Labour Research March 2021


Setting out the agenda

The new general secretary and first woman leader of the UNISON public services union tells Labour Research her priorities for the union.

Taking up the reins of the UNISON public services union in the middle of a national crisis, Christina McAnea’s number one priority is supporting members of the union through the pandemic.

The newly-elected leader of one of the country’s biggest unions knows that the vast majority of UNISON members have continued to work through the COVID crisis, either in their workplace or from home. As well as frontline, public-facing workers like nurses and clinicians, less visible UNISON members are also continuing to empty the bins, improve flood defences, provide family support and resolve housing problems, for example.

With a looming financial crisis, a major concern about coming out of the pandemic is whether the Tories in Westminster “return to type” and see public service workers “as the soft underbelly and the first to cut”.

Public sector pay freeze

She said: “The chancellor has already said there will be a pay freeze apart from in the NHS. There is a different response in Scotland, but the devolved authorities are dependent on funding from Westminster.”

Campaigning against the public sector pay freeze is therefore a top priority, particularly as it comes after years of restraint. “We’ve been dealing with 10 years of pay freezes and pay cuts and public sector pay has not kept pace with inflation,” McAnea said.

The union is “pushing really hard” for an early pay rise for NHS workers — a £2,000 increase for everyone — and for public sector pay rises more widely. “It’s not just about NHS workers, but also local government workers, police and school staff,” she added. “The government is telling them ‘we value you, we think you do a great job’, but not enough to give you a pay rise.”

To win this battle she “would never rule out industrial action” and has led several strikes in her previous role as UNISON’s lead negotiator, including the national health pay strike in England in 2014.

“We have a number of ongoing local strikes and are doing everything we can to support where members are fighting back,” she said. “We will be looking at how prepared we are for industrial action and how we become prepared.”

Social care

UNISON is the main union for care workers, and pushing for a proper strategy around care through the creation of a National Care Service is also high on McAnea’s agenda. The union is one of the founding members of the Future Social Care Coalition, a cross-party, cross-sector group bringing together unions, campaigners and employers to call for a fundamental change in the way care is delivered.

“If your mother needs a hip replacement, she will get free treatment on the NHS, but if she has dementia she will have to pay,” she explained. “Where is the fairness and rationale in that?”

Most people are not aware this is the case until it affects them. While virtually everyone uses or has some engagement with the NHS at least once a year, this is not the case for care. However, she believes the pandemic has opened people’s eyes, not least because so many people have died in the sector.

“Before the pandemic, only 50% of people over 40 were aware that social care is not free,” she added. “It’s only when you come up against it that you find out — and it’s a big shock.”

The union wants to promote a public debate and “stop talking about care as a drain and start talking about it as part of the infrastructure, in the same way that people can’t do their jobs without roads, trains and energy”.

McAnea insisted: “I would argue that the NHS is now seen as part of the infrastructure to keep people safe and healthy. Care has to be seen as that. And adult social care is not just about older people, but also about learning disabilities and mental health, for example.”

And there must be a clear focus on improving pay and conditions within a National Care Service. “You can get distracted by structural issues,” she said. “Should it be funded through a hypothecated tax [a tax collected for a specific purpose], a death tax, an older person’s tax or inheritance tax? Should it be delivered by the NHS, local government or be a standalone service?”

These are important but not the main issue — which is what happens to care workers. “Eighty-three per cent of the workforce are female and the vast majority earn less than the Real Living Wage of £9.50 an hour [outside London],” she pointed out. “They don’t get paid for all the hours they work, and yet they still do the job. Turnover rates are as high as 50%, even during the pandemic.“

She is calling for an immediate injection of money to bring pay up to at least the Real Living Wage, a national set of terms and conditions and a training programme to give people the skills to deliver care at different levels.

A Scottish government review into the social care system recently reported: “The social care workforce in Scotland is so notably disadvantaged because it is highly gendered. The sector is about 83% female. Were it 83% male, it simply would not be marginalised and undervalued as it is.”

Women’s skills are not valued, said McAnea, whether in social care or early years. “We pay people more to look after animals in a zoo than those who look after our children. We pay more to people who collect tickets on a train.

“That’s not to say those people don’t do a valuable job, but we do not put value on jobs done by women, and gender pay discrimination is a huge factor in low pay.”

She added: “It’s good that the Scottish government is looking at what needs to be done and the Wales government is also looking at this. It has published proposals for the social care workforce and is talking to UNISON. It’s all good stuff, but we need the Westminster government to be doing the same thing.”

During the pandemic, UNISON saw significant increases in membership among care workers and school support staff (see pages 10-12). These are both “highly-gendered occupations with predominantly women workforces”.

Womens in UNISON

McAnea has pledged to ensure that more women are involved in UNISON at all levels, from senior management to participation in branches.

And, she says: “It’s not just about having more women at senior levels but making sure there is more diversity among both full-time professional employees and activists.”

Proportionality — or fair representation — has been enshrined in UNISON’s rule book since its inception. It lays down rules to make sure that the make-up of committees and delegations to conferences, for example, reflect the proportion of women (currently 76%) in membership.

