Branch Secretary’s Report to 2024 AGM

I’m afraid I must start this year’s report on a note of deep sadness following the recent passing of our Deputy Branch Secretary, Black Members Officer, friend and comrade Skip Bawa. Skip gave four decades of his life to public service and to the union movement. Widely loved and greatly respected within the branch and the region, he leaves a great hole which cannot be filled. The messages of admiration, gratitude and condolence which the branch office have received have been deeply touching and speak to the many, many people Skip helped over the years. We will miss him greatly, and offer our heartfelt condolences to all who loved him.

I must also pay tribute to Debbie Dyer, who retired from the branch office in July 2023 after 34 years of excellent, dedicated service to the branch. Debbie has been a rock for the branch over many, often tumultuous years, and was a great source of support for me and many branch officers before me. I would like to give thanks to Debbie on behalf of the members of Hampshire UNISON and wish her a very happy retirement.

I also want to welcome to the members at Basingstoke District Council who joined our branch January. We particularly extend warm greetings to the activists from Basingstoke who have joined us, and thanks to their Branch Secretary Keith Farmer who is now Hampshire’s Treasurer.

I’m also very pleased to congratulate Joanne Adams on her election to the post of Children’s Services Convenor, and look forward to working with her over the coming year.

Between last year’s AGM and 12th March 2024 the branch has grown by a net 500 working members. The vast majority of these have been from outside of HCC, particularly in the private care sector.

This rapid growth poses many challenges for the branch staff and representatives, but is clearly a welcome development and something we hope will continue over the coming year. I want to thank all active stewards and branch staff for their hard work over the last year that has enabled this growth and ensured we could meet our commitments to members.

Our number one priority for 2024 remains the recruitment and training of new representatives, something that is particularly urgent at HCC where our membership stands at 3800 but where we are relying on a handful of workplace stewards. If the branch is to survive, it’s vital that we convince our members of the need to get active.

The dangers posed by a lack of engagement from members in the activities of the union are not hypothetical, and don’t simply relate to the ability of members to access advice and representation with their individual cases. Last year 70.91% of those who took part in the local government pay ballot at HCC voted for strike action, but as turnout was only 25% we were unable to take strike action. This happened at many councils across the country and the end result was that we had to accept a real-terms pay cut. This follows on from the consultative ballot in early 2023 in which we failed to reach the strike threshold in relation to a ballot on annual leave and changes to the sickness policy.

We now face huge cuts at Hampshire County Council as they move to statutory minimum services. This impacts our HCC membership through job cuts and increased workloads. It also means that our members working for private sector care companies contracted by the council, or charities funded by HCC grants, are bearing the brunt as well. We should be mindful of developments at Birmingham City Council which declared itself effectively bankrupt and recently announced £300 million in cuts and 600 job loses. We should expect the unprecedented. Make sure your colleagues are in the union.

There will be plenty of incentives for the employers we deal with to further erode terms and conditions in the coming year. Where there is a legal challenge which can be made to any such attempt, we will pursue it. Where there isn’t a legal challenge that can be made, your reps cannot protect you – we all have a responsibility to look after each other and be prepared to take industrial action.

Our members at the University of Winchester have shown the way this year, taking 10 days of strike action in 2023 as part of a dispute arising from the imposition of a 5% pay increase which fell well below inflation. If members at a few more Universities had followed the example of our members at Winchester, that national dispute could have been won.

As long as the Conservatives remain in power, we know what to expect. Rather than address the local government funding crisis, they have shown that they will let public services crumble, accelerate austerity and seek to strip workers of their rights so that they can’t fight back. The aim of the Minimum Service Levels legislation is to remove the ability of workers to bargain with their employers altogether. Like in Victorian Britain, if they have their way we will get what we’re given and do as we’re told.

By our next AGM, we hope and expect to have a Labour government. Labour’s New Deal for Workers, if implemented, will turn the tide as far as workers rights are concerned. We will get access to workplaces where we don’t have recognition, we will no longer have to overcome strike thresholds, workers will be able to challenge unfair dismissal from day one of employment, and fire & rehire will be banned. This should give us reason to be cautiously optimistic. The trade union movement will need to keep the pressure on a Labour government if these promises are to be realised.

Even with the New Deal implemented, our problems would not be going away any time soon. It is highly likely that wage restraint in the public sector will continue under a Labour government. Whoever is in power and Westminster, and whichever party controls the levers of power locally, it will fall to UNISON to stand up for decent pay rises, protect jobs, fight against excessive workloads and assert the interests of public sector workers.

I want to finish by reflecting on the example set by our friend Skip. Skip arrived in the UK as a child before the 1965 Race Relations Act. He arrived in a country where racist attitudes were deeply imbedded in society. When he joined the workforce and joined the union there were great injustices to overcome, and he knew that people had to come together to fight for equality if progress was to be made. Over the next four decades Skip was a champion for the vulnerable and oppressed, and a mentor to colleagues at HCC and UNISON. Race discrimination remains a significant issue inside and outside of our workplaces, and continues to blight the lives of far too many people. However, there can be no doubt that enormous gains have been made during that time. People like Skip made that happen. When there is unfairness in the world, the type of dedication that Skip showed is what is required to bring about change.

There are many injustices in the world and we live in scary times. Don’t let yourself feel helpless, get active and come together with us to bring about change.

Callum Williamson

Branch Secretary