Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

2019 is the year of young workers. So during the UNISON women’s conference in Bournemouth earlier this year, Amanda Kendal chatted to some of the delegates about being young – and female – at work and in the union

Sam-Michelle Alonge is a financial capability officer from London, who joined UNISON for advice and assistance on her rights at work, as well as protection against unlawful dismissals.

For her, the best things about the union are “unity, loads of training and opportunities to share your thoughts.

“As a young woman now, our challenges may differ from that of young women from years ago,” she adds. “For example, career as opposed to bringing up children – statistics show we are having children later.”

Sam-Michelle says it’s important to keep pushing for change. When she’s trying to encourage someone to join the union, she’ll speak to them about what UNISON has done and is doing for members and about the opportunities and training available.

She’d like to see more regional meet-ups and more reaching out to young members, while “cutting out the middle man. There are so many forms and formalities before you do anything within the union.”

Becoming active as a young member herself “wasn’t that easy,” she says, but was helped by the fact that her manager was a union rep.

Given how often cake features at UNISON events, what’s her favourite? “Red velvet. I do have a recipe if you want!”

Kendal Bromley-Bewes is a student children’s nurse in Bristol, who is also a lifeguard and teaches 50+ Aqua aerobics on the side. She currently holds a young members seat on UNISON’s national executive council.

She joined UNISON when there was some trouble in her workplace. “My step-dad is a branch secretary and he encouraged me to join – the rest is history!”

Kendal’s favourite thing about UNISON is that the union is always thinking about inclusivity. “No one gets left behind,” she says.

“We are also self-aware – we’re aware of all the amazing things that we do, but also know that there are always places we can improve. We seek to ensure that all of our members have the best service we can provide.”

Too often we get pigeon-holed into young member positions

She notes that young people are easily victimised in the workplace. “At times it can seem as if there is no hope, no-one to turn to, or the situation is just the way things are and you have to put up with it. That’s where UNISON steps in.”

Kendal believes that “young people need unions – and unions need young people.” She explains to potential members that joining UNISON is like joining a family, where everyone looks out for each other – which includes individuals thinking about what they can contribute to the union.

And she’d like to see more young members doing things that aren’t just related to their peers.

“Too often we get pigeon-holed into young member positions and forget that we can do so many other great things – branch secretary, treasurer, women’s officer, the options are endless.”

She also says it’s easy to become active. “You can do as much or as little as you want to. And there is always someone to support you.”

UNISON conferences are great places to pick up UNISON-branded goodies, but what’s Kendal’s favourite? “I love the stress reliever ambulances – but I think the squeaky pigs are perfection for me!”

Katherine Jolley is a tenancy compliance assistant in Northamptonshire, whose work often involves dealing with anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse.

For Katherine, joining UNISON was about having – and being part of – a support system, and making sure her employer practised fairness and equality.

“UNISON is there for everyone and offers more opportunities than employers usually do,” she adds.

I like purple and green.They’re the suffragette colours

It’s particularly important for young workers to join a union, she says, so they fully understand their rights and how to plan the future. And for young women workers it’s vital to “make your voice heard”.

She’d like to see more training aimed at young members, including in those areas where women need support – for instance, in handling difficult and inappropriate behaviour.

On getting active, Katherine would find it useful to have more information on what is involved and expected – like an FAQ.

When asked what she’d like to achieve as a young member in UNISON, Katherine says she wants career advancement, but also more responsibility within the union. She attended women’s conference to meet different people and see what it’s like.

On a lighter note, if UNISON were to rebrand, should we change the purple and green?

“I like purple and green,” Katherine laughs. “They’re the suffragette colours.”

Sarah Walsh is a residential care worker in a children’s home in Nottingham.

“I joined UNISON when I was 18. I’d previously been in precarious, low-paid employment, before working in public services – until that point I had no idea there was something like a trade union, that was there for you and on your side. It felt like something I needed to be a part of.”

The best thing about UNISON, she says, “is the people that you meet – other members, activists and people from across the movement. It’s a brilliant place to share ideas and support one another to make the world of work a better place for everyone.”

I’ve got the union on my side, now what are you going to do?

Sarah says it’s important for young workers to be in a union because they’re more likely to face low pay, insecure contracts and discrimination on the basis of their age.

“Being in the union gives you that confidence to fight for your rights when facing your employer, especially when you can say, ‘I’ve got the union on my side, now what are you going to do?’ It’s like having a little tiger in your pocket!”

She says there’s still the perception that unions are a bit of an old boys’ club. “As young women, it’s important to show people we’re changing that. UNISON is over 75% women – it’s not beer and sandwiches anymore, it’s Prosecco and getting things done.”

As to what she’d like to achieve as a young member, Sarah is quite clear: “A decent living wage for all, not defined by age, but by a decent standard of living and ability to thrive.”

Finally, if UNISON was a TV programme, which programme would it be?

“I’d say The Thick of It, because sometimes that’s where you are!”

Images: Amanda Kendal

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