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Updated: Aug 26, 2020

NALGO, NUPE, & COHSE trade unions merged to form UNISON

In the summer of 1992 three national trade union conferences voted in favour of creating a new union - UNISON.

NUPE For 62% Against 38%

COHSE For 70% Against 30%

NALGO For 71%. Against 29%

A full ballot of members was to follow and resulted in a resounding YES to our new union.

For those of us who had worked long and hard to make this happen it was a blessed relief but it also meant we were in for a long haul to make the new union a reality for our members in the branches and regions.

Some of us had set out to achieve this new union years before 1992.

Back in 1987 NALGO activists in the North West were meeting with NUPE comrades to discuss the future of public services and the regional economy. NUPE Deputy General Secretary Tom Sawyer and Rodney Bickerstaffe (General Secretary) had been calling for "a super union , made up of super people , giving super public services with super democracy ".

We supported that ambition and wanted to do all we could in the North West to make it happen via a merger of NUPE and NALGO - and later COHSE.

Our members were being attacked on all sides by aggressive privatisation and the compulsory competitive tendering ( CCT ) of public services. Thatcherism and the market forces theories of the likes of Milton Friedman dominated political debate.

The two unions were working closely together at national level and the North West started to take the lead in encouraging greater cooperation at regional level.

We knew that this was not going to be an easy task. There was a great deal of suspicion and even hostility between members at local level. For every one of us who could see the benefits of a merger there were just as many who were sceptical or even downright hostile to the idea.

There were many fundamental problems to address - not the least of which being that NUPE had affiliated to the Labour Party and NALGO was independent of political ties. However we held to a belief that all these issues could be resolved given goodwill and compromise - a belief that came to be sorely tested over the next five years !

In the North West in 1988 Ernest Baxendale was the senior full time official for NALGO with over 118,000 members. He was Chair of the NW Regional TUC and had been a member of the Labour Party for more than 40 years.

NUPE had Tony Martin as its senior full timer with 98,000 members in the region. Tony was an Executive member of the NW Labour Party and like Ernest was responsible for the biggest region of the Union.


We knew that if the merger was to happen it had to be organised from the grass roots. As senior lay officials in our branches and holding regional office we had to organise and energise at branch level to convince the membership that a new union would help us to :

Strengthen links between USERS and PROVIDERS of public services by identifying a common interest.


Defend public services by promoting more inter - union cooperation.

Meeting regularly as activists in the late 1980s we started to work through the challenges of bringing two - and later three - very different trade unions together. From the outset there was a well organised and vociferous opposition to the merger within both NUPE and NALGO.

The opposition in NALGO concentrated on a number of issues

(1) Opposition to the possibility of affiliation to the Labour Party.

(2) The idea that NALGO would be "dominated " by ex NUPE full timers in the new union and be more bureaucratic.

[ One example given was that " branches would be compelled to have sections for so called disadvantaged groups and be compelled to go along with many other similar nonsenses " ]

(3) 71% of subscriptions ( membership fees ) would be paid by ex NALGO members.

(4) White collar posts will be sacrificed in favour of blue collar ones.

[ "Many NUPE and COHSE officials despise NALGO members......." was alleged ]

(5) It is all a "far left plot" ........

Looking back now after almost 30 years these allegations seem strange but we had no option but to confront them one by one.

Their slogan was "Don't let them trick you - vote NO to merger" and some senior NW NALGO activists from the National Executive Council (NEC) like Magda Gillow , Peter Hunter ,Malcolm Dolman, Val Lovell , Maureen Vass and Stuart Roberts urged members to campaign against the merger. In total 13 NALGO NEC Members ( out of a total of 60 ) spearheaded the opposition trying to reach the 750,000 NALGO members employed in local government, health ,universities, and the gas , electricity,transport and water industries.

At the same time opposition to the merger was being targeted at the 550,000 NUPE members and approximately 200,000 COHSE members.

For those of us in favour of the merger the way forward was clear. We believed that a new union for all public sector workers was needed urgently and argued that it would mean -

  • Improved services for members built on the partner unions strengths and traditions.

  • A union of 1.6 million members working in solidarity to increase our bargaining strength.

  • Being better able to influence future public service policy and campaign in defence of public services.

  • Reduced wasteful competition, conflict and duplication of resources in recruitment and organisation.

  • Working together to tackle discrimination and low pay.

