“I didn’t actually join the union when I started with the council: I was only a temp and I was told that I couldn’t join.”
UNISON president Josie Bird was explaining to the union’s women’s conference the sort of myths that we still have to break – because what she had been told all those years ago was wrong.
It “took me probably a lot longer to become a permanent member of staff – and I was paid on a lower grade – because I wasn’t in a union,” she continued.
When she did join, she became active in the young members’ group. And though she’s a little beyond that stage now, she “still talks to young members – they want to be active.
“But they don’t know [in the union] what they’ll do after 27” because too often, young members are only considered as suitable for being a young members’ rep.
Ms Bird called on delegates to “mentor, support and encourage young members to be more than a young members’ rep” – to be “a part of the whole union.”
Talking of the appalling disparity in life expectancy between the rich and the poor – now 19 years – that has developed in recent years, she raised the issues of the 3,000% rise in foodbank need in the past decade, spiralling homelessness spiralling and child poverty approaching 40% – that’s “nine children in every classroom.
“We are in very real danger of having a lost generation,” she said, adding that the people affected were “real people, with real life, real homes and real aspirations” who needed to be valued.
“We are the fifth richest country in the world. It’s avoidable.”
Ms Bird stressed that UNISON continues to have successes, but as trade unionists, “we can’t sit on our laurels”.
And part of that means that UNISON needs to continue to grow – becoming stronger and stronger, because “people need a strong union to defend them”.