“UNISON is not just a trade union, it is a family,” president Margaret McKee declared as she marked her final presidential week by opening the union’s national delegate conference in Brighton this morning.
She told delegates that it had been a great honour to be president for the past 12 months, though she had her first experience of presidential duties in tragic circumstances the year before, alongside then senior vice president Carol Sewell, when president Eric Roberts tragically died part way through his term.
She started her speech by thanking Carol, and former presidents, for the support they and others had shown in that difficult period.
This year, and this conference, she said, were dominated by a series of numbers: 100, 70, 50, 25 and 20.
2018 marks 100 years since the first women won the right to vote, but the fight was never just about the franchise, she said.
The struggle was about inequality and the denial of rights to one half of the human race – and that fight is still going on “across the globe and in these islands”.
She added: “We should celebrate what we have achieved: but all of this hangs in the balance. We challenge a government that seeks to plunge people into poverty.”
And next month sees the 70th anniversary of the NHS, created by a Labour government,“but many are still trying to dismember it and this union stands in the way.”
Ms McKee is a Band 1 health workers, a catering assistant at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, who joined the NHS 40 years ago.
And in that time, she recalled, “we have been involved in strikes, pickets, marches and demonstrations against those trying to dismantle a system created by socialists for working people.
“In its 70th year, we must renew our pledge to fight for it.”
Fifty years ago, she told conference, 1968 was a year of revolution from Paris to Mexico, Prague and across the USA. But it was also a year that revealed a dark side with Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” racist anti-immigration speech.
But, she said, it was immigrants, particularly of the Windrush generation, who made our public services, and especially the NHS, the success they have been.
She highlighted the success of former president Eleanor Smith, a Black woman, a UNISON woman and an NHS worker, in winning Enoch Powerll’s old House of Commons seat in the 2017 geneal election.
Looking at her own history, Ms McKee said that 1968 was the year “local people in my community looked to the example of Black people in the USA,” and gave birth to the Northern Ireland civil rights movement.
And while repression led to decades of conflict, 2018 also marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to that conflict.
Ms McKee praised the role UNISON and its activists, representing people in all communities, played in bringing the agreement about – but was equally open about her “deep contempt for irresponsible politicians who have attacked it”.
And looking forward, she noted the importance that UNISON attached to the Good Friday Agreement was reflected In the fact that motions on it and human rights in Northern Ireland were the first items to be discussed by delegates this morning.
And, of course, 2018 is the 25th anniversary of UNISON: “A quarter century of our members demanding justice in the workplace and elsewhere.”
And it has been a quarter century which featured many victories, as well as challenges, showing that “together we are stronger”.
But the world changes, and the occasion of UNISON’s 25th birthday is a good time to “review and renew”, said UNISON’s president as she opened the conference’s formal proceedings.