Underpinning all of our organising for the creation of a new union was one objective - to build a new campaigning and democratic force to represent working people.

As a result of the full ballot of members endorsing the three conference decisions in favour of merger a date was set - UNISON would be created in June 1993.


to say but after three years of intensive negotiations and consultation we still had to overcome former union loyalties and develop a common culture. Moving on would need generosity, partnership working and co-operation.

The results of the full member ballot were as follows

NALGO a 38% return on 809,245 ballot papers with 73.2% YES 26.8% NO

NUPE a 30% return on 583,416 ballot papers with 93.7% YES 6.3% NO

COHSE a 35% return on 177,552 ballot papers with 93.9% YES 6.1% NO

To achieve this YES result those of us lay officials arguing for a new union had to put the hours in - especially in NALGO.

A "CHOOSE UNISON " campaign was launched in NALGO and right up to the date that ballot papers went out to members in early November 1992 we targeted branch news sheets and magazines , union notice boards and hit the road to speak at branch meetings. We spoke about 5 reasons why members should choose UNISON and identified 10 things that needn't worry them - in an attempt to answer the most common questions about being too big ; increased members subscriptions ; for NALGO members - affiliation to the Labour Party ; why now ? ; less member or branch influence in a larger potentially more bureaucratic union etc.

The ballot was fully postal and the ballot period ran from 16 November through to 7 December 1992 so we had to address as many individual members as possible before they cast their vothe.

NALGO activists in the North West at that time were part of what was known as the North Western and North Wales District Council and we produced regional leaflets in favour of merger and worked together with friends and comrades in NUPE and , to a lesser extent COHSE , arguing for the merger.

By 1992 Brian Devine was the senior NALGO North West North Wales full timer ( District Organisation Officer ) with Pat McDonagh the senior lay activist ( District

Council Secretary ).

Pat worked closely with lay members like Graham Burgess, Lynn Evans, Judy Cotter , Dennis Maginn , Kevan Nelson, Alan Walker and Frank Hont as we closed in on the merger. We were determined to ensure that

- We maintained an integrated and unified service group policy making structure with regional service groups chaired by lay officials.

- Adequate resources and finances were allocated to reflect the size of the region.

- Regional Council would determine the policy of the region with a committee comprised of lay officials only with the Regional Secretary ( and staff ) reporting to the lay side and accountable to Regional Council.

It had been decided that Alan Jinkinson NALGO General Secretary was to be UNISON's first General Secretary and that a first election of a General Secretary would take place in 1995. Rodney Bickerstaffe , at that time NUPE Genera Secretary would be a candidate. Other candidates would be able to stand but all three union National Executives indicated their support for Rodney and this was helpful in our discussions with NUPE activists as he was seen as a unifying force and had done a great deal to bring together activists from all three partner unions.

During that period running up to the members ballot those of us supporting the merger spoke at scores of branch meetings all over the region.

I remember speaking on a cold evening early November in Clitheroe at Ribble Valley NALGO 1992 AGM.

I arrived late , the members didn't look too happy about being there but I gave it my best shot.

UNISON will be stronger ; able to give members support when and where they need it ;we will be a powerful voice for ALL public sector workers and fight low pay - all issues we have in common with members in NUPE and COHSE ; the old fashioned division between manual and non- manual workers will become a thing of the past.

The myths were dismantled one by one. We won't be too big , we will have two political funds so if you don't want to support the Labour Party you don't have to , we are not bailing the other unions out.

Then came the questions ......

Why are NALGO putting most of the money in to the merger ?

What about benefits for retired members ?

Do we all go on strike if COHSE go on strike ?

It was a long drive home but then again we knew it wasn't going to be easy.

So, come the end of 1992 member ballot won - job done. The new union had been launched in June 1993 and in November we were heading towards our first UNISON North West Regional Council in a windswept Floral Hall in Southport. We had to sort out a draft constitution, rules and standing orders but nationally we still had 3032 individual branches and not a single one had merged. It wasn't until UNISON Regional Council in January 1994 that we set up a regional branch merger working group.We had an early taste of troubles to come at an interim Regional Committee meeting in Bolton back in late June 1993. Activists from the three partner unions met to discuss - amongst other things - nominations for the first North West Regional Convenor. After a walk out and some blood on the walls talks regional lay leaders developed the start of a mutual trust which meant we could take on the often painful process of branch mergers.

