‘We’re just getting started,’ declares Dave Prentis in key conference speech

Barnstorming speech at UNISON’s national delegate conference celebrates the triumphs of the past 25 years – and the successes to come

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis began his speech to conference by introducing member Michael Braithwaite, who lost his job due to the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, and who was present in the hall.

“Not only is the UK your home,” he said to Michael: “Your union, UNISON, is your home too. And we will protect you.”

In the 25th year since UNISON was formed from the merger of COHSE, NALGO and NUPE, Mr Prentis reminded the hall that in 1993 people thought that the formation of one union for public service workers was ‘the right idea at the wrong time.’ But they were wrong.

“Conference, we survived and we are still standing. It’s because of you and all the things you do. It’s because we are driven, we have vision, a purpose.”

Mr Prentis spoke of the financial crisis, and “millions of our people working just to scrape together a square meal, ignored by those making millions in the square mile… 600,000 public service jobs lost.

“They asked how we could possibly survive. We were just 15 and they said we were done. Yet conference, we survived.”

Many of the union’s successes were mentioned. From the campaigns for the minimum wage and living wage, to putting mental health on the agenda. From fighting for equal pay for women, to the recent win in the Supreme Court when UNISON ensured access to justice for all by getting employment tribunal fees scrapped.

Mr Prentis spoke of the union’s historic involvement in the anti-racism movement, though warned that the battle must continue to be fought. “We have fought this hatred for 25 years. And conference, we will lead the fight for the next 25 years… No place for Islamophobia, no place for anti-semitism in our union.”

UNISON’s role in international issues was a highlight of the speech. Mr Prentis mentioned his meeting with Nelson Mandela, in which the great leader thanked him for UNISON’s support in setting his country free.

He mentioned the London ambulance branch campaign sending renovated ambulances to Cuba despite the American blockade, led by the union’s late president, Eric Roberts. And he spoke of UNISON’s work to get life-saving protective clothing for the health workers battling Ebola in Liberia.

A special mention was made for all those UNISON members who took a stance and went on strike this year.

“Let’s show our solidarity with all those members who have taken action this year.” The hall cheered as Mr Prentis listed the many branches who bravely took strike action to defend their working conditions.

“We will stand by you all the way. This is our union, a union of the left.”

We are “committed to ending PFI, outsourcing, privatisation. Repealing the trade union act, bringing back Sure Start centres. We are a trade union and we will always have demands of Labour. We want this done in the first year of a Labour government, not delayed to a second term.”

Turning to next weekend’s demonstration for the NHS, he told delegates: “I want to see all of you standing with me in London on 30 June, celebrating and fighting for our NHS, our welfare state.”

Members cheered loudly as Mr Prentis laid down an ultimatum to Theresa May: “Fund our NHS and all our public services. Or call an election and we’ll elect a government that will!”

Mr Prentis ended the speech by looking to the future. “You inspire me. All of us here for each other… You, here today, building a bridge from that past to a brighter future. That better, fairer, more tolerant world we all believe in.

“Twenty five years, conference. We’re just getting started.”