Towards a New Union

Rodney UNISONThe perception by the leadership that a union for all public sector workers was desirable was shared by much of the rank and file. Motions were submitted from branches at both the NUPE and NALGO Annual Conferences in 1988, not without some opposition, calling for talks to take place.

Trade union mergers have often stuttered or failed, usually because they were ‘top down’ arrangements with little membership involvement. To avoid this a “Joint Secretariat” was established headed by Tom Sawyer NUPE Deputy General Secretary and Alan Jinkinson then Nalgo,’s Deputy General Secretary. with officer and academic support, to explore the broad principles of a merger. At this point COHSE joined the discussions.

Over a period of four years discussions continued, interim reports were presented to the three Conferences and the three lay Executive Councils attended weekend seminars to explore the way ahead. A Final Report was presented to the Conferences in 1993 and UNISON was born.

Having three Executive Councils, three General Secretaries and three sets of officers obviously created problems for a successful merger. In particular, “what do you do with three General Secretaries?” Some officers and activists called for an election with many from all three unions indicating a preference for Rodney.

UNISON General Secretaries
Alan Jinkinson of NALGO, Hector MacKenzie of COHSE and Rodney Bickerstaffe of Nupe

More concerned with achieving a successful merger than personal advancement ,Rodney came down in favour of an interim period of a couple of years with Alan Jinkinson, now NALGO General Secretary as UNISON General Secretary with Rodney and Hector MacKenzie of COHSE as Associate General Secretaries on the basis of Jinkinson being ‘primus inter pares’, or ‘first among equals’. The joint Executive Councils approved this with Rodney being their nomination when an election was scheduled to take place in 2005.

The election was held in October 1995 with Rodney facing three challengers. His vote was almost twice the aggregate of his opponents and he therefore became the first elected General Secretary of UNISON.

There followed five years of consolidation and growth within the new union with inspiring leadership from the top. Arguably Rodney’s greatest achievement was the introduction of the National Statutory Minimum Wage. Following his success in winning support from the Labour Party and TUC conferences in 1985 and 1986, discussions with John Smith, leader of the Labour Party in 1991 on the strategy to be followed on the election of a Labour Government and, following John’s tragic death in 1994, continuing talks with the Labour leadership which led to the enactment of the legislation in 1998.

Biography by Jim Sutherland

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