Unison (trade union)

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UNISON – the Public Service Union
UNISON logo.png
Founded1 July 1993
Headquarters130 Euston Road,
London NW1 2AY
  • United Kingdom
1,278,971 (2020)[1]
Key people
AffiliationsTUC, STUC, ICTU, ETUC, (EPSU), ITUC, (PSI), Labour Party[4]

Unison, stylised as UNISON, is the largest trade union in the United Kingdom. UNISON's members work predominantly in public services, including local government, education, health and outsourced services.

The union was formed in 1993 when three public sector trade unions, the National and Local Government Officers Association (NALGO), the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) merged.[5] UNISON's current general secretary is Christina McAnea, who replaced Dave Prentis in 2021.

Members and organisation[edit]

UNISON sign outside their headquarters on Euston Road, London

Members of UNISON are typically from industries within the public sector and generally cover both full-time and part-time support and administrative staff. The majority of people joining UNISON are workers within sectors such as local government, education, the National Health Service Registered Nurses, NHS Managers and Clinical Support Workers. The union also admits ancillary staff such as Health Care Assistants and Assistant Practitioners, including Allied Health Professionals. Probation services, police services, utilities (such as gas, electricity and water), and transport.[6] These 'Service Groups' all have their own national and regional democratic structures within UNISON's constitution.[7]

As a trade union, UNISON provides support to members on work related issues, including protection and representation at work, help with pay and conditions of service and legal advice. Each company or organisation will usually be represented by a particular UNISON branch and members within that organisation elect volunteer stewards to represent them. The stewards receive training in workplace issues and are then able to co-ordinate and represent members both on an individual basis and collectively.[8]

Each branch is run by an annually elected committee of members which holds regular meetings, including an annual general meeting for all members to attend. Branches elect delegates to the union's annual National Delegate Conference (held in June every year), the supreme body within the union's constitution with responsibility for setting the union's policies for the forthcoming year.[8]

UNISON own and operate a holiday resort, UNISON Croyde Bay Resort, in North Devon. Members receive a 15% discount as well as have access to a 50% low paid member discount scheme.

To encourage all voices to be heard UNISON has "self organised groups" of Black members, women members, lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender plus members, and disabled members. Young members and retired members also have their own sections within the union.[9]

Membership numbers[edit]

Part of the UNISON contingent at the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival and Rally 2016

Membership numbers have remained relatively stable at between 1.2 and 1.4 million over the past 17 years.[10]

Year Total reported membership
2020 1,278,971
2019 1,254,971
2018 1,249,471
2017 1,245,723
2016 1,239,750
2015 1,254,250
2014 1,270,248
2013 1,282,500
2012 1,301,500
2011 1,317,500
2010 1,374,500
2009 1,374,500
2008 1,362,000
2007 1,344,000
2006 1,343,000
2005 1,317,000
2004 1,310,000
2003 1,301,000

Membership fees[edit]

The levels of subscription are determined by the National Delegate Conference and are recorded as a Schedule in the union rules. The National Delegate Conference has the power to vary the subscriptions levied after a majority vote, although the subscription rates do not change frequently.

Local branches may also, after a majority vote of members, impose an additional 'Local Levy' as long as the levy does not exceed one sixth of the subscription payable. This is in addition to the standard rate, and must be used for local branch purposes.

Membership fees vary depending on how frequently members are paid and the level of their current salary. Subscriptions are generally paid by what is commonly known as "check-off" or DOCAS (Deduction of Contributions at Source). This is where the employer deducts the contribution from the employee's salary on behalf of the union. Payment is taken by Direct Debit if the member joins online, if the member specifically requests it, or if there is no DOCAS arrangement with the employer.

Student members in full-time education (including student nurses or Modern Apprentices) have a fixed rate subscription of £10 per year.

Members who have had continuous membership for at least two years may opt to pay a one-off fee of £15 upon retirement from paid employment. This allows them to retain the benefits of being a union member for life. They are then classed as 'Retired Members'.

Members who are dismissed or made redundant from employment may retain their membership for £4 per year for a period of up to two years whilst they remain unemployed.

Membership campaigns[edit]

Ants and Bear campaign poster.

Various local campaigns are run by the union. Much of the recruitment within organisations takes place at a local level, with stewards and branches directly engaging with the staff within their remit.

