Image: Amanda Kendal
When Josie Bird was a teenager in Newcastle, she was drawn into her single mum’s enthusiasm for the anti-apartheid movement. But her recollection of that worthy pursuit is not as positive as you might think.
“My weekly punishment was going on Nelson Mandela marches,” she laughs. “If we weren’t going on a march we were painting the sodding banners. And if we weren’t doing the banners or the marching, she’d have me handwrite envelopes and sticking stamps. I think I spent half my childhood not being able to eat an orange!”
Such candour is typical of UNISON’s new president. And of course that’s only part of the story. “Obviously it had an impact on how I think as an adult,” she reflects now. “My mum instilled in me a belief in social justice, without a doubt.”
Her mother was also a foster parent for a while, and a volunteer for a charity running summer camps for children living in care, to which Josie inevitably had to tag along.
“She has always wanted to be involved, in terms of community. We didn’t live a very insular life, so I was understanding the wider world on a day-to-day basis, understanding that there was a lot more going on out there.”
Those values have influenced her life as a trade union activist with an outward-looking and empathetic approach to her work.
When she was elected president, at national conference in June, Josie made UNISON history as the first person to reach that high office having started her union journey as a young members’ officer.
“It’s a bit of an achievement I suppose,” she says, uncomfortable with the praise. “What’s more positive is that this is UNISON and the TUC’s year of the young worker. We’ve been talking for a long time about how to attract more young activists. And as a member of the national young members’ forum I’ve been part of the programme specifically designed to encourage that.”
Her junior vice-president, James Anthony, has come through the same route. “I think for the two of us to be here at the same time is great. It hasn’t solved the problem by any stretch of the imagination, but we are starting to achieve something.
“I’d really like to encourage more young people to see trade unions as a place for them to be active, to have a voice, and to grow our activist base at that level. That’s so important if we want trade unions to continue to be a vibrant, relevant force in this country.”
Among the practical obstacles, she admits, is the fact that young activists are often pigeon-holed – as young members’ officers – so that when they turn 27 they’re suddenly unsure of what their continued role in the union should be. And some will cease being active altogether.
For Josie, who’s just turned 41, that danger was avoided by the speed with which she got involved in the wider union.
With former president Gordon McKay. Image: Steve Forrest
She joined UNISON 16 years ago, as an administration officer with Newcastle City Council’s highways and architects’ department. She immediately became a steward, then a young members’ officer and then – the decisive moment – branch chair when she was just 25.
The suggestion came from the branch secretary at the time, the late, much-loved Kenny Bell. “Kenny was a visionary,” she remembers warmly. “I said: ‘Hmmm, I don’t know, do you think I’m ready?’ And he just replied: ‘Absolutely. The branch will support you.’ And they did.”
Ready or not, she clearly had that perfect trade union package of ebullient personality matched with fierce commitment. “I’m a gobshite,” she declares, smiling. “I talk a lot. And if I have an opinion I generally express it.”
Since that heady introduction to the union, Josie’s roles have included membership of the regional women’s network, chair of the NEC’s finance committee and – reflecting her great passion – a member of the international committee.
“I think I’ve always been an internationalist. I believe in human rights – it doesn’t matter where people live, work or come from. Also, the world of work is globalised now, so I just don’t think it’s feasible to say that we only care about what’s happening in our own workplaces.
“If there is exploitation taking place elsewhere in the world, we’ve probably passed that bad practice from Britain. And if we haven’t, it’s probably going to come here in the next few years.”
She’s taken part in UNISON delegations to Colombia, Cuba, South Africa and Palestine – countries with an array of issues and brave, beleaguered activists. But it was an earlier trip to Syria with the TUC, before the civil war started, which Josie says changed her life.
International debate, National Delegates Conference 2018. Image: Steve Forrest
The destination was the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria. When she arrived, with two young women from other unions, Yarmouk had a population of thousands.
“I was 29, I’d just got married, I’d been involved with regional international work for quite a long time. I thought I understood the world. Then I went on the delegation and realised I knew nothing.
“You think of living in tents in terrible conditions as the worst thing about a refugee camp. But you realise very quickly that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is that you’ve lost your home and you can’t return to it.
“A lot of these people have still got the keys to their home in their bag, because [emotionally] they haven’t moved on. They put roots down, but are living with the hope that they will yank those roots up at any moment. It’s beyond complex.
“And none of the political powers in the world that could change their situation are interested in doing that. They have no voice.”
She returned from Syria with deeper knowledge and awareness, and an even greater desire to work internationally. It’s not surprising that her presidential appeal is looking overseas, to Nomadesc, the human rights organisation which assists persecuted communities in Colombia, particularly those who have suffered forced displacement.
“This sort of organisation operates on virtually nothing. Nomadesc is trying to train more human rights advocates to support those communities and help organise them to resist attacks. I want to fundraise so they’re able to do that more effectively.”
‘The politics of hate and blame’
Alongside youth and internationalism, Josie is keen to develop the political education of UNISON’s activists, giving them the facts and confidence to better counter what she calls “the politics of hate and blame” pervasive in today’s discourse.
“People seem to wear offensive opinions on their sleeves as a badge of honour,” she laments. “It’s horrendous and abhorrent. It’s not a great time for politics.
“This is the time when trade unionists need to make our voice as loud as possible, with our positive values, because we are the force that will counter this.
“Why do we have such high levels of unemployment or under-employment in so many parts of the country? Why are people’s life chances so limited? It’s not because of migrants or asylum seekers.
“I know that people say austerity has ended, but I would disagree. We’ve got huge domestic issues in this country that are being ignored.”
Despite long periods of full-time release for her UNISON work, Josie remains proud to be an admin officer.
“We might be less visible than other members of staff, but we’re just as important. We enable the business to run – whether that’s within a local authority, within the NHS, in call centres. None of our public services can function without these support staff.”
The interview’s over, as Josie has to collect her children from the UNISON Centre creche. Alongside her union and council work, she’s also been raising a family with her solicitor husband Tom – eight-year-old Joseph and six-year-old Ben.
“Bless ‘em, they’ve travelled the country with me since birth,” she says proudly, unaware of an amusing irony in those words. The boys may soon find themselves painting some banners, or licking some stamps.
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