UNISON at 30 – celebrate good times, come on!

We take a quick look back at some of the highlights of our first three decades

Celebrating 30 years in UNISON graphic

Thirty years ago this month, UNISON was born from the merger of three unions: Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE), National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and National and Local Government Officers’ Association (NALGO).

Today UNISON is the biggest trade union in the UK with more than 1.253 million members, 75% of whom are women.

Numbers matter because numbers bring power – as we illustrated some years ago in our first TV advert. UNISON was the first trade union to advertise on TV – with the ants and the bears, which saw a bear ignoring one ant, and then two ants, before a whole crowd of ants make the bear listen and get out of the way.

With a voice over from actor James Bolam, it went on to win best commercial direction at the British Animation Awards in 1998.

Numbers also helped UNISON to introduce the national minimum wage.

It was a decades-long passion of Rodney Bickerstaffe, who was general secretary of NUPE when the merger happened, and went on to become first and associate general secretary and then general secretary of UNISON until he retired in 2001.

In the face of opposition from some other unions, UNISON made the national minimum wage a key campaign, getting it through the TUC and the Labour Party, with the Labour government introducing it in April 1999.

A month earlier, thousands had joined a UNISON march from Gateshead to Newcastle, across the Tyne Bridge, to support the new wage. It was followed by a fantastic concert that featured the likes of The Divine Comedy, Ash and Travis.

You can find out more about the national minimum wage here.

Unique among UK unions

Uniquely among UK unions, we have our own call centre to help members. UNISONDirect opened as a pilot with six staff in 1999, when it was only operational for a selected group of health branches in the London region.

In 2000, the call centre expanded across all branches and regions and now has 67 staff. It has caught the attention of unions globally and had visitors from around the world. UNISON has also helped a union in Sweden set up a similar service.

When it was originally launched, phone calls were the only method of contact, but now members can contact the centre by online forms, webchat and via My Unison, as well as by phone.

The number of contacts the centre receives is continuing to grow. In 2022, it took 331,506 contacts. In its busiest single week, the tally was 13,706.

The union also created There for You (sometimes known as UNISON Welfare), which provides confidential advice and support services for members and their families.

It arranges grants to help members meet the costs of school uniforms, winter fuel bills, wellbeing breaks and special financial assistance. There for You has also created special funds to help members in response to particular problems, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we know from testimonies, it’s been one way in which UNISON has been able to make a big difference to members’ lives.

Our legal eagles take on the law

In 2017, UNISON won a remarkable four-year legal battle against the government’s decision to introduce fees for anyone seeking an employment tribunal, which would harm workers’ access to justice.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government was acting unlawfully.

In fact, UNISON has a top team of lawyers that has a fantastic record of wins for members, including the 2022 Supreme Court victory that secured the same minimum level of paid annual holiday leave for all workers, no matter how many hours they work.

And on that seasonal note, we can even help you spend some of your annual leave – at UNISON’s own holiday resort on the beautiful North Devon Coast at Croyde Bay.

There are discounts for members, from 20% off to 50% off for those on low pay. The resort features a 56-room hotel, as well as self-catering cottages and summer chalet B&B rooms – and has won a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for the last three years.

Find out more about taking time out at this surfing mecca.

And this is just a tiny fraction of some of the fantastic things UNISON has done – and is doing – for our members and for public services, every day for three decades. Winning for members then – and winning for members now. And we’ll be winning for members as we embark on the next 30 years of UNISON!