UNISON hosts its first young members’ conference in Cardiff

Throughout the course of the event, delegates spoke time and again of how important UNISON had been over the past two years

UNISON young members outside the conference venue

UNISON hosted its first ever young members’ conference in Cardiff City Hall at the beginning of December.

The conference opened with a tangible sense of excitement –º for many delegates, it was their first UNISON conference.

UNISON national young members forum chair Jess McGuire welcomed delegates from across the union’s regions and nations, and three of the keynote speakers talked about how they had started their activism in young members organisations: general secretary of Wales TUC Shavanah Taj, UNISON Northern regional secretary Clare Williams and Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party and shadow secretary of state for the future of work.   

Ms Rayner assured delegates that there is no better political education than the trade union movement. She said that, as a young member, UNISON gave her a focus for her frustration about all the injustices in society. She said: “You can be different, you can be spicy, you can be an agitator – and in UNISON, people will like you for it rather than reject you.”

Introduced by vice chair of the national forum Isla Watson, Ms Taj talked about the strengthening of social partnership agreements in Wales, which could be a model for the whole UK. On a panel with researcher Anna Liddle and winner of the first young Black members award, Funmi Ayeni, Ms Williams told delegates about the project to make sure all members have the best experience of their union.

UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards brought a message of support from general secretary Christina McAnea to the conference, and briefed delegates on UNISON’s current industrial strategy and the importance of the union’s campaign for intergenerational fairness.

The challenges of delivering underfunded public services during the pandemic, the way COVID-19 has exposed and deepened inequalities, and the impact on people’s health and wellbeing ran through much of the debate on motions.  

Delegates were keen to find collective solutions in the face of employers and the government trying to individualise responsibility for the pandemic.

UNISON member Millie Davidson, who introduced the national young members’ forum motion on burnout and mentally healthy workplaces, spoke about her NHS employer’s response to the pandemic: “Staff were stretched to the absolute max, providing a service that was always underfunded, and management set up wellbeing champions and rest rooms.

“We asked each other when any of us had to go and see a ‘champion’ or take a rest.”

A motion from South West young members called for a campaign for the right to disconnect, noting the devastating impact of the pandemic on work-life balance.

Speaking on the greening of public services, Luca Di Mabro-Moor told delegates how their employer had moved offices from a city centre to the middle of the Surrey Hills. Asked about the complete lack of public transport and the green agenda, the employer said staff could buy electric cars.

In another debate on climate change, delegates loudly applauded Belinda Bradley’s judgement that “COP26 has done F’ all”, and voted overwhelmingly to prioritise climate action.

UNISON vice president Andrea Egan opened the final morning of the conference. Thanking delegates for all their work in the pandemic, she gave delegates an overview of UNISON’s current work and urged delegates to get involved in the pay campaigns in the union’s service groups.

Acknowledging the enormous challenges UNISON faces, she assured the conference that the union would not be cowed by these challenge, and encouraged young members to think about their next steps in union activism, whether this be standing for office, or joining their branch’s delegation to the national delegate conference next June.

Noting the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s employment, a motion from the national forum called for increased bargaining on quality apprenticeships, training and internal development. A motion from the Eastern region called for the NEC to prioritise recruitment and development of apprentices and the campaign for improved pay and rights.

Many delegates talked about intersectionality, not least in two motions from the national LGBT+ group, moved by Cici Carey-Stewart and Lilly Martin. The first was on the particular impact of climate change on young LGBT+ members and other marginalised communities, with the second was on mental health, homelessness and LGBT+ young people.

The final debate of the conference was on domestic abuse. This returned to the themes of the impact of COVID-19 and the importance of collective trade union responses. Delegates welcomed UNISON’s resources on domestic abuse as a workplace and a trade union issue and called for vital bargaining and education work to continue.