The national organisation also engages in publicity[11] such as the "Ants and Bear", which was used at the formation of the new amalgamated union. This advertising campaign showed an ant trying to get past a large bear by shouting "Excuse Me", however the bear did not pay attention. The next scene showed the ant being joined by many thousands more, and them all saying "Get out of the way!" together, which does get the bear's attention and makes him move out of the way.[12]

One in a Million campaign poster.

The General Political Fund funded a TV recruitment advert "You're one in a million" launched in October 2004.

Political work[edit]

A rally of UNISON in Oxford during the strike on 2006-03-28.
A picket in Norwich in 2008.

UNISON has a political fund which uses money from members for political and social campaigning. Members have the choice of paying into either a fund which supports the Labour Party, a non-affiliated General Political Fund or to opt out of contributing to a political fund at all.[13] UNISON also carries out research and campaigns on public service issues, such as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). It has also voted (at its 2005 annual conference) to oppose the Government's proposals for a British national identity card.

The union's links to Labour and its moderate policies has caused some conflict and criticism of action taken against left-wing activists.[14]

In April 2009 a UNISON conference voted unanimously to request that the British Department of Health ban members of the British National Party from working as nurses in the National Health Service, describing the party as racist.[15]

Political campaigns[edit]

UNISON runs a range of national campaigns, such as 'Positively Public', the campaign to keep public services public and well-funded. Campaigns cover a broad area from pay and pensions to sector-specific initiatives focusing on a variety of issues from cleaner hospitals to opposing the sell-off of public housing.

They are affiliated to Abortion Rights[16] which campaigns "to defend and extend women's rights and access to safe, legal abortion".

There have also been high-profile regional and local campaigns, such as that against the controversial and unpopular[17] 'SouthWest One' private/public partnership.[18]

The General Political Fund has also funded:

In the run-up to general or local elections, the fund has been used for advertising campaigns to ensure that issues of importance to UNISON are high on the agenda. Its 2010 campaign is titled "Million Voices for Public Services".[19]

The GPF is not affiliated to any political party, but the money in the fund is used to support local campaigns and to pay for political advertising.

In February 2013, UNISON was among other organizations and individuals who gave their support to the People's Assembly in a letter published by The Guardian newspaper.[20] UNISON Delegates and representatives attended the People's Assembly Conference held at Westminster Central Hall on 22 June 2013.[21]

In July 2015, UNISON endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's campaign in the Labour Party leadership election.[22]

In August 2016 UNISON endorsed Corbyn once again.[23]

In the 2020 Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections, UNISON endorsed Keir Starmer for leader and Angela Rayner for deputy.[24][25]

Internal elections[edit]

2015 General Secretary election[edit]

Dave Prentis was re-elected in an election with 49.4% of the vote[26] with a 9.8% turnout of members.[27]

2020 General Secretary election[edit]

General Secretary Dave Prentis stood down in December 2020, having held the post since 1 January 2001.[28] Four candidates received enough nominations to be on the ballot: Paul Holmes, Christina McAnea, Roger McKenzie and Hugo Pierre.[29] Peter Sharma and Margaret Greer stood and did not get onto the ballot,[30][27] Voting for the General Secretary election took place from 18 October to 27 November, with the results announced on 11 January 2021.[31]

Holmes was endorsed by UNISON's left-wing faction "UNISON Action Broad Left" and was employed by Kirklees Council. During the campaign he was suspended from his role and investigated for reasons deemed “serious and confidential” by the council.[32][33] McAnea was an Assistant General Secretary for UNISON and previously the head of its NHS division.[34] She was considered "closely aligned" to Prentis and his leadership.[30][27] 458 of 834 branches participated in nominating candidates for the election, higher than the 2015 General Secretary election which saw 373 participate.[35]

Christina McAnea was elected with 47.7% of the total votes cast.[36] Of the 1,278,971 UNISON members at the time of election 134,082 votes were cast, a turnout of 10.5%.[37]

Candidate Votes Percentage
Christina McAnea 63,900
Paul Holmes 45,220
Roger McKenzie 14,450
Hugo Pierre 10,382

General Secretaries[edit]

Deputy General Secretaries[edit]

1993: Colm O'Kane, Dave Prentis and Tom Sawyer
1994: Dave Prentis
2001–2012: Keith Sonnet

