General secretary Christina McAnea was met with a standing ovation after she delivered the keynote speech on the second day of UNISON’s 2024 women’s conference in Brighton.
Smiling as she greeted the hall of delegates, Ms McAnea gave a tribute to the first female regional secretary of UNISON, Inez McCormack.
Ms McAnea described how she was in her early twenties when she first heard Ms McCormack speak at a trade union conference, saying that Ms McCormack – then Northern Ireland’s regional secretary for NUPE – “brought the conference alive.
“She’d brought half a dozen women members with her to the conference and, when she’d introduced the issue she was speaking about, she turned and called on them to speak.
“One by one, from the floor, [they spoke] they were cleaners, kitchen staff and laundry workers. They stood up and told their stories about what they did and how low pay and unequal pay impacted on their lives, their families and their communities.”
Ms McAnea described how the conference became an “electrifying account of what unequal pay really meant for those suffering the injustice”.
And she continued: “They talked about getting up early to walk to work, starting at six in the morning. Leaving their kids asleep, walking past soldiers with guns, getting stopped at checkpoints because this was during the troubles in Northern Ireland.
“They described working in the kitchen, carting heavy pots and pans around, preparing food for thousands of patients and staff or cleaning wards and theatres to keep them safe, and the back-breaking work of doing laundry for an entire hospital.
“They spoke of how difficult it was to look after themselves and their families, despite working so hard, on the low pay they were getting.”
Ms McAnea hailed Ms McCormack as one of the most prominent trade unionists in Northern Ireland’s history.
In 1985, during a nine-week strike, Ms McCormack and the laundry workers she represented at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital dumped trolley-loads of festering laundry into the offices of senior management.
Summarising the strike, Ms McAnea said: “The smell was unbearable and the dispute was swiftly resolved”.
Ms McCormack eventually helped secure commitments on equality and human rights in the Good Friday Agreement.
Ms McAnea said: “Without Inez and all the other women in UNISON, campaigning for peace and justice in Northern Ireland – and without other prominent women, like Mo Mowlam – would the peace process in Northern Ireland ever have happened or at least happened in the way it did?”
She said: “There were many obstacles to overcome, and she was always first to admit that it was more bearable to do it with a team of loyal women colleagues and members.
“Her belief was that you always had to make sure that, if you got through the barriers, then you reached back and brought other women with you.”
Addressing delegates, she told them: “This conference is your opportunity to have your voices heard. It’s the experience you’ve had in your workplaces and your lives, and your lived experience and the work you do every day, that powers our union”.
Cost of living
Ms McAnea moved on to address the impact the rising cost of living is having on women.
“We’re a union of over 1.3 million members and almost a million are women. We must speak up for women’s issues.
“Right now, everyone is feeling the impact of escalating living costs, but it’s hitting new mothers particularly hard. No mother should have to go without food or skip meals, but the failure of maternity pay to keep up with increasing living costs is driving many pregnant workers and new mothers into severe financial hardship.
“Balancing a family and working is difficult. But sadly, many women who find they need to inject some flexibility into their working lives, are coming up against employers with rigid and unimaginative attitudes.”
Women’s leadership in UNISON
Ms McAnea stated that the majority of the 12 UNISON regional secretaries are women. She celebrated their individual journeys through the union.
“Lilian, our Scottish secretary, started work as an NHS catering assistant. Lynne, the regional secretary in the north west, was a nursery nurse and part of the national nursery nurse dispute.
“Clare Williams started as a medical secretary, was convinced to join the union and then went on to win a TUC award.”
“Jo Galloway in London was encouraged to be a local organiser by a previous female regional secretary and is now our youngest ever regional secretary.”
She also acknowledged the women who started their journeys outside UNISON in the wider trade union movement.
“Kerry in the south west was a firefighter and FBU branch secretary. She represented women experiencing sexual harassment in the Fire and Rescue Service.
“Jess in Cymru/Wales started her journey through adult learning.
“Karen Loughlin in Yorkshire and Humberside started working for British Gas and became active after she was discriminated against when she went for promotion.
“Patricia McKeown in Northern Ireland started her working life as a legal clerk and branch secretary in the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland.”
Ms McAnea urged members to use their vote in the upcoming service group elections, telling them: “Who you elect could be responsible for making historic decisions.
“If you don’t know who the people on the ballot papers are, talk to the people in your branch.”
Low-paid women workers
Ms McAnea paid tribute to the low paid women workers of the union, specifically the healthcare assistants involved in the union’s Pay Fair for Patient Care campaign.
“About 90% of these healthcare assistants are women standing up against the injustice of not being paid the money they’re owed,” she said.
Illustrating her point, she described meeting a healthcare assistant in a hospital in Leicester recently who is working at a much higher level than band two but not being paid for it.
Violence against women and girls
Ms McAnea also spoke of the violence against women in current conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine. “Too often it’s women and children who bear the brunt of conflicts: no healthcare for women, food insecurity, human trafficking, rape and sexual violence, displacement and much more.
“The UN has said that women and children have disproportionately borne the brunt of the conflict in Israel and Gaza. We want peace now. We want a permanent ceasefire.
“UNISON has been calling on the British government, that actually has the power to influence and help secure a ceasefire, and lead to talks about a viable two-state solution for peace and security in the Middle East” to use that influence to do just that.
Speaking about the imminent general election in the UK, Ms McAnea said “Over the last 500 years there have been 109 Chancellors of the Exchequer, every one of them a man. But if Labour wins the election, Rachel Reeves will be the first woman Chancellor of the Exchequer.
“Our very own Angie Rayner could be deputy prime minister.”
Continuing to praise Ms Rayner, Ms McAnea said: “Angie is on a personal mission to make life better for working people. We’ve worked closely with her to come up with the New Deal for Working People – and get it into Labour’s manifesto.
“The New Deal will also strengthen protections for pregnant women and working mothers against unfair dismissal, tackle workplace harassment, give unions more rights to organise and secure better pay and conditions, and give Labour the power to act to close gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps.”
Ms McAnea also confirmed that the union’s calls for a National Care Service will feature in the Labour manifesto.
Concluding her speech, she asked delegates: “Why has UNISON pushed for these pledges? And why have I spent countless days in negotiations to get these into their policies?
“Because of you, UNISON women, saying ‘this is what we need’, saying ‘this is what is right’.”
The article Christina McAnea lauds women who helped win NI peace first appeared on the UNISON National site.