Report from UNISON National Black Members conference

Camden Unison members at National Black Members Conference were Hugo Pierre, ‘Jare Oyewole, Jahnelle Hutton-Parr, Dolly Akin-Agunbiade, Muna Matewos, Vino Sangarapillai, Fatima Fernandes and Howard Elliott.

The Conference was in Bournemouth from Friday 31st January to Sunday 2nd February 2020.

The Conference started with an address from the General Secretary, Dave Prentis, and a presentation of an award to a young Black member for her efforts in recruitment. In his speech, Mr Prentis highlighted the negative impact of the Conservative general election victory on trade unions and public sector workers. He bemoaned the loss of Labour seats, including that of former Unison President, Eleanor Smith, who had lost her seat in Wolverhampton South West. Although Ms Smith had lost her seat, there was also a new Unison Black Member in Parliament – as Kim Johnson had held the seat of Liverpool Riverside for Labour.

There were a number of motions discussed on the first day, including racial disparity in the public sector and discrimination at early stages of the recruitment process against applications with “non-British” names.

The second day of Conference (Saturday 1st February) was the first day after Brexit and the Conference Chair, Carol Sewell, pledged that the union would continue to support its EU citizen members.

Conference was addressed by the Unison President, Josie Bird, who worked as an admin officer for Newcastle City Council. She emphasised the importance of Unison’s international work, and her presidential charity for the year was one supporting indigenous people and peasant activists in Colombia – a country where there was a great deal of violence against trade unionists and social movement activists.

Yvonne Green, the London Regional Convenor, was presented with the Mandala award for her work for the union and its Black members.

Motions and the annual report of the National Committee highlighted the importance of reducing the stigma around mental illness for Black workers. This was one of the priorities of the Committee.

Members discussed the gender and ethnicity pay gap – with Black women workers being paid much less on average than white workers (whether male or female). In terms of the ethnicity pay gap, London had some of the starkest figures – with an ethnicity pay gap of 21.7% between white and Black workers. Speakers at conference congratulated Samira Ahmed on winning her equal pay case against the BBC.

There were fringe meetings at conference, and Hugo chaired one on the rise of the far-right and how to combat it.

Conference had a guest speaker, Katrina Ffrench, who was the CEO of StopWatch. The organisation’s role was to monitor stop & search and its disproportionate racial impact. She also highlighted the impact of facial recognition technology and its effect on civil liberties.

Conference considered motions on international issues – including two submitted by Camden. Vino spoke on the motion about defending the human rights and civil liberties of Kashmiris, and Dolly spoke on the one about standing up to xenophobic attacks on African migrants in South Africa. Both motions were passed – although the vote on the Kashmir motion was close.

Conference also considered rule changes. The proposal that motions be limited to 500 words and amendments be limited to 250 words was rejected. Our branch delegates voted against, feeling that in some complex situations – and where detailed actions were requested of the National Committee – it was important that motions be permitted to be longer.

Another guest speaker at Conference was Kye Gbangbola, whose son Zane died in 2014. Zane died following flooding in the basement of their home. This flooding had resulted in the release of poisons which had killed Zane. The inquest said that it was carbon monoxide poisoning but the view of others (including the FBU) was that it was hydrogen cyanide from a landfill site underneath their home. There appeared to have been a cover-up regarding the presence of toxic waste underneath the site their home and others had been built on. Mr Gbangbola was campaigning for an independent inquiry which could reveal the truth of the matter.

Conference was an interesting experience and it was good to see so many Black activists gathered together to exchange views on what was important for workers and Black communities.

 

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