See also[edit]


  1. ^ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/721211/736T_2017.pdf
  2. ^ Unison https://www.unison.org.uk/news/press-release/2021/01/christina-mcanea-elected-lead-unison-uks-largest-union/
  3. ^ "Presidential team". UNISON. 21 June 2019. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  4. ^ "TULO's member unions". Archived from the original on 11 March 2012. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  5. ^ "Family tree diagram from unionancestors.co.uk" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 February 2011.
  6. ^ "Union listing | TUC". www.tuc.org.uk.
  7. ^ "UNISON in your workplace".
  8. ^ a b "Get involved".
  9. ^ "Member groups | Our structure – branches, regions, groups and councils".
  10. ^ "HuffPost is now a part of Verizon Media". consent.yahoo.com. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  11. ^ "Join UNISON and get essential cover". Join UNISON.
  12. ^ "Ants & Bears television commercial". Archived from the original on 16 May 2007. Retrieved 29 January 2007.
  13. ^ "Political affiliations and support | How we work".
  14. ^ "Unison activist Tony Staunton expelled after 23 years in the union". Socialist Worker (Britain).
  15. ^ Contributor, N. T. (21 April 2009). "Calls to ban 'nasty, racist' BNP members from nursing".
  16. ^ "Who we are". Abortion Rights. 25 November 2014. Retrieved 9 December 2014. We are delighted to have the support of ... UNISON
  17. ^ "Public sector remains wary of Southwest One".
  18. ^ http://www.unisonsouthwest.org.uk/showarticle.asp?id=58&t=news[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ UNISON members join Million Voices campaign, Mid Devon Star, 3 March 2010
  20. ^ People's Assembly opening letter https://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/feb/05/people-assembly-against-austerity 5 February 2013, The Guardian Newspaper.
  21. ^ Union News, 22 June 2013 http://union-news.co.uk/2013/06/4000-expected-at-peoples-assembly-as-activists-ramp-up-opposition-to-austerity/ Archived 27 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Wa tt (29 July 2015). "Communication Workers Union backs Corbyn as antidote to Blairite 'virus'". Sky News. Retrieved 25 July 2017.
  23. ^ "Jeremy Corbyn nominated by UNISON Labour Link committee | Press release | News". UNISON National. 11 August 2016. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  24. ^ "UNISON backs Keir Starmer to be the next leader of the Labour Party". UNISON. 8 January 2020. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  25. ^ "UNISON backs Angela Rayner for deputy leader of the Labour Party". UNISON. 8 January 2020. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  26. ^ "UNISON ELECTION OF GENERAL SECRETARY 2015 RETURNING OFFICER'S REPORT" (PDF). Electoral Reform Services. Retrieved 12 October 2020.
  27. ^ a b c Binette, George. "Unison election: Quandary for the left". Labour Briefing. Retrieved 12 October 2020.
  28. ^ Woodcock, Andrew (13 July 2020). "Leader of Unison to stand down after 20 years". The Independent. Retrieved 14 September 2020.
  29. ^ Kersley, Andrew. "Christina McAnea ahead as nominations close in UNISON general secretary race". LabourList. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
  30. ^ a b Kersley, Andrew (4 September 2020). "Who will succeed Prentis? Our guide to UNISON's general secretary election". LabourList. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  31. ^ "GENERAL SECRETARY 2020 ELECTION PROCEDURES" (PDF). UNISON. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
  32. ^ Parsons, Rob. "'Young people today can't imagine the job security we used to have in the 1970s'". Yorkshire Post. Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  33. ^ Earnshaw, Tony (14 October 2020). "Candidate for top union role still suspended - and no one knows why". YorkshireLive. Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  34. ^ Mortimer, Josiah (2 October 2020). "Unison's continuity candidate? That's patronising and misogynistic, says Christina McAnea". Left Foot Forward. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
  35. ^ Kersley, Andrew (16 September 2020). "UNISON executive endorses Christina McAnea for general secretary". LabourList. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  36. ^ "Christina McAnea elected to lead UNISON, the UK's largest union | Press release | News". 11 January 2021.
  37. ^ "General Secretary election 2020 – Scrutineer's Report" (PDF). Unison. Retrieved 30 January 2021.

External links[edit]