UNISON Women Members’ Conference 2016

Sarah Mathewson attended the 2016 UNISON Women Members Conference in February as a CVO Branch delegate. Below is her report as a first time delegate;

From February 11-13, I attended the UNISON Women Members’ Conference in Brighton, on behalf of the Greater London Community and Voluntary Organisation Branch. My first meeting was specifically for the Greater London region; we discussed which of the motions we were particularly keen to support. Members highlighted the importance of access to justice, the rights of part-time workers, disabled children’s care, and the refugee crisis. Discussion drew on various individual workplace issues. I noted the possibility of ‘job evaluation schemes’ (which UNISON can apparently undertake), UNISON tools for job description comparisons, and UNISON model diversity and equalities policies (all of which would be useful in my workplace).

Conference officially began on Thursday afternoon, with rousing speeches about the importance of trade unions at a time when austerity is ‘only just beginning’, public services are being dismantled, and pay rises are a thing of the past. We need to fight the Trade Union bill to ensure we can play our vital role in opposing and preventing this unjust agenda. Top bosses now earn 180 times the average public sector worker’s salary. 78% of UNISON members are women, and women are often those who suffer the most. Many women spoke about women’s ‘double shift’: heavy workloads in addition to the multitude of their ‘caring responsibilities’ (though why caring responsibilities disproportionately fall to women, not men, was not discussed). As the annual report was discussed, speakers touched on a huge range of areas of work in which UNISON is involved – from supporting international charities to providing bursaries for members’ learning. It’s important for stewards to be aware of services and member entitlements and promote them. The President spoke warmly of her fundraising initiative for a school in Gambia. The annual report was accepted.

The debates of motions began; women stepped up to address all members about why the motion they’d proposed was so important. Others could then speak – usually in support of the motion and urging us all to vote in favour of it. Members spoke about the importance of organised labour in the current political climate: how to get people more involved in UNISON, and how to women’s participation and leadership in particular. We need to fight for higher pay, and then use successes to recruit more members and keep on driving wages up. The government is trying to cut off money to the unions: in the new proposed bill, every member would have to re-register their union membership (an effort that many overworked people would opt out of). UNISON is fighting this in the House of Lords at the moment (as it’s already passed in the House of Commons).

Women spoke about protecting their employment alongside their ‘caring duties’, and the need for flexible working. By the age of 50, the average woman has spent about 17 years doing unpaid care work. (I feel strongly that our aim as a union cannot just be about helping women to accommodate their ‘double shift’ of labour through policies like flexible working; it should extend to getting men to do an equal share of housework and caring duties, so that it doesn’t all fall to women. The notion of women having extra duties in the home seemed to be accepted without discussion.)

The idea of a universal basic income was raised, though some speakers opposed this on the grounds that it would not be means-tested – what about people with additional needs? It might also be used as a way of eliminating or driving down other benefits – such as when people claiming tax credits were deemed ineligible to claim free hours of childcare. Landlords could raise rent or childcare costs could increase, on the grounds that incomes have shifted up.

Other issues discussed included the removal of housing benefit for 18-21 year olds, and the need to protect poorer young women from the risk of sexual exploitation. It now costs £1200 to take a domestic violence case to a tribunal, with women often having to represent themselves and be cross-examined by their abusers. Women are so often punished or blamed in this system – Cameron taking away £45m from English language classes and then blaming Muslim women who don’t speak English for lack of ‘integration’; the tampon tax (we bleed, we pay); the removal of legal aid (we bleed, we pay). The government has literally spent hundreds of millions defending itself against legal challenges to its legal aid cuts! When asked exactly how much the bill was, the Ministry of Justice said it ‘couldn’t say, but it was probably best not to dwell on it and to move on’. The alternative to austerity is clear: a new economic and social model that invests in people, protects the most vulnerable, and pursues fair taxation to fund it.

Over the next two days, discussions of the motions and a variety of inspiring speeches continued. Members decried how George Osborne has hijacked the language of the Living Wage – but his ‘living wage’ is different (there is an age discrimination). Comparable jobs should be paid comparable wages – there is no reason to have an age-specific minimum wage, where under-25s are paid less. The high cost of challenging employers legally has had a massive impact on employee actions: since the Tory cost hikes, there have been over 80% fewer equal pay claims, sex discrimination challenges and unfair dismissal cases than before. There has been £26bn worth of privatization deals since this government came to power. They aim to get rid of at least 300,000 more public sector jobs, and they want to do it on their terms, hence the introduction of bills against lobbying and against trade unions. The Tories have suggested that, employers should take ‘voluntary measures’ to close the gender pay gap, but no measures will be imposed. Employers in large firms will have to start publishing their pay gap figures, but only from 2018 onwards, and no explanation or action will be required. Wealthy employers are winning in this country.

There were some heated debates around a few issues in particular: the first was a motion suggesting that UNISON should explicitly oppose Amnesty International’s policy of supporting full decriminalization of all aspects of the sex industry (i.e. unlike the Nordic Model, which supports the decriminalization of those selling sex, but not those buying sex or acting as pimps or managers). UNISON policy is already in support of the Nordic Model, but there are many members who believe this should be reversed. They feel it is safer and better for women if the sex industry is regulated and considered ‘work’, rather than exploitation. Others feel that prostitution is an inherently abusive, unequal and deeply harmful industry, and that those who buy sex or organize the prostitution of others should be held accountable – consent to sex should not be for sale. Speakers for and against this motion argued passionately; members finally voted in favour of the motion (though the vote was very close).

Another issue that led to considerable debate was whether UNISON should promote the benefits of EU membership among its members. Some members opposed this, arguing that the European Union is little more than a capitalist and militaristic bloc and fortress that serves to exclude immigration and promote the economic interests of its members, to the detriment of everyone else. A final controversial issue was the proposal to support the creation of ‘buffer zones’ around clinics where abortions take place, to prevent protests that attempt to intimidate or shame women having abortions. Some members argued that the creation of zones where protests are prohibited could lead to legislation that would be exploited to our detriment (clampdowns on any kind of protest outside hospitals, for example). A great deal of support was shown for the junior doctors’ strike action; members suggested that such legislation could be turned against any pickets they wished to hold.

The three days of Conference were inspiring and educational. Crucially, it was a space for UNISON’s majority-women membership to discuss the issues that affect their lives in particular, in a women-only environment. A diverse range of women uniting, telling their stories of oppression and discrimination, and sharing their priorities, is powerful in itself in a society that so often divides women, affords them a secondary status, and ignores or neglects women’s experiences and perspectives. I felt privileged to hear from so many women and to discuss collective action for change.