Virtual conference, real democracy

Regional convenor Becky Tye and deputy Rad Kerrigan about a conference like no other

Democracy is at the centre of everything UNISON does, so it was vital that a second conference wouldn’t fall victim to the pandemic and delegates from across the UK turned on their computers last week take part.

Of course the virtual world is no comparison to the buzz of conference – the noise, the hubbub, the constant movement of people all coming together to debate the best way forward for our union of 1.3 million workers.

We all missed that conference camaraderie, the opportunity to catch up with friends from across the union – and of course the regional pizza evening!

Becky Tye and Rad Kerrigan

Becky Tye and Rad Kerrigan

Many of us will have also missed snaffling the freebies on offer, the reams of paperwork in your suitcase less so.

But it was great to be back in the conference hall even virtually. We were privileged to witness UNISON’s first-ever female general secretary address her first conference.

Christina McAnea ran through the devastating impact of covid on public service workers, praising UNISON members’ for keeping going while being let down by a completely unprepared government.

“The virus has taught us who we really depend on when the chips are down. It wasn’t the hedge fund managers and management consultants, but our public services – stretched almost to breaking point – that will get us through,” she said.

General secretary’s speech

And it was an honour to hear Eastern region get a shout out in the president’s speech, pointing to the brilliant efforts of regional organiser Peter in securing PPE for one Norfolk care home after UNISON members flagged a shortage – just one example of members, activists and staff pulling together to right the wrongs in our public services.

President’s speech

It wasn’t just speeches of course: there were 22 motions passed giving the incoming national executive committee, our regions and our branches plenty to get our teeth into, guiding the work of the union over the next year.

Eastern’s motion on organising to defend workers rights after Brexit and covid was well received by delegates. (Becky writes:) Rad moved with an excellent speech making clear “campaigns are not won in conferences … they are won by us speaking to workers, recruiting them, encouraging them to get active.”

Of course the course of conference never did run smooth and there were some problems with the virtual format. Business sometimes felt rushed as a number of points of orders were raised to ‘get the question put’ (ie immediately move to a vote on an issue rather than have further debate) after relatively few speakers.

Delegates weren’t doing this to clamp down on debate but to make sure we got through enough of the agenda to debate more motions. But it does of course underline how much we missed the full, in-person conference and chance for greater debate that give us.

It was the best we could have hoped for in the circumstances and it was good to have national policy-making forum after we missed out last year. Credit must also go to the outgoing presidential team for excellent chairing.

Now we’re all looking forward to 2022 when we can return to a conference centre and enjoy a lively debate in each others company.

Conference reports