‘Empowering women is what this union does’

UNISON’s Empowering Women – Live! online event begins with speeches from general secretary Christina McAnea and deputy leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner

As a result of COVID-19, many conferences and meetings have had to be cancelled. With this in mind, the national women’s committee has organised a series of online events in place of the usual national women’s conference – online and live.

Empowering Women in UNISON – Live! was opened by UNISON’s national women’s committee chair, Emma Procter. “Women have had to deal with the most extraordinary set of challenges in the pandemic,” she said.

“In the UK, women do the majority of caring, whether paid or unpaid, doing three times more unpaid care than men.

“As the UK’s largest trade union, we intend to keep growing so we can make a difference to even more women.”

Christina McAnea started her first speech at a major UNISON event since being elected general secretary by expressing her gratitude to members for their ongoing work throughout the pandemic.

“We know that the majority of UNISON members have continued to work during the pandemic,” she said. “Going into their workplaces and doing the jobs they do, many of which are public-facing and client-facing jobs as health or care workers with direct contact.

“There have been so many people working from home keeping essential services and systems going, keeping the fabric of society on the rails, and branch activists have not only been having to deal with their own jobs but supporting our members too.”

She continued: “I want you to know that the union is there for you, and we’re here to offer you support if you need it going forward. Trade unions have never been as important in holding together the fabric of society and keeping workers and communities safe. Keeping up support whilst the pandemic lasts is our top priority, but so is what comes next.”

‘Loneliness, disconnection and isolation’

Ms McAnea detailed the results of UNISON’s new women’s survey, which 47,000 members took part in. She said: “It tells a story of loneliness, disconnection and isolation. Two thirds are not sleeping well; half are not taking breaks. We’ve seen an increase in domestic abuse and a rise in discrimination against pregnant women.

“The theme of this event is empowering women. Just as women are bearing the brunt of the crisis, we need to make sure women’s voices are at the heart of shaping what comes out of it.”

A public sector pay rise and the rights of social carers are Ms McAnea’s priorities this year: “If you give public sector workers a pay rise, they don’t go out buying stocks and shares, they spend it in local communities.

“And we need to bring social care in from the cold. There’s a chronic lack of funding and it’s our role as a union to reach out and give voice to care workers.”

The general secretary concluded by talking of her personal history and journey to becoming general secretary of the UK’s biggest trade union.

“I grew up in a big council estate in Glasgow. My father worked as a labourer, mother as a cleaner or catering worker. We never had holidays and it was what my mother called a hand-to-mouth existence.

“I left school at 16 and did a whole range of different jobs before going to uni in my twenties. After graduating, I got a job as a housing officer in Glasgow City Central.

“It was the union that gave me opportunities to be empowered, and opportunities I never thought I’d have. Both of my parents left school at 16 with no qualifications, and opportunities for people like that are few.

“People often assume that low pay means low intelligence, and nothing could be further from the truth. I meet people in UNISON all the time who prove this.”

‘Empowering women is what this union does’

Next up was deputy leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner. She described how, for her, attending UNISON women’s conference is like “coming home”.

She said: “I’ve been to women’s conference so many times: as a young activist, not-so-young activist, and as a grandma. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here among friends, sisters and comrades.”

“I want to congratulate you on the name of this event: empowering women. Empowering women is what this union does. When I was a teenage mum with no qualifications, UNISON empowered me.

“Every single day, we empower women in our workplace and communities. I was born in Stockport, but I was made in the union movement.”

Paying tribute to UNISON members, Ms Rayner said: “You’ve put your lives on the line to get us through this pandemic. You’ve saved lives, kept us safe, kept the country going. You did what you always do: go the extra mile and put the others before yourselves. You’re my heroes, and the country’s heroes.

‘Claps don’t pay the bills’

As a former care worker, Ms Rayner’s focus was on recognition and pay for carers. “Last year, the government fell over themselves to clap for carers. Claps don’t pay the bills, I said it then and I’ll say it again now.

“It’s a source of shame that the very same people who have put their lives on the line are now left on poverty wages to support themselves and their families. We need a living wage of at least £10 an hour.

“Giving care workers a pay rise will help other people in the local economy. When you give a wealthy CEO a pay rise, chances are it’ll line their own pockets, but when you give local people a pay rise, it’ll find a way into other people’s pockets.

“After lockdown, we cannot return to a society where three in four care workers don’t earn a living wage. Where carers get home from a twelve-hour shift and have to choose between putting food on the table and paying their heating bills.

“When we come out of this pandemic – and thanks to the brilliance of the NHS, we will come out of it – we have work to do to make sure we rebuild our communities and country on values of fairness, decency and compassion.”

Empowering women in UNISON – Live! takes place between Wednesday 17 and Saturday 20 February 2021. Online sessions will include keynote panels, webinars and workshops.