Unions21 celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year. Former Unions21 Director Sarah Ward takes stock of her time in the role.
Having previously volunteered as a student at Unions 96 and staffed the cloakroom, I then joined Unions 21 full time in the autumn of 1998. I look back on that time with real pride. I was optimistic in those days, but also frustrated. I felt that unions were not speaking to my generation, not convincing my friends that unions were relevant to them. My love of the movement seemed odd and quaint, but I knew that the work unions were doing was far too important to be viewed in that way. So what could we do to change this? Even I as I grow older and allegedly wiser I’m still not convinced we’ve completely cracked that one. But it was great to be at the heart of an organisation that was interested in having the debate. Unions 21 asked: how do we ensure unions are fit for purpose in the 21st century?
Organising my first ever Unions 21 annual conference (1998) was the scariest thing I’d ever done. I remember physically falling out of bed in the night before conference, I was so anxious. Of course, I had brilliant support. Nina Temple guided me with her considerable wisdom and experience, and the Executive Committee (Chaired by Hilary Benn) was filled with loyal and enthusiastic trade unionists who knew what they were doing.
I was very fortunate to start my career listening to the Unions 21 Exec Committee talk about the challenges facing their unions. The union politics, the personality politics, gossip on mergers, you name it. I was inducted into a club where the aural tradition ran strong. These debates and discussions were inspiring because they didn’t end in despair or shrugs of shoulders; they demanded research, and further thought. Could we do a discussion paper? Do we need a seminar? What are other people doing about this? Having the space to consider these things is so precious. And that’s what Unions 21 is all about.
Unions 21 remains an important vehicle for ideas and debate in this great movement of ours. My role as a National Officer at Prospect underlines for me that the pressure on Trade Unionists is greater than ever. The challenge remains for us to demonstrate our relevance and influence, particularly in such economically challenging times. We’ve more to do if we’re to be truly representative of the diverse and flexible workforce that increasingly exists, across both public and private sectors. There are different solutions for different employers and different groups of members. Unions 21 allows those us committed to the principles of collective bargaining, of respect at work and of giving employees a voice, to explore those different solutions and find what works for us. It’s also about the bigger picture, which is hard to see sometimes when you’re battling away.
So as we celebrate 20 years of Unions 21 it’s clear to me that we’ll always need time to stop and think, to learn and explore. I look forward to celebrating many more anniversaries.