inferior band 2 pay.
Depending on how long they had worked, this meant that the workers could be from £466 to £1,879
a year worse off.
The union talked to the board over two years in an attempt to reach an agreement, and successfully resolved a similar dispute in the x-ray department.
But a lack of movement by the health board on the sterilisation and disinfectant jobs saw the workers vote for strike action by 96% in January.
A one-day strike in January, together with further action, saw the board come up with an increase in pay.
Ms Isaac, a rep at the Morriston hospital in Swansea, says: “I want to say a big thank you and congratulate everyone in the sterilisation and disinfection units.”
UNISON Cymru/Wales regional organiser Mark Turner said that the settlement is a powerful example of what “people power” can achieve, with “a significant increase in pay for the overwhelming majority”.
“These healthcare workers just wanted to be paid what they deserve,” he said. “We were able to show that they were paid far less than peers doing exactly the same job with the same responsibilities elsewhere in Wales.
“This is a great advert for why everyone should belong to a trade union. Working collectively, we can improve your working conditions.”
Across the Bristol Channel in Devon, UNISON support helped 22 hospital cleaners win £70,000 compensation between them after they were exposed to a toxic chemical disinfectant.
As local rep Allison Parker (above) from Torquay hospital stated: “Thanks to our union and Thompsons, we can continue doing our work in a safe environment.”
The cleaners, who all work for Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, fell ill seven years ago because of a chemical disinfectant called Actichlor that they had been given no training in using safely.
Anyone using the cleaning substance experienced runny eyes, nose sores and wheezing coughs. To make matters worse, the masks they’d been given were useless and the goggles didn’t fit anyone who wore glasses, said UNISON.
When managers ignored their concerns, the cleaners contacted the union, which asked Thompsons Solicitors to investigate.
This investigation found that the Actichlor was being mixed with hot water in small, enclosed rooms, which meant the cleaners were breathing in toxic fumes.
A lack of training also meant that staff didn’t know they should have been mixing the disinfectant using cold water and in large, ventilated spaces.
The case went to court and the cleaners were awarded compensation because the hospital had provided sub-standard equipment and didn’t comply with safety regulations – specifically, the COSHH regulations covering the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health.
“This case shows the value of being in a union,” says UNISON South West head of health Helen Eccles.
“Employers shouldn’t expect staff to use dangerous substances without proper training or the correct protective gear to keep them safe.
“Hopefully, this will be a lesson to other employers not to play fast and loose with the safety of their staff.”
And in Greater Manchester, the union helped secure nearly £178,000 compensation for seven UNISON members after their new employer left them jobless and without redundancy pay.
UNISON took a company called Arch Initiatives to an employment tribunal after it refused to take on the seven staff, who worked supporting adults with addiction issues, when their jobs were transferred from Greater Manchester West NHS Foundation trust.
Arch argued that its jobs were different to the NHS ones, after it tendered for a contract to oversee the management of addiction treatment patients when the service was restructured by Bolton Council.
And it claimed that that meant that it was not responsible for the seven workers under the TUPE regulations protecting workers whose jobs are transferred between different employers.
But the employment tribunal ruled that Arch acted unfairly in dismissing the seven who were left out of work and with no redundancy pay.
Denise Holcroft was one of the seven members who lost their jobs, having worked for the NHS trust for more than three years.
She was forced to take lower-paid work elsewhere and on less hours until she found a full-time role and said: “There’s never a good time to be told you’re out of a job, but this was so stressful.
“I couldn’t pay my bills and had to take what work I could just to cover my mortgage.”
Amy Barringer of UNISON North West added: “Arch Initiatives refused to play by the rules, but UNISON ensured it was held accountable and staff were properly compensated.
“We’ll continue to challenge bosses who ignore the law.”
All three cases are a valuable reminder of the value of being a UNISON member and how, even in trying times, this union will fight and will win for its members.