My name is Rob Cooper, I’m the Lifelong Learning Coordinator and Young Members Officer at the University of Bath Unison Branch and this year I attended the Unison National Delegate Conference (NDC) for the first time. For 2023 the conference was held in Liverpool from the 12th – 16th June.
Going into NDC I was a pretty nervous. This was the first big conference I’d been to since before the pandemic and the first in-person Unison event I’d ever been to. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. I was joined by Nicola Lloyd (our branch Treasurer) who had attended NDC last year and could explain how everything worked.
How the National Delegate Conference Works
Arriving at the conference centre, we found the main hall which had space for representatives from across the UK, from Northern Ireland to Scotland to us in the Southwest. We had an assigned seat at the far side of the hall with a good view of the main stage where the National Executive Committee sits.
As Nicola and I were sharing the University of Bath delegate seat one of us would sit in the main area while the other sat in the visitor’s area at the back of the hall. That meant I could observe for the first half of the day – phew, the pressure’s off!
NDC follows a democratic process. A chairperson from the NEC runs each session and normally starts with a report from the Standing Orders Committee who decide how motions (I’ll get to these) are prioritised for the conference. This would be followed by a guest speaker and then the real work begins.
Conference is mainly about voting on motions and rule changes. A motion is something submitted by branches or self-organised groups (young members, black members, retired members etc.) which calls on the NEC or Unison as a whole to do something. For example, we had motions about the cost-of-living crisis calling on the NEC to take action to protect our members and campaign for better pay and government action.
The person who has submitted the motion (the mover) is invited to the front of the room to speak (3 minutes max) and then anyone in the room can come forwards to speak either in favour or against the motion. Once the speakers are finished, delegates then vote by holding up a green voting card either for or against the motion. If over 50% vote for a motion, the motion is carried and will be enacted by the NEC. If the vote is really close, then a card vote is called where we use ballot papers to vote. Then conference then moves on to the next motion.
In between speakers, delegates can also come up and make a point of order asking ‘for the question to be put’. This basically means we’ve heard enough and want to get to the vote so the conference can move to other motions. When this happens, everyone must vote on whether they want to vote now or hear from more speakers.
We also voted on Unison rules. These are changes or proposals for new rules that Unison must follow. The same process happens for speaking, but when it comes to voting a 2/3 majority is needed to pass a rule change.
The sequence of debate and voting is the main activity at conference and it was really interesting to hear some back and forth debate about the best way to support strike action, how we should support the struggle of Palestinian people and if reserve money from the richest branches should be taken for the national Unison strike fund.
What’s good about NDC?
- A great atmosphere. It was inspiring to hear about the successes of other branches fighting for better pay and conditions. We also heard from many workers about their struggles with harassment, mental health and discrimination in the workplace and there was a great sense of solidarity and compassion from the conference.
- The conference hall was really well set up with live captions, BSL interpreters, an auto adjusting podium and wide walkways to allow everyone to fully take part.
- A chance to learn. Meeting people from all across the UK in higher education, NHS, local government and more was a great chance to learn more about Unison and issues like pay, discrimination and the cost of living.
- Benefits for members. We had a chance to look around stalls offering free financial advice, cards for cashback on online shopping (definitely using this for my weekly trip to ASDA) and cheap hotel rates for Croyde Bay.
- The City. It was great to get out and explore bits of Liverpool. We stayed right next to Liverpool Lime Street which was perfect for nearby restaurants and bars. All five nights in the hotel, food / drink (excluding alcohol) and travel was covered by Unison which was great.
What wasn’t so good?
- Jargon and processes. The processes of the conference are all a bit unintuitive – what’s a point of order? And what makes it competent? I was lucky to be there with Nicola who explained how this worked but other first-time delegates seemed a bit lost!
- I was hoping to speak to a motion calling on the NEC to support private renters and end ever spiralling rents. Unfortunately, we had over ten speakers in favour and none against, so the vote was called long before I got to the podium. There goes my night practicing my speech in the hotel!
Would I recommend NDC?
Yes. I had a great time at the 2023 NDC. Highlights for me were hearing from our Black members group about their toolkit for challenging racism and supporting Black members, being voted young again as the age threshold for young members was changed from 27 to 30 and meeting so many lovely people from across the UK.
I’d strongly recommend keeping an eye out for Unison events like this (any upcoming events?) and giving it a go. I’m sure myself or someone else from the committee would be happy to come along as a sharer, just as Nicola did for me. I left Liverpool feeling inspired and ready to work for a better future for all public sector workers.