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‘All my life, I’ve turned words into action’

Driven by her working-class upbringing, CHRISTINA McANEA explains why she is standing in the forthcoming Unison general secretary election

WHEN I was growing up in Drumchapel, a big Glasgow council estate, injustice and unfairness were plain to see.

It was a time when the Tories and big employers did what they do best — laying waste to what slim chances working people had for a decent crack at life. Public services starved of funding, high unemployment, high interest rates, crumbling schools and hospitals.

But we had the strength of organised labour — equally plain to see. Most folk from the “Drum” worked in the nearby Clydebank shipyards, in engineering or the factories, or, like my mother, in public services. My mother was a school cleaner and “dinner lady” through my childhood.

In my early teens I heard Jimmy Reid speak at a rally a few years after the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ dispute for about two hours without notes. I later worked for his campaign to be an MP, although I was too young to vote. An inspiring speaker; but it wasn’t just words with him. And it’s not just words with me.

The strength of organised labour is even more important today. That’s why I’m going to make giving Unison branches the resources, through local organisers, a key priority. It’s why listening to members and making sure their voice is heard is so important. People like care workers, school support staff, cleaners and porters in hospitals, universities and colleges.

All my working life, I’ve turned words into action. Whether winning equal pay for our women members, or fighting off government attacks on Unison members’ pay and pensions or rooting out racism. My early life experience has driven my absolute determination to get a better deal for working people.

Ten years of austerity have left our public services in a desperate state, a huge and growing gap between rich and poor, our children facing an uncertain future. A massive rise in child poverty, a huge increase in the numbers, including working people, relying on foodbanks.

We were in no fit state to deal with the global pandemic of Covid-19.

I’ve spoken out many times about how this government let down our health and social care workers and all the other essential staff who kept the country going — social workers, refuse collectors, energy workers.

Underfunding, lack of investment, fragmented provision, low pay and a high turnover of staff, left the care sector struggling. In meetings with government ministers I’ve demanded proper and adequate PPE, proper guidance as to its use, demanded improved infection control, demanded funding to cover full pay during Covid-19 related absences. The government sent our members unarmed into battle.

Clapping for carers, sporting “care” badges, paying tribute to their wonderful and dedicated commitment one minute, while dismissing them as “unskilled” the next is typical of their attitude to all public-sector workers.

Unions have always led the way on safety in the workplace, even when right-wing commentators mocked us for “elf n safety.” I will make sure that health and safety reps are central in every workplace.

Post-pandemic, a severe economic downturn is predicted. We know how that usually plays out. It’s never the rich who have to reach into their pockets — the burden always falls on those least able. And it’s mainly women who deal with the reality of cuts, low pay and the daily struggle to put food on the table. Austerity always means increased poverty for the many, while the few get away with tax hand-outs and growing wealth.

We can’t go back to those bad old days. With nearly one million women among our 1.3 million members, I won’t allow them to pay the price of this pandemic. Young people will be particularly hard hit with lack of jobs and training opportunities. I will establish a Unison College to support our members’ futures.

I will be demanding a new deal for public-sector workers and for public services. That deal should include pay, conditions and pensions that reflect the essential work that our members do.

I want reinvestment and long-term funding for all our public services, accelerated in-sourcing and protection from austerity, strengthened health and safety rights and national bargaining for those sectors that need it most.

I’ve been leading calls for a universal national social care service that gives proper pay, training and recognition to care workers and dignity to the people they care for. A service that’s publicly provided and publicly funded.

Although more money is needed for care — a lack of funding doesn’t mean there’s no profit in it. Some companies record a “loss” on their books while paying huge amounts in “rent” or interest to parent companies — often a hedge fund in a tax haven. This money must be used to improve services and reward the workers.

I will give our members a modern, organising union with the right resources in the right place at the right time. Over the past year, I’ve visited many Unison branches across our four nations, joined members on picket lines and spoken at meetings. I have put resources into supporting disputes across Britain and we’ve had some amazing successes in beating Tory anti-union restrictions.

I’ve seen first-hand how our activists constantly juggle their own lives with the demands of representing members, how they work tirelessly coping with mounting casework and a range of employers. With attacks on trade union rights, I’ve seen how our activists struggle with facility time, work long hours and often use annual leave.

This, too, cannot go on. Our activists need Unison’s support now, not in years to come. No more promises, but practical measures that underpin their valuable work.

Our branches need increased resources to support all members. It’s in our branches that we organise best; where we support our members best. I will set up a scheme of local organisers — I’ve seen the difference they can make in helping hard-pressed activists, lifting the casework load and covering thousands of employers.

And it’s time to sort out and increase facility time. No more leaving it to our activists to beg and borrow a few hours from their employers. Our regions will be there to do that — getting the time they need to organise, campaign and support our members.

Our members are always there for people, from cradle to grave. I will use Unison’s collective strength, the power of our union, to challenge governments and employers, as I’ve done all my working life, to make sure we’re there for members from cradle to grave.

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