Dave Prentis A life in unisoN

After a remarkable two decades as UNISON's general secretary, Dave Prentis is stepping down. To mark the occasion, here's a whistle-stop tour of the landmarks and milestones that he and the union have achieved, together.

Dave Prentis and Rodney Bickerstaffe

Becoming general secretary

Dave Prentis took up the reins as UNISON general secretary in January 2001 following in the footsteps of close friend Rodney Bickerstaffe, whom he had served as deputy general secretary.

By the time he took up office, he’d already faced an even more daunting challenge – learning he had stomach cancer and mounting a six-month fight for his life.

His recovery meant that “with the support of family, close friends and thousands of UNISON activists,” Dave was able to take up his post. His experience redoubled his belief in the NHS, the value of public services and the solidarity that comes with being part of a union.

Dave has been re-elected general secretary of UNISON on a further three occasions – in 2005, 2010 and 2015. He will retire in January 2021 after 20 years in the role and more than 40 years’ service to the union.

Speaking up for public services

©Report Digital

From floating photo stunts to melting ice sculptures of lollipop ladies, UNISON has found fresh ways to bring our campaigns to the attention of the public, politicians and the media.

UNISON is a campaigning union, from local community or workplace campaigns to high profile national campaigns around pay and conditions in every sector. Whether we're working solo or alongside partner organisations, campaigning at home or abroad, UNISON plays a leading role.

Running through the last 20 years like the words in a stick of rock have been our campaigns to speak up for public services. Our Positively Public campaign kicked off 2001 as Dave Prentis took office and we haven’t stopped speaking up for public services since – right through to 2020 with our #NoGoingBacktoNormal campaign.

Bottom left ©Report Digital

Taking to the streets

Always happy to lead from the front, Dave has inspired UNISON to proudly take to the streets – in the most visible way.

A series of huge TUC-organised protests against austerity, job cuts and pay freezes saw the union fill the streets with giant balloons, flags, banners and placards that created “a sea of purple and green”.

Our banners have been held high, too, at national and local strike rallies, protests, demonstrations and picket lines large and small across the four nations of the UK and internationally.


Always there for you

Dave recently described the union’s unique charity, There for You as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the union, praising its response to the coronavirus pandemic, when it gave out a record amount of grants to members in need.

But the charity (formerly known as UNISON Welfare) has been present for members throughout Dave’s tenure as general secretary. Since 1993, it has given more than £16m in financial assistance to members, while UNISON Debtline has helped members with over £200m of unmanageable debt.

“There for You is UNISON in practical, everyday action,” says Dave. “We look after our members when they need us most. We are there for them in their hour of need.”

Using influence, taking action

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Dave Prentis and senior colleagues were in contact with government, underlining the key issues for members, not least the lack of PPE.

Dave recalls when health secretary Matt Hancock quickly returned his call, early in the crisis: “I made it clear what our demands were, what needed to be done – and that we were expecting the government to respond.”

That sums up the influence he’s had at the top level of British politics, where so many decisions affecting members’ lives take place.

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And Dave has never shied away from keeping any government honest, whatever its party persuasion. He’s known as tough but fair, a tenacious negotiator who’s willing to talk for as long as it takes.

This has been integral to such UNISON achievements as persuading the Labour government to enshrine the minimum wage in law, fighting for the Disability Discrimination Act, and winning equal rights on partner pensions and marriage for LGBT+ people.

Alongside using its influence with politicians and employers, UNISON has always been prepared to take direct action when necessary. The last 20 years, and especially during the years of austerity under the coalition government, have been some of the toughest for public service workers with huge cuts to funding, job losses and pay restraint. No union has taken more industrial action than UNISON during that time, with local and national strikes to fight for better pay, conditions and recognition for members.

With domestic workers fighting outsourcing in Harlow, 2019

Throughout, Dave has never lost sight of who he’s representing – and has so often been on the streets and picket lines alongside them.

“No member goes on strike easily,” he says. “It’s their last resort, something they feel they have to do to protect their rights. I’ve always wanted to be there with them, to show my admiration and solidarity. It’s what they deserve.”

With Labour leader Keir Starmer

Working globally

UNISON is about more than just looking after members in the UK workplace. The union takes a world view of public services and Dave Prentis is proud to be president of Public Services International – the umbrella body for public sector trade unions across the world.

