‘I’ll be standing right beside you’

Unite GS Sharon Graham presents her transformational ‘programme for positive change’ to Policy Conference

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Making her first address to Unite policy conference as newly elected Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham spoke of her strategy for success, today October 19.

After showing a short video covering ‘Jobs, Pay, Conditions’, Sharon’s transformational  programme for positive change, she told conference that she was, “immensely proud of being elected as your general secretary. I believe without question the worker’s voice has got to be heard – and that’s why I stood for general secretary.

‘Vanguard of change’

“Unite is going to be in the vanguard that can change what is happening to workers. Their voice must be heard. We have to concentrate on defending jobs, pay and conditions. We will not accept further attacks on workers’ living standards. It’s time we put a stake in the ground on that.”

She said that the she believed bad employers were already setting workers up to pay for the Covid crisis – just like they did in the financial crisis of 2008. “I can see it’s already happening. We have workers in dispute, workers on strike, fighting against pay freezes, changes in terms and conditions. Workers should not pay the price for the pandemic.”

Sharon continued, “The post Covid crisis is 2008 on steroids. The politicians have failed us during the Covid crisis; they were nowhere to be seen. There is no political saviour on a white horse coming over the hill to save us. We have to organise and fight for ourselves. That’s what the trade unions are for.”

Sharon focused on the many unscrupulous employers who have used the cover of the pandemic to ‘fire and rehire’ workers to force wage cuts and attacks on their conditions. She said, “Employer after employer has used fire and rehire to make workers pay for Covid. One in 10 workers has suffered this fate to date”.

Fire and rehire

In this post-Covid environment, hostile employers are becoming emboldened, she said. Sharon pointed the finger of accusation at one particular employer – British Airways. “BA’s actions on fire and rehire set a chain reaction which emboldened other employers to fire and rehire their workers. They became pacesetters for a drive to the bottom on wages and conditions,” she commented.

She referred to many delegates coming from various Unite heritage unions. “But,” she said, “the structures of these unions were set up over 100 years ago to deal with employers from domestic businesses. Now we are facing multinational companies – and that is why we need to adapt to match that – to ensure that we win for members.”

‘Unashamedly my priority’

How we win against multinationals was discussed further – among other priorities – in her presentation on her six part manifesto, Jobs, Pay and Conditions, on which she added, “This is unashamedly my priority – it is our responsibility to members, and this is how we will achieve that.”

The six sections of the manifesto are ‘back to the workplace: Jobs, Pay and Conditions; equalities: Action Not Words; a democratic union, built on shop stewards and reps; campaigning beyond the workplace: Retired and Community; across our union: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Gibraltar, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; A Workers Politics; and Sharon explained each point in detail.

Combines – the power to change

Sharon said that it was time to build Unite’s power to change things by ushering in a new era of Combines organisation,“deepening the union’s industrial focus.”

She pledged to use what the union movement calls the creation of ‘combines’ – “where we bring all our reps together by industry or sector to create collective bargaining at the level of whole industries or sectors”.The new combines would be fit for the 21st century to tackle multinational employers.

As an example, Sharon highlighted Unite’s creation of a home working agreement for bank workers. This meant that instead of the agreement being put piecemeal to the big four banks it should be put forward to all the bank CEOs for an industry-wide collective agreement. She said “The reality is if we don’t strike good agreements we will pay the price of bad agreements taking hold.”

Sharon pledged to extend her Work, Voice and Pay bargaining advice and support for reps programme by adding more negotiation tools. One particular point she did raise was the ending of the Office of National Statistics retail price index (RPI) – an essential measure of inflation and a core barometer of pay, crucial to pay talks.

‘Unite Bargaining Index’

“RPI won’t be tracked after 2030,” she reported, “so that is why Unite is working with the University of Loughborough to set up a Unite Bargaining Index. We need to track RPI ourselves – and we will be.”

Speaking about what she termed “Worker Politics,” she said that her position on Unite and the Labour had been misconstrued by the media during her election campaign.

Sharon said her commitment to “getting back to the workplace” did not mean that Unite was abandoning politics.

“Time to slay this particular dragon. The idea that Unite is standing down from the political arena, is totally wrong. Rather we want to build a different politics, not top down, but from the shop floor and the fabric of local communities up, in order to drive through the political process in an entirely different way.”

‘We can have more power’

Finally Sharon concluded, “I believe we can have more power at a time when we need employers to listen. I will be there, with workers on the picket line, workers in struggle. Wherever I’m needed I’ll be there, standing right beside you.”

You can watch Sharon’s full speech in the video below:

By Amanda Campbell, Pics by Mark Thomas

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