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UNISON — the Public Service Union
Founded 1993
Members 1.283 million (2013)[1]
Affiliation TUC, STUC, ICTU, ETUC, (EPSU), ITUC, (PSI), Labour Party[2]
Key people Dave Prentis, General Secretary
Keith Sonnet, Deputy Gen. Sec.
Lucia McKeever, President (lay)[3]
Office location 130 Euston Road,
London NW1 2AY
Country United Kingdom

UNISON is the second largest trade union in the United Kingdom[4] with almost 1.3 million members.

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 Dave Prentis. He was elected on 28 February 2000 and took up the post on 1 January 2001, succeeding Rodney Bickerstaffe who had held the post for five years.[6]


  • Members and organisation 1
    • Membership numbers 1.1
    • Membership fees 1.2
    • Membership campaigns 1.3
  • Political work 2
    • Political campaigns 2.1
  • General Secretaries 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6

Members and organisation

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 would be workers within areas such as local government, education, the National Health Service Registered Nurses, NHS Managers & 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.[7] These 'Service Groups' all have their own national and regional democratic structures within UNISON's constitution.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

To encourage all voices to be heard UNISON has "self organised groups" of Black members, women members, lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender members, and disabled members. Young members and retired members also have their own sections within the union.[11]

Membership numbers

Membership numbers have remained relatively stable at between 1.2 and 1.4 million in recent years.[12]
Year Ending Total Reported Membership
December 2013 1,282,500
December 2012 1,301,500
December 2011 1,317,500
December 2010 1,374,500
December 2009 1,374,500
December 2008 1,362,000
December 2007 1,344,000
December 2006 1,343,000
December 2005 1,317,000
December 2004 1,310,000
December 2003 1,301,000

Membership fees

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

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 [13] 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.[14]

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

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

Political campaigns

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[18] which campaigns "to defend and extend women's rights and access to safe, legal abortion"; among its statements it opposes the criminalisaton of sex-selective abortion.[19]

There have also been high-profile regional and local campaigns, such as that against the controversial and unpopular[20] 'SouthWest One' private/public partnership.[21]

The General Political Fund has also funded:

  • Anti-racist events
  • Local campaigns against privatisation/marketisation
  • UNISON presence at various national and regional events
  • Campaigns against council housing sell-off

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".[22]

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.[23] UNISON Delegates and representatives attended the People's Assembly Conference held at Westminster Central Hall on 22 June 2013.[24]

General Secretaries

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Family tree diagram from
  6. ^ New leader for biggest trade union (BBC)
  7. ^ TUC trade union listing
  8. ^ UNISON Service Groups
  9. ^ What is a workplace representative
  10. ^ Getting involved in UNISON
  11. ^ Self Organised Groups
  12. ^
  13. ^ Case Study: Using the TV Ad
  14. ^ Ants & Bears television commercial
  15. ^ UNISON Political Fund
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ UNISON members join Million Voices campaign, Mid Devon Star, 3 March 2010
  23. ^ People's Assembly opening letter 5 February 2013, The Guardian Newspaper.
  24. ^ Union News, 22 June 2013

External links

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