COVID dominates start of UNISON local government conference

First morning of conference in Brighton also highlights how wealth inequality in the UK has been highlighted by the pandemic

Crowd of UNISON members

Hundreds of UNISON members gathered in Brighton earlier today for the start of the union’s local government service group conference, chaired by president Paul Holmes.

Presenting the service group committee’s annual report, chair Glen Williams railed against the country’s wealth inequality that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The total wealth of super rich increased 22% during the first 12 months of the pandemic, whilst our pay has decreased by 25% over 12 years,” he said.

“This country is not poor. It can afford decent pay decent sick pay and good schools. The problem is that excessive amounts of wealth are concentrated in just a few hands.”

With a reminder for everyone to join the TUC demonstration on 18 June, Mr Williams said: “We have a right to be angry and upset at how we have been treated through the pandemic.”

UNISON senior national officer Ruth Levin added: “In March this year, MP pay went up by over £2,000. If it’s good enough for MPs, I’m sure they will support your employers in giving frontline workers at least the same amount”.

UNISON’s joint pay claim for school and council workers this year demands a £2,000 increase or the current RPI rate, whichever is the greater.

Declaring that UNISON’s There For You charity was inundated with applications for winter fuel grants, Ms Levin stated: “UNISON shouldn’t need to subsidise poverty pay”.

COVID-19 and long COVID

The first motion to pass was on COVID-19 and long COVID, with several speakers voicing their support for the union to take more action to support members living with long COVID.

UNISON believes people with long COVID should be considered disabled and should not, therefore, be subject to normal sickness absence processes and triggers. UNISON will work through the TUC to recognise COVID-19 as an occupational disease.

Introducing an amendment to the motion which includes measures to ensure all workers who test positive have enough support to stay at home and self-isolate, Fiona from Islington declared: “It’s no coincidence that we have the worst sick pay in Europe and we’ve also had the most deaths from COVID-19.”

Anticipating another surge of COVID-19 this coming winter, she continued: “Full sick pay is crucial in making sure members are not forced to choose between putting food on the table or going to work unwell.”

She also called for the adult social care COVID-19 infection control fund that was introduced in May 2020 to be reinstated.

UNISON disabled members’ representative Kathleen Kennedy called for long COVID to be classified as a disability under the Equality Act: “There have been so many lives that have been devastated. Imagine waiting a year to be told you’re disabled when you’ve been told you’ve got long COVID. It’s just ludicrous.”

Manjula Kumari, who has previously spoken about her personal experiences of long COVID, supported the motion on behalf of the UNISON Black members’ committee. She described how Black disabled workers have been heavily impacted by long COVID: “People who are low-paid, on zero-hour contracts who only receive statutory sick pay are scared to share with their employer that long COVID has exacerbated their existing conditions.

“They’re facing extra health issues that make their job harder, and worrying their employer is going to stop giving them hours. They suffer in silence and continue going to work.”

Ms Kumari called for UNISON branches to make use of the union’s guidance on supporting members with long COVID and use this as a tool when advocating on behalf of members with long COVID.