'Fighting for our members must come first'
Unite GS Sharon Graham: ‘My job is to wake up every morning and deliver for union members’
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham explains why. She writes:
It was early morning at a factory on Humberside. My campaign team were handing out leaflets as workers made their way in to work. One worker told the team: “I voted for the best candidate for the workers. And don’t ask me who, that’s between me and the ballot box – but she’s good.”
When I heard the story I knew I could win the election for Unite’s general secretary. The factory wasn’t one that had nominated me to stand in the election. We didn’t have supporters inside trying to deliver our vote. It was totally new ground for us. And there was only one woman on the ballot paper.
Many observers called the election wrongly. They failed to see that our campaign was a crusade for change, not yet another vote for Buggins’ turn; they underestimated how much this reflected the mood among union members. And we had a volunteer army that refused to be beaten, battling for every vote. In the end our victory was decisive.
Post pandemic, I believe we need to face new challenges with new responses. We need to get back to what it says on the trade union tin: fight for jobs, pay and conditions. We can’t keep hoping for the election of a Labour government to solve our members’ problems. Putting all our eggs in the Westminster basket will not deliver. When did the parliamentary Labour party win a collective bargaining agreement at a workplace? Fighting for our members must come first. We cannot have the political tail wagging Unite’s industrial dog any longer.
So for me it’s about going back to the workplace. A powerful union capable of winning disputes and workplace battles is the only way workers will be protected through the pandemic and beyond. The union grows by winning. Its current structures were built to serve local bargaining. We need to build an organisation that can deal with the multinational and hi-tech employers of the 21st century.
For example, on home working, should Unite have separate negotiations with each of the big banks or should we create a collective effort, for all our banking reps to come together and work towards one agreement? Then that could be presented to each of the bank chief executives at the same time. Why can’t the huge profits of the banks these days, and the stellar salaries of their chiefs, be reflected in decent wages, pensions and working conditions for their workers?
After my election we had a host of media interview requests. Some were fulfilled, but it was far more important for me to organise meetings with all shop stewards, across the UK and Ireland, who were in dispute with their employer. During one of the first meetings more than 80 reps signed up on Zoom to discuss action plans in 18 separate disputes. That is what I mean by fighting for jobs, pay and conditions.
I am not underestimating the challenges that lie ahead. Only one in four UK workers is a member of a union, even fewer in the private sector. This needs to change. Which brings me to Unite’s strategy of “leverage”.
Leverage can be defined as union strategies designed to give us an advantage in negotiations with hostile employers, which involve tactics well beyond the traditional “all-out” strike. However, if you read some of the recent press scare stories you might think that leverage means Unite members harassing employers’ families, including their children. Not true.
In the 15 leverage campaigns I have led, the only family members investigated were adults who had significant holdings or interests in the business. Suddenly there are crocodile tears being shed by aghast employers: the very same employers who wouldn’t give a second thought to the families who have been blighted by their “fire and rehire” strategies, where workers are sacked unless they agree to slashed wages, pensions and conditions.
Leverage uses “brain” as well as “brawn”. It takes union strategies into the forensic investigation of a business to see what its real standing is. Action follows, and this has been hugely successful.
Last year BA was poised to sack thousands in its fire and rehire programme. It threatened to sack workers in Britain, and rehire them on inferior contracts while its parent company, IAG, was ready to spend a billion euros buying a new airline. We campaigned for cross-party MPs to join our BABetrayal campaign to tell BA it was putting its lucrative Heathrow landing slots in jeopardy. We called the IAG bosses to explain all this and more. BA returned to the negotiating table.
We want companies to do well so that our members can share in the benefits. So Unite will have no issues with what we might call “good bosses”. On the other hand, Unite will be relentless in defending workers from “bad bosses”.
My job is to wake up every morning and deliver for union members. That is why I stood for election as Unite’s general secretary and that is precisely what I intend to do.
By Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham will speak at the TUC’s online Congress today (Monday, September 13) at 2pm. You can watch her speech live here.
Don’t forget to tune in on UniteLive for our latest coverage of TUC Congress 2021, which will be updated throughout the day.
- This comment originally appeared in the Guardian on Sunday, September 12.
Pic by Mark Thomas from an earlier event for illustrative purposes only