Sonia*, 24, is a tireless UNISON activist who sits on the union’s young members forum and is passionate about getting more young members involved.
During the week she works as a project manager for the NHS in the West Midlands, and spends a lot of her spare time organising with UNISON.
“I’ve been a member of a trade union since I worked in retail aged 16, and then a member of UNISON since 2017,” she says. “Last year I got involved in the national young members’ forum after I went to a weekend event in Belfast.
“I’m the only Black member on that forum. In my local branch, I’m the only young member and the only Black member.”
A young member is anyone aged between 16-26. UNISON represents over 64,000 young members working in health and social care, local government, police and justice and education, as well as in the community and voluntary sectors, utilities, environment services and transport.
In the first half of this year, young membership of UNISON grew by 4.6%. But for Sonia, membership isn’t enough. Her mission is to get more young workers actively involved in their local branches.
“Young people are going to be paying for the effects of the pandemic for years to come. We have to make sure we’re confident enough to take the reins from UNISON members who have been active for decades.
“It’s so important that our voices are heard, so I’m calling up every single young and Black member in my branch to try and get them more involved.
“When I speak to young members over the phone, most people who answer don’t even know what the branch is, or who the branch secretary is,” she adds. “There are so many young people out there who need UNISON’s help and don’t know how to access it.
“The only reason I’m a member of a union is because my mum has been really active in politics and is a Black Labour councillor. Trade unionism was important for my grandparents who were fighting racism in the country. We need to make sure we’re standing up united.”
Sonia can understand why becoming active may not be the obvious move for younger people. “If you’re 16, you might not necessarily want to spend your evenings going to branch meetings, especially when you’re already tired from work. UNISON members are very welcoming but, honestly, it can be boring for younger members!”
At the same time, lockdown could be an ideal opportunity for young members to make the leap, especially because online meetings provide less of a barrier to participation.
“It’s been easier for me personally since lockdown, as branch meetings are usually an hour’s drive from work. Doing them from Zoom has allowed me to connect more, and we had our branch AGM on there.
“My advice is for all young members to get to know your union. You should have your say. When you get to age 27, you’re no longer classed as a young member. For me that’s only 18 months away, and I know I’m really going to miss it!”
There are lots of changes Sonia would like to see from UNISON, but the biggest changes she wants come from her employer.
“Employers should know that trade unions are there to make the organisation a better place. Staff are more satisfied, and workers are more engaged. Employers really need to change their perspective on unions.”
*Sonia asked not to have her real name published, as she doesn’t want her manager to find out how active she is within UNISON.