My time so far at Unions21

Unions21 celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year. UnionHome editor and Unions21 Director Dan Whittle takes stock of his time in the role.


I took over as Director of Unions21 from Matt Ball in 2008, with Paul Day as Deputy Chair and Sue Ferns as Chair.


The organisation has remained true to its founding ideals – supporting the campaigning role of the trade union movement, building a positive relationship with politicians, and continuing to provide a valuable and important “open space” for discussion.


Since 2008 we’ve seen Unions21 grow – with our treasurer Chris Weavers processing the affiliation of unions as diverse as Equity, RCM, RCN, BECTU, HCSA and the MU. So that now we can say, not only is Unions21 focused on supporting unions fit for the 21st Century, but we are an organisation supported by 21 unions. Alongside this, the backing of a growing number of senior trade unionists across all unions, Labour politicians, and academics continues to boost the strength of our network.


Though our values are the same as in 1992, the issues have changed.


The new priority of improving union image and communications, particularly to fully exploit the opportunities presented by the internet, has led to research, seminars and publications. Speakers included Billy Ivory script-writer for the film ‘Made in Dagenham’, who challenged unions to tell stories that surprise people about what we are capable of.


The need to address low union membership amongst young people led to focus group research jointly funded by the TUC which identified tough lessons and home truths for unions.


Through the economic downturn Unions21 has tracked the impact of cuts and hostile Government policies, providing evidence of where union action has had greatest positive impact, particularly for young people.


Unions21 remained ahead of the curve in exploring new innovations in organising, including union community organising.


In 2012, I handed over the role of Director to Jenny Simms while I took a compulsory mobilisation with the Territorial Army. Jenny handed it back in better shape than ever.


Since my return, an action plan for Unions21 jointly produced with Jenny has lead to initiatives including the Unions21 blog ‘UnionHome’, which has extended the Unions21 “open space” to the internet – challenging unions and their members to discuss ideas openly and instantly.


The Fair Work Commission has begun to look at how we ensure the economic recovery is a fair one. Commissioners Sue Ferns, Lesley Mercer, Manuel Cortes, Carl Roper, Lord John Monks, Byron Taylor and John Park have focused on how we create the conditions for improved job quality and justice at work.


It’s in the interest of all trade unions that Unions21’s resources, role and reach continue to grow in years to come. We are able to do so because of the firm foundations built in the last two decades.


Read an article from Hilary Benn MP on his time as Chair of Unions21 here.


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