UNISON National Delegates Conference
Held in Brighton June 2018.
Ioana, Michael and Alison attended this annual 4 day conference that establishes policy and debate the issues affecting members. Michael and Alison shared the delegate role and Ioana was an observer. The programme was extremely full and the debate was, at times, lively. Among the three of us we decided to vote on how we thought our members at the university would want us to: we tried to be as democratic as possible. It made us realise that the more we know about our members’ concerns and opinions the better.
Overview of proceedings
Many of the delegates were representing large branches from local government and the health services with several thousand members. They are worried about some of the same issues as we are:
- Outsourcing as a way of “saving money”.
- Low pay and real-terms pay cuts.
- Holding management accountable for health and safety issues.
- Stress and illness because of deteriorating working conditions.
However the context was also a little different on occasions. For me the most upsetting debates concerned housing and local government workers who responded to the Grenfell Tower fire. Some of the speakers were moved to tears and it highlighted just how important our local services are. Some of these people have clearly been profoundly traumatized, but they found strength and courage from having colleagues in the union by their side. Another upsetting issue was the way other Unison branches are dealing with Universal Credit, the government’s new benefits system. Very sick, even dying, people are being asked to jump through hoops for their benefits or being told they are fit to work when they aren’t.
Some contentious points in no particular order:
The central motion of the conference was a review of UNISON’s structure and funding for branches, but this was presented as an alternative to giving branches more funding now – the delegates felt that this was an unfair choice to have to make and voted against the review. It’s now left to UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) to decide if branches should be given additional funding.
Another difficult issue was the proposal to convert an NEC seat currently reserved for black men into a reserved general seat for all black members (including men, women and non-binary black members). The difficulty was that the loss of the general seat could result in the loss of one of the few black men from the executive. Ultimately the vote meant we had to choose between a black man or a non-gendered place. The conference voted to retain the seat as male and retain the current position. This generated discussion among the three of us, and I eventually voted to keep the status quo. Several black women spoke in favour,of keeping the seat as male to ensure that the NEC retained the representation and experience of black men and I was persuaded by this argument, but I felt a disappointment in not supporting the LGBTQ argument. This is the kind of decision we made as a 3-person unit, but I wondered how our membership in the branch would want us to vote.
Positives and negatives (Alison)
- We saw how the union operated in all of its good and bad aspects.
- A strength of the conference was that there were people represented from all over the UK. It certainly was not centred on England; the current president is Scottish and he has replaced a previous president from Northern Ireland.
- Unison made a real effort to create an inclusive and supportive environment – though there were a lot of stairs for people who have a problem getting around.
- The nature of the debate meant that some people spoke frequently and others not at all. I would support a ruling that regular speakers should graciously allow first timers their chance if time is limited.
- In some of the debates there was a lot of repetition, different delegates reaffirmed the same point several times, which took up time and meant that important things did not get discussed.
- We should fund our members the chance to observe for a day next year, so they can see how much they are part of a bigger and stronger organization.
- Fringe groups put a focus upon the peripheral (but still important) issues. Alison went to the one with an international focus, to see how the union works to support workers worldwide. Some branches will find this more relevant than others.
- A number of people spoke with awful stories about the Windrush fallout. We wondered how many of our members are affected by this, directly or indirectly and how we could support them. I’m sure the university would be happy to help with this as it would generate good publicity as well as be worthwhile.