“Our international work is tremendously important to me,” he says. “Through our partnerships with other unions globally, we seek to bring our values of rights for workers, anti-discrimination, equality and fairness to the world stage.”

Since 2005, UNISON’s International Development Fund has supported 95 projects in 45 countries, with sister unions fighting privatisation, empowering women, tackling HIV/AIDS in the workplace, organising LGBT+ and young workers and responding to the Ebola pandemic.

In 1994, UNISON honorary life member Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected black president of South Africa. UNISON and its predecessor unions had always campaigned tirelessly against apartheid and, on Mr Mandela's final, tightly scheduled visit to the UK, he asked to see Dave so that he could thank the union personally. As he told the general secretary: "There is one union who stood head and shoulders above others in their support."

Going Green

UNISON woke up early to the fact that tackling climate change would affect jobs and workplaces – in public services and beyond. It was the only union to join the Stop Climate Chaos coalition with Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the RSPB and others.

As general secretary, Dave Prentis was an early champion of the green workplaces movement. And he was a member of the international trade union delegation to the UN Conference of the Parties, in Copenhagen in December 2009, which helped to establish the trade union principle that a worker-friendly and just transition to a low-carbon economy should be an aim of a global climate deal. This reached fruition in the 2015 UN Paris Agreement.

“Tackling climate change and wider environmental challenges, such as the loss of biodiversity, used to be seen as the preserve of environmental campaigns,” Dave says. “I think UNISON recognised fairly early on that these are issues that affect every aspect of our lives – including the future of work and public services.

“I know it sometimes feels like we have enough to worry about, with issues of pay, terms and conditions and job security. But as a leading voice for people at work, in public services, energy, the Environment Agency and water, we have to take our share of responsibility for this massive issue too.”

The fight for fair pay

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.”

Joining forces

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.
Legal triumphs

Since UNISON was formed, our legal assistance scheme has helped thousands achieve justice. From accident and occupational disease cases to assaults at work, the union has won more than £700 million in compensation for our members and their families.

Another trade union might rest on those laurels. But under Dave Prentis’s leadership, UNISON has striven to do so much more. Through its award-winning legal team, the union has won a string of landmark cases and claims that have resulted in far-reaching benefits for British workers, including:

  • Holiday pay – winning the right for all workers to have a minimum of 5.6 weeks annual leave, with no pro-rata reduction;
  • Equal pay – a 12-year battle with Glasgow City Council resulted in £500m compensation for 14,000 low-paid women members;
  • Employment law – a nationally acclaimed victory in the Supreme Court overturned the government’s punitive introduction of employment tribunal fees;
  • Trade union law – another landmark ruling obliges employers to consult with unions on any workplace issues that affect their members;
  • Minimum wage – a hard-fought litigation saw a tribunal set out how homecare workers should be paid the national minimum wage for travel time between clients.

Dave has always been a champion of workers’ rights. From our ground-breaking equal pay cases to the employment tribunal fees litigation – whether winning or losing – he has dared to run challenging cases, despite the risks. He’s been prepared to stand up when others would not.

A growing union

UNISON is officially the largest union in the UK and still growing – with a membership that spans the breadth of public services and, increasingly, in private companies and third sector organisations too.

From the days of public-sector expansion under successive Labour governments to the brutal austerity cuts of the coalition government and beyond, UNISON has aimed not just to survive, but to grow. In the last 20 years we’ve:

  • Celebrated an amazing one million women members;
  • Been the first union to use TV recruitment advertising;
  • Created an army of local organisers and set up the Fighting Fund to support them;
  • Launched online joining, revolutionising how people join UNISON.

“Many observers thought UNISON would not survive the austerity agenda of cuts to public service funding, jobs and services,” Dave recalls. “But we came through it. We built our union and I believe we can go from strength to strength.”

UNISON is about all of us
I’m incredibly fortunate to have worked with such amazing people over the past two decades. Together I think we’ve achieved great things.
UNISON is about all of us. I’d like to thank the thousands of activists and the brilliant branches, looking after members throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; all our elected lay members who lead the union in our service groups, sectors, regions and our national executive council; the presidential teams down the years, and of course all the staff, past and present.
But most of all I’d like to thank the members. Meeting you was always the favourite part of my job. For everything you’ve given me, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Dave Prentis, UNISON general secretary, 2001 - 2020