Nina Temple – My time as Director of Unions21 1993 – 2000

The flyer for the Unions ’94 conference – a forerunner of Unions21

Unions21 celebrates 20 years of serving the union movement in 2013


Unions21 emerged from an initiative in 1992 to support the miners’ campaign against Heseltine’s planned pit closures. There was a coincidence of interest between those of us seeking to construct some living democratic heritage out of the collapse of the Communist Party. And those exploring the possibility of creating a campaigning trade union movement, and building a positive relationship with New Labour.


This was expressed practically in the launch of the Scottish miners’ march from Glasgow to London that sought to build public support for the mining communities. This was in contrast to leftist calls demanding a general strike on the one hand, and the passive pass a resolution and wait for a Labour Government approach on the other hand.


The march arrived in London just before Christmas 1992. On route it was warmly greeted by many communities. Well wishers even included Tory mayors, and the Royal Shakespeare Company who came out in full costume. Alongside many trade union organisations the march was supported by New Times (journal of the post communist Democratic Left) and the New Statesman. In January 1993 I met with the respective editors Mike Power and Steve Platt to discuss how to take this initiative forward. With encouragement from the TUC’s John Monks, and some of the more modernising general secretaries we decided to hold a one off conference entitled “Unions 93”.


The conference was lively, well attended, and thought-provoking. However, the conference made a loss of over £2,000, which Democratic Left met, but could not underwrite in future. So to secure funding I approached trade unions and to the Barry Amiel trust – with some success. During one of those discussions the GMB’s John Edmonds pointed out that we needed a mission statement, and he said that our unique selling point could be to provide: “an open space for informal discussion about the future of the trade union movement”.


Buoyed up by this encouragement we followed on with Unions94, which brought together for the first time on a public platform the newly elected leaders Tony Blair and John Monks. Unions94 attracted nearly 600 participants, and also featured Sam Shiloa, leader of COSATU, from the newly liberated South Africa, with entertainment supplied by the famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz quartet.


Such was the buzz around the conference that the Lockheed aerospace corporation considered this to be a key event to lobby a future Labour government. Lockheed offered to buy a free lunch for all participants. I enjoyed turning them down, and see their lobbyist’s jaw drop when telling him their endorsement would not be good for our image.


It was a pleasure watching the project grow over the following years and a delight having the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people. These included: John Monks, Margaret Prosser, Ray Collins, Hugh Lanning, Hilary Benn, Jim McAuslan, Clive Brooks, Ken Penton, Fiona Bowden, Sarah Ward, and Martin O’Donovan.


Over the years the project developed into Unions21. It held numerous fringe meetings at union conferences, research seminars, residential weekends, youth events, rallies at Labour conferences as well as publishing pamphlets and discussion documents. l left the project in 2000 and am pleased to see that Unions21 continues to provide the valuable and important “open space” that is still so needed.


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