Hilary Benn MP on his time as Chair of Unions21

Unions21 celebrates 20 years of serving the union movement in 2013


I first got involved when I was working for MSF and was asked to go along to a meeting by Roger Lyons. I had no idea what it was all about, but what I found was a lively group of people and a great idea; providing a space in which trade unionists could come together to think about the future of unions. In this, Unions21 was unique; there was nowhere else in the union movement where this type of conversation was taking place.


One of the other characteristics of Unions 21 was that it had no formal ‘position’ and therefore could not be captured by anyone for a particular purpose. So those who took part did so because they were interested in the debate and not because they thought they could achieve a particular outcome. There were so many things to talk about. How should we respond to a changing economy? What could be done to organise better in the new workplaces. How did unions need to change the way they operate? And we asked these and many other questions by publishing articles, encouraging discussion and holding meetings and conferences.


We met sometimes at 6 Cynthia Street and other times at the TUC, with John Monks always very supportive. For, on occasions, a rather hand to mouth organisation, we certainly had an impact, and the highlight of the year was, and is, always the annual conference at Congress House. Labour frontbenchers, trade union leaders, and others like Will Hutton really wanted to come along. As, too, did John Cridland of the CBI who marked himself out as being very willing to get involved.


But above all I remember the people it was such a privilege to work with. Nina Temple, Mike Power, Nina Fishman, Jim McAuslan, Ken Penton, Martin O’Donovan and lots and lots of others who gave of their time and their enthusiasm.


Unions 21 has achieved a lot in its short life so far, and although I may possibly be otherwise engaged when Unions22 gets launched, I wish it every continuing success!


Hilary Benn is MP for Leeds Central


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