Blog: Interview with UNISON President Josie Bird

For this blog Paul Riley our Digital Lead caught up with the newly elected UNISON President, Josie Bird.

PR: Thanks for joining us Josie, congratulations on being elected UNISON’s President for the next 12 months, have you had a busy first week?

JB: Well it actually hasn’t been that busy yet, I got home from conference and immediately took the kids to a birthday party and slept a bit too. The next few weeks I expect will be very busy, meeting with the National Executive Council (NEC) and the work will really start as we will be developing the work plan for the year.

PR: I imagine you will be spending a lot of time travelling around the country, visiting regions and branches?

JB: I’ve actually already had an invitation to Northern Ireland, which is very nice (Clare Williams: I’ve never been there you can take me) JB: It’s fab, I love Belfast, it’s like Newcastle it’s quite compact and the people are very friendly. I do expect I’ll visit most if not all the regions.

PR: So I’m guessing the next 12 months are going to be very busy for you, what are your and UNISON’s priorities for the year?

JB: This is a tricky one, and I don’t want to make a rod for my own back, but we did pass a motion to resolve branch resources once and for all. It won’t be next year but it will go to National Delegate Conference (NDC) in 2021, it’s been an issue at NDC for quite a while now so I really want to have it resolved. Other priorities are supporting members taking industrial action. We have a lot of active disputes taking place across the union, we need to ensure we give them the same high profile and hopefully have some successes.

PR: Not everyone will know, what does the UNISON President do?

Well the president chairs the NEC and conferences, it’s like when people think of a branch chair, they chair the AGM and the branch committee, but that’s a small part of the job. In recent years the president has visited every region and spoke at the regional council AGMs, the president represents the union internationally, we get a number of invitations from partner unions, just like we invite other unions to our conferences we go to theirs. The other thing is work which comes to the NEC, that wouldn’t fall into a committee, will come to the presidential team. The president signs off the financial statements of the union, provides policy direction and so on and works alongside the general secretary and other senior officers to provide leadership across the union, to raise the profile externally.

PR: I think sometimes we don’t shout loud enough about some of our successes, the biggest one was the employment tribunal fees which UNISON won, the influence we had over child benefit changes and the £65 fee for EU workers.

JB: Yes and the Mencap sleep-in case, which we hope goes well. We have actually won some major legal victories in the last few years, as well as some major industrial disputes, such as the Birmingham Homecare Workers.

PR: So we are very proud to have UNISON’s president from our region, what and who has been your biggest influence in becoming active in UNISON? 

JB: Aww well Kenny (Bell) obviously (PR: I knew you’d say Kenny) There are many people who have had an influence, but Kenny definitely, he was at my first ever proper shop stewards meeting, and as I was leaving Kenny tapped me on the shoulder and asked how old I was. I thought, oh no I’m going to get into trouble and kicked out as I’m too young, I said I’ve just turned 24, is that okay? He was very excited saying this is excellent, we need more young people, what’s your name, I’ll get someone to call you. And they did, I got involved straight away and I was asked to go to conference as someone had dropped out. So within months of becoming steward I was off to conference. We’ve had three presidents from Newcastle City Branch, which I think is testament to Kenny’s leadership and the culture of the branch, he was at the forefront of bringing lots of activists from the branch. He encouraged me to stand as branch chair, rather than pigeon-holing me as a ‘young member’ and supported me to stand for the NEC too. So I wouldn’t be here without him.

PR: It was very similar for me, I was at a meeting and Kenny was there, at the end he was wanting to know if I would be more involved. At the time I didn’t really know anything about unions and I was like, whatever who is this union person. It was a friend who asked me to go to Young Members weekend then I spoke to Kenny about other young members things and before I knew it I was a ULR and a Welfare Officer.

JB: He was great and I’m sure lots of people can say Kenny was a big influence on them becoming active in UNISON.

PR: UNISON has equalities at its heart and we are the biggest women’s organisation, what are the biggest challenges for fighting inequalities at the moment, It’s a hard question.

JB: It is a hard question, I have to talk politics because, the politics of hate have become so acceptable in the last five years, we have the rise of trump, brexit played a part in terms of thinking its okay to express to have offensive opinions, it’s not just about misogyny its across the spectrum. There are people who are in the public eye, who are meant to have a good moral character, who have an atrocious record when it comes to equalities, people who have these leadership positions in our country and around the world. We have seen the rise of so many right wing governments, in places like Brazil, Colombia has always been a problem but they have lurched even further to the right. I think the politics of hate have not only become acceptable, but they are seen as a way to win elections and win support. I don’t have a solution for that, but we have to make our voices louder and stronger, trade unions are one of the organisations to help drive forward the equalities agenda, we have done it before and need to continue to do so.

PR: So every year the president can pick a charity to raise money for, what is your chosen charity and why?

JB: Its not actually a charity – I’m going to take a lead from Gordon (last years president). It’s an appeal, it’s Nomadesc, which hopefully will be familiar to people in our region but by the end of the year the whole union. I want to support it because the thing I’ve enjoyed the most has been my international work, I know people think it’s the unions finances but I do love the international work. Nomadesc is a human rights organisation that supports indigenous Afro Colombian and peasant communities in Colombia who have been persecuted, displaced from their land and communities. These communities are often facing oppression, discrimination and military attacks because the government and multi national companies are trying to drive them off their land. They work with organisations campaigning for justice, for victims of violence and they accompany people through legal processes. We have done a really good project with them to help them train up more human rights lawyers and I want to help them continue that vital work.

PR: We should all learn to speak Spanish. (Clare Willams: Paul can speak Spanish) PR: Oh I’m not very good, necitamos aprender a hablar español.

JB: Is that we need to learn Spanish? PR: I hope so! JB: So at the moment we need to put a plan together and I will keep you up to date on any events and how to get involved.

PR: Thanks Josie for your time, good luck with the year ahead.