‘If you want to be heard, speak in unison’

Assistant general secretary stresses the importance of unions

Addressing UNISON’s LGBT conference in Brighton this afternoon, Christina McAnea, the union’s assistant general secretary with responsibility for bargaining and equality, spoke about how she increasingly hears the question asked of ‘why should I join a union?’

“Looking around the hall, some of you – not all of you – will be old enough to remember the UNISON TV advert that saw one cartoon ant trying to gain the attention of a bear.”

It only hears and leaps out of the way when the single ant returns with a huge group of ants.

The message was simple, she told them. “If you want to be heard, speak in UNISON” and “that message is still true today.”

Ms McAnea (pictured) stressed that we know the key role unions have played in so many things we take for granted now, from the minimum wage to pensions, health and safety legislation and increased equality protections.

UNISON’s summer legal victory against the government over employment tribunal fees was also a perfect example of what unions can do.

While union membership in general is falling, UNISON’s membership remains stable. It’s a remarkable achievement, she says, and we do it by being relevant.

Stressing the damaging nature of the pay cap on public service pay, she drew delegates’ attention to the Pay Up Now! campaign, which has helped to pressure the government into at least mouthing that the pay cap was over.

But there could be “no more smoke and mirrors” on pay: meaningful wage increases are needed and require proper funding, while the government must not be allowed to cherry pick such media-friendly public services workers such as nurses, teachers and firefighters for reward. The whole public services team deserved a rise.

Ms McAnea turned on the corporate tax dodgers, saying that, while tax avoidance “may not be strictly illegal, it is without doubt they are morally repugnant”.

All this, she concluded, is why “our work still matters.”

A busy afternoon at conference also saw Neil Adams for the national committee urging members to maintain readiness for another visit to the polling station after the summer’s snap election left the Conservative government as a “heavily-wounded creature waiting for the inevitable”.

Theresa May’s gamble had seen a record number of out lesbian, gay and bisexual members elected, together with two MPs who identify as disabled, he told conference.

But referring to an old saying about not being lulled into a false sense of the situation, he told them: “Don’t cast a clout until May is out … we need to keep our coats on until May is out.”

Another motion saw Emma Proctor for the transgender members’ caucus call on the national committee to help the campaign to move away from the current highly-medicalised approach to gender recognition.

At present, the process for allowing people to change the gender on their records is “an intrusive and demeaning process … that causes those transitioning great distress … and also costs the NHS unnecessary money,” she said.

And on the bullying of young people who self-identify as trans boys, girls or non-binary, Ms Proctor moved a motion calling for a range of actions to combat the problems, concluding by paraphrasing a familiar slogan: “all people are people – get over it.”

Meanwhile, James Anthony stressed the complete unacceptability of some people within the labour movement making overtly transphobic statements.

And he urged people not to fall for the reactionary rhetoric.

Sean Bowler for the national committee added: “Who’d have thought we’d be counting the Church of England as an ally on trans issues?” as recent headlines see an increase in a dangerous atmosphere for trans people.

He called on delegates to use the debate to “reaffirm our support and be allies to our trans colleagues.”