Pat McDonagh ( Manchester NALGO ) was elected as the first Regional Convenor North West UNISON and was perfectly placed to understand the complexities of branch merger. In Manchester City Council there were EIGHT separate NUPE branches to merge with the single NALGO branch.

Things were not much easier in the new interim UNISON National Executive Council ( NEC) where there was a combination of all of the three NECs of the three partner unions. NEC Members from each union had different weighted votes - 1 or 1.5 or 2 in an attempt to ensure equality and a couple of votes were actually carried by a majority of half a vote !

The creation of UNISON as a new independent trade union was a massive achievement. Confronted by cynics , sceptics and those who opposed the merger teeth and claw we had managed to bring together three very different trade unions. Lay officials were working together at national and regional level , staffing structures were settling down and new alliances being formed to oppose privatisation and defend public services. Optimists among us were hoping that the best parts of each of the three former partner unions would be brought in to UNISON. From my personal perspective I hoped UNISON would retain NALGO's internationalist perspective and continue to be active on behalf of South African workers , Palestinian rights

and other liberation struggles around the world. I wanted UNISON to import some of the love NUPE members had for their union and the specialist knowledge that COHSE members had of Health issues. We didn't want members or activists to be looking back to some imagined golden age of their former partner union - although in the early years there was far too much of "We didn't do it like this in NALGO/ NUPE / COHSE ."

Our big challenge at regional level was branch mergers.

It took the North West until late 1996 to get to a position where all of our branches ( except one ! ) had submitted merger forms and we could say that central collection of member subscriptions was to be phased in by January 1997.

Full time staff and lay officials worked tirelessly to bring branches together on an employer basis . Some mergers went a lot smoother than others.

My own branch Cheshire NALGO had been working closely with NUPE colleagues for some time and even though some of our senior activists had argued against merger when the ballot result confirmed merger they pulled together to make Cheshire UNISON a reality. NUPE had eleven separate branches in Cheshire and combining them in to a single NUPE branch for County Council employees was a major step forward. Activists Roy Walker (NALGO ) and Maureen Tyrrell (NUPE) were the driving force behind a "Cheshire into UNISON Committee " leading to Cheshire UNISON being one of the North West's first fully merged large branches.

In other places branch mergers were not going well. Regional lay activists Kevan Nelson and Frank Hont had to deal with some of the more recalcitrant branches on behalf of the regional Branch Organisation Working Group ( BOWG ). Supported by the tireless analytical work of full timer Bill McMillan they attempted to unscramble the financial, organisational and cultural barriers being placed in the path of individual branch mergers. Formed as the Branch Rule Approval Sub Group they faced real challenges and progress was slow.

Branches that were "unable" ( more likely unwilling) to comply with the target set for merger were to be visited and offered "assistance" in meeting a new deadline.

At a memorable meeting on 23 December 1996 on a snowy afternoon in Wigan they threatened to lock the warring factions in the room until Christmas Eve if they wouldn't come to some kind of compromise. Needless to say the merger deal was not done on that day but the basic principles were set out for a meeting on 9 January 1997 where we started to make progress towards a fully merged Wigan UNISON branch.

The original task for BOWG in the North West was to drive the branch merger process forward.

Much had been achieved by January 1997 but the region had to accept that branch merger is not an end in itself. The emphasis switched to the development of single branch databases and branch rules ; development of fair representation and proportionality in branch committees ; developing manual worker organisation and better guidance on branch finances.

As these new merged branches developed and grew there was a clear need for simpler administrative procedures to enable branches to get on with the work of recruitment, organisation, representation , negotiation and campaigning.

In the North West we had moved from more than 300 former partner union branches to a total of 120 UNISON branches better equipped and organised to work on behalf of the 200,000 public sector members in the region.

Twenty seven years on and UNISON goes from strength to strength with the North West Region exceeding its annual recruitment target of 20,000 new members by November 2019.

Fighting for a democratic , well organised and strong union was a privilege and a good friend and comrade Steve Gwilt used this quote from Michael Foot when asked " What was it all for ?"

We are not here to find elegant solutions , pregnant with, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier , more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose. If you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of the initiative I say - to hell with them ! The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do."

So, if you are wondering if it's worth it to be involved in trade union activity take a minute to think about Michaels words.

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