UNISON was the first union to back a statutory national minimum wage and Dave has been part of that journey from the start. The union fought to get the commitment into the Labour manifesto and, in April 1999, the first national minimum wage came into force.
The Low Pay Commission and rates for 16 to 17-year-olds and apprentices were to follow. But UNISON didn’t stop there – the union recognised that the national minimum wage was not a living wage.
We held national demonstrations, funded research into basic incomes and backed the first local citizens’ campaigns for a living wage, in 2001 in east London, which were led by local UNISON branches and faith groups – the first step in today’s living wage movement.
Dave recalls: “This union has always been motivated by fighting poverty pay, and I am proud to have played a part in the birth of the national minimum wage and its growth to the national living wage that is accepted by all political parties today.
“But even that is not a true living wage, and there is always more work to be done. Our pay negotiators are always trying to get minimum pay rates above the level set by the Living Wage Foundation, and we have not been afraid to shame employers and take industrial action to achieve this.”
Equality at the heart of the union
During the last 20 years UNISON has led the way on equality issues, not just in the trade union movement but across society.
“Fairness and equality are at the very heart of our union,” says Dave. “We have created structures for women, Black members, LGBT+, disabled, young and retired members. This means the voice of these groups is heard in our union. They enable us to support those most discriminated against in our workplaces.
“At the same time, we campaign for an end to discrimination across society, both at home and abroad. We played a key role in the campaign to win a minimum wage, equal rights on partner pensions and marriage for same sex couples; we were there fighting for the Disability Discrimination Act, the Equality Act and for rights for parents and carers; we did not stand silent when Stephen Lawrence was murdered and we challenge injustice – whether its campaigning against the far right, or tackling racism in the workplace.”
Dave with TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady. ©Report Digital
In 2008, Dave Prentis gave a speech to the Trade Union Congress, as its president. “Our Congress is not just about one campaign or just one union,” he said. “It’s about all trade unionists and all our unions. Unions working together – fighting for justice, fighting for fairness.
“And in a changing world, in difficult times, that unity, that strength and solidarity is our future.”
He was speaking in the aftermath of the economic crash, but the sentiment is equally true today, for life amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Collaborative working has been key to Dave’s UNISON leadership – whether it’s affiliating with an organisation whose values we share, financially supporting others through our Campaign Fund, or formal partnerships that allow us to work alongside others in achieving our aims.
With Show Racism the Red Card chief executive Ged Grebby, Gordon Brown and SRtRC coach Dean Gordon
Key partnerships include:
- On learning – UNISON’s partnership with the Open University has meant bursaries to members studying with the OU as adult learners, and free continuing professional development courses. It has transformed the life chances of so many members and helped others find their voice as activists and reps;
- On fighting racism – the union supports both the Hope not Hate and Show Racism the Red Card campaigning charities. Last year Dave became a patron of the Hope not Hate education fund;
- On pension equality – UNISON was the first union to affiliate to Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI), which campaigns on behalf of 1950s-born women unfairly affected by changes to the state pension age;
- On EU citizen rights – Dave has been very supportive of the union’s work alongside the campaign group the3million, protecting the rights of EU migrants in the light of Brexit.