“It’s easy to think we’ve done it,” she said. “But below the national structures and regional committees, women are not necessarily participating in the union’s structures. I want to make sure that members can participate at all levels — not only women but Black and disabled members, for example. I want to make sure that everyone has access.

“What are the barriers stopping participation? How do we make it easy to get involved? I’m committed to setting up a review and will be working with the women’s committee to look at this.”

One reason for a lack of participation among some groups of women workers, she believes, is that structures are based on the historical way services were delivered.

Over time, that has changed significantly. A branch would traditionally service members working for one main employer. But now, thanks to the fragmentation of public services, members may be spread across many different employers.

“We need to look at what we are doing to support branches like this to support members and make sure their voices are heard,” she said.

She is already working with lay leaders at national, regional and branch levels on a branch resources review to look at whether resources, in terms of both funding and staff, are in the right place to deal with the increased break-up of public services.

Women’s leadership of large unions

UNISON public services union general secretary Christina McAnea expressed some surprise that she was the only woman standing among four candidates to lead her union. With around 1.3 million members, UNISON is one of the two largest TUC affiliates.

McAnea joins NEU education union joint general secretary Mary Bousted and the UCU lecturers’ union general secretary Jo Grady as women leaders among the UK’s 10 largest unions.

Women now make up 57% of trade union members, according to the latest official figures, but change at the top has been slow. Even with McAnea’s appointment, women make up just 27% of TUC-affiliated union leaders (13 out of 48 unions), a drop from 29% in 2020.

Last year, no women stood to replace former women general secretaries Chris Keates at the NASUWT teachers’ union, which is now led by Patrick Roach, or Christine Payne at the Equity actors’ union, which is now lead by Paul Fleming.

McAnea points out that “vacancies for general secretaries don’t come up very often, so there are not a lot of opportunities for anyone”. Her predecessor Dave Prentis led the union for 20 years for example.

But she also thinks that many women — and also many men — may question whether this is a job they want to do.

“It’s a big and demanding job,” she told Labour Research. “People may question whether they have the right skills and capabilities.”

But she would say to any women trade unionists thinking of putting themselves forward for high office: “Don’t think you need to do it all on your own. People will want to help, and you can build a team to work with you. Build allies, take people with you and don’t be put off by thinking it could be lonely. You can change the way things happen.”

She points out that there are already lots of women in senior roles in unions. For example, women now lead all four trade union centres in Britain and Ireland (see Labour Research, March 2020, pages 13-15).

And in UNISON, McAnea was one of four out of five women assistant general secretaries, together with Liz Snape, Emilie Oldknow and Stephanie Thomas.

Building for the future

McAnea is taking up leadership of a strong and growing union, but she knows she must ensure UNISON continues to be fit for the future. Recent figures show that only around four per cent of trade union members are aged under 25, while making up 13% of the workforce. In contrast, those over 50 make up 40% of members and are 30% of employees.

UNISON has seen a net increase in membership over the course of the pandemic (see pages 10-12) and 18% of new recruits are young members. It has an active young members’ committee and McAnea aims to recruit and involve more young members by talent-spotting, mentoring and “making space for young members to become involved in things that matter to them.

“Actually, these are the same issues that matter to everyone ... Low pay, access to skills and careers, and access to affordable housing.”

UNISON is also doing a lot of work around the green agenda and sustainability. Again, this is a big issue for young members — and for lots of members generally. The union recently issued branch guidance on how to raise sustainable and green procurement with employers (see Labour Research, February 2021, pages 9-11.)

It will also be looking at how its social media campaigning and digital strategy can widen access.

Like all unions, during the pandemic UNISON has been holding meetings online and will be taking forward lessons it has learned about increasing participation — holding shorter, more frequent meetings for example. But McAnea is clear this will not replace face-to-face recruiting and organising, which will remain key priorities.

With members increasingly working in areas with no, or very basic, recognition, how to extend collective bargaining to fragmented workplaces is also important. And homeworking will now have a huge impact on the bargaining agenda.

Although not an option for large groups of UNISON members, including nurses, carers, cleaners and school support staff, many others are working at home. And the arrangements they need must be incorporated into the union’s bargaining agenda.

Relationship with Labour Party

New UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea was clear throughout her leadership campaign that she was not looking for Labour Party endorsement.

She says Labour Party leader Kier Starmer “is doing a great job” and has had “a really good first year”. But in terms of influencing Labour Party policy, she says that this is for UNISON members who are members of the Labour Party and are elected to the union’s Labour Link committee. It takes decisions about what policies to promote and, she says, “I’m happy for it to stay like that”.

She also points out that the role of the Labour Party is different in different parts of the UK — less relevant to UNISON members in Scotland and Northern Ireland, for example — and it is important for UNISON to reflect their views.

However, she is looking forward to working with Labour on increasing public sector pay, getting rid of the privatised and marketised model in public services, and on shoring up workers’ rights post-Brexit.