“Success after success. No other organisation in the UK is winning for their members like this union is.
“It also means that we will become more of a target – for the right-wing media, for Tory politicians and for rogue employers.
“But UNISON has never ducked a challenge – and we’re not going to start now.”
That was the message at the heart of Gordon McKay’s speech on the opening morning of UNISON’s national delegate conference in Liverpool today.
With his presidential year drawing to a close this week, Mr McKay had thanks for many, from his family to his branch, from activists to the union’s staff, from his two vice-presidents to the general secretary.
Of the latter, he said that Dave Prentis had overseen the incredible growth and development of the union.
But he also reserved particular comment for Lucia McKever, who is retiring from the national executive council at the end of this week. When first elected to the NEC, he described himself as being “in awe and scared of her”.
And he added: “After 10 years, I’m absolutely terrified.”
In case of any doubt, he continued by describing Ms McKeever as “a kind, generous, big-hearted and generous friend”.
After the hors d’oeuvres came the meat.
Mr McKay was damning in his coverage of the situation the country is in. He talked of “politicians who have presided over the worst fall in living standards for 200 years; 1.2 million public-sector workers still paid below the real living wage; more than 800,000 people still on zero-hours contracts and a gender pay gap that actually widened in the past year”.
Noting that no tears would be shed over Theresa May’s departure as prime minister, he continued by highlighting just some aspects of the former prime minister’s “toxic legacy”.
A scarred society, with needless suffering inflicted on people – a state of affairs highlighted by the UN and then denied by government. Schools “forced to become the fourth emergency service for the poorest pupils” – nine in every classroom. And of course, Mrs May’s hostile environment.
The Conservative government’s paralysis on Brexit has meant little else has been done. And visiting Northern Ireland last October meant that Mr McKay had “realised why we’ll fight any hard border as a result of Brexit”.
But the prime minister’s departure from that office doesn’t mean that “the good times are here. Just look at the rogues’ gallery of those lining up to succeed her.
“Boris Johnson … so right-wing he has Esther McVey coming out in support of him.” Nor would the candidates be “content with causing ruin domestically”, but are “shamelessly sucking up to Donald Trump, a borderline fascist whose narcissism knows no bounds and who has signalled his intention to make our NHS a target for American companies”.
And to loud applause, he added: “To Trump and the Tories – you will keep your hands off our NHS.”
Yet against this background, UNISON continues to buck all the trends. Not only is it now the UK’s biggest union – it’s important to realise that that is not because other unions are getting smaller, but because UNISON is growing.
“This union and our activists work tirelessly to build density,” said Mr McKay. “Every single region in this union is in growth. An incredible achievement.
“UNISON has grown because people trust UNISON. And they trust UNISON, because they trust you, the activists, the people they meet in their workplaces.”
And then there are those successes.
Looking back over just the past six weeks, the president cited health members in Doncaster forcing Sodexo to cough up the NHS pay rise, local government members in Sandwell winning their dispute over grading and higher education members in Bangor halting plans to downgrade pensions.
Not forgetting the hospital cleaners in Harlow forcing the trust to ditch its privatisation plans.
“And, of course, our care workers in Birmingham – finally forcing the council to back down after 18 months of concerted strike action.”
Speaking of his presidential charity – the Manchinjiri Health Centre, a clinic for mothers and babies in Malawi – he told delegates you don’t give charity to friends, but support. So far, that support means that enough has been raised to build the clinic that the local people want.
But donations also mean that enough has been raised to fund breakfasts for school children every school day for more than a school year – the main thing that the local headteacher told Mr McKay would help pupils.
And then Mr McKay spoke movingly of his mother, who died last year.
“She was born in the 1920s, with unemployment, a life expectancy of 52, a school leaving age of 12, a healthcare system of crossing your fingers and hoping you didn’t get ill.
“Every decent thing in her life, apart from her family, was fought for and won by the labour movement.
“So when anyone asks why they should join UNISON, that’s your answer. Because this union makes a difference in people’s lives – this union makes people’s lives better.”