My time as Director of Unions21 – Sarah Ward

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.

My time as Director of Unions21 – Ken Penton

Ken PentonUnions21 celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year. Former Unions21 Director Ken Penton takes stock of his time in the role.


I had been working for Labour Students for a year and was looking for something else challenging to do within politics when I approached by Bill Brown – a fellow Labour Student – to help him with what some work he had been doing for what was then called Unions 94 (in those days it changed it’s name each year. Changing it to Unions 21 after I left was a very good idea, not least on stationery costs!).


I actually joined a trade union via the Labour Party, which was seen as quite unusual at the time. I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the trade union movement wasn’t that great at the beginning of my time with Unions 21, but I did think that trade unions had an important role to play in creating a decent, civilized society. What actually attracted me to working with Nina Temple – still the best manager I have ever worked for -, Mike Powell, John Monks, Hilary Benn and many trade union officers and rank and file trade union members who I don’t have space to mention, was that it was seen as a “neutral space for debate and discussion” to generate ideas on how unions could seek to gain the support of wider civic society so that trade unions were once again seen as a “force for good”. This was particularly important after the denigration of unions in the Thatcher years.


I had three great years working for Unions 21: the organisation provided me with a a host of personal and professional opportunities that I would never have experienced elsewhere. It also exposed me to all that is best – and some of what is worst – about British trade unionism.


As Unions 21 celebrates its 20th anniversary British trade unions are again faced with an anti-union Government that seeks to undermine the advances made by trade unions for working people over the past 150 years. The union movement needs to face up to that challenge and I am sure that Unions 21 has an important role to play in providing the space for trade unionists to generate ideas and strategies on how to do so.

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. Read More…

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. Read More…

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. Read More…