UniteLive stories of the year - 'Change starts in the workplace'

Unite GS Sharon Graham on May Day: 'I'm proud Unite has helped lead the way'

Reading time: 6 min

Every day over the Christmas period, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2023. Today, we look back at Unite general secretary Sharon Graham’s inspiring May Day message.

May 1st is an important date for trade unions. For us it marks International Workers Day. It is time to reflect on the sacrifice many made to get us to this point and also to consider the challenges we face today.

It was the 1886 Haymarket Affair that led to many in the workers movement adopting May Day as their own. That workers uprising took place in Chicago at the climax of what is now called the Great Upheaval. Workers were regularly being killed for standing up to the powers that be. That was a different time, but then like now, the underlying tension was caused by cuts to pay – real terms cuts to the living standards of workers.

Then, like now, workers were being made to pay for an economic crisis not of their making. And then, like now, not everyone was suffering. Emergent monopoly capital and the rich and powerful were sitting pretty, whilst ordinary people suffered.

Today, once again we find ourselves in the grip of crisis capitalism. In the last three years we’ve reeled from one crisis to another and austerity has delivered a calamity of under-investment and under-staffing in our public services. Now the Chancellor’s new bout of City deregulation threatens a rerun of the 2007 financial crash.

To many it’s now obvious the system is broken. The so-called decision makers are incapable of creating an economy that works for the vast majority of us.

While the economy slows, the FTSE hits record highs. While most people’s real wages plummet, City bonuses soar and the pandemic has accelerated a shift of wealth to the richest households. At every turn we see redistribution of wealth and power away from working people, into the hands of the few. A choice not a necessity.

One of the main causes is soaring corporate profiteering. This isn’t just a few “bad apples”, it’s systemic.
At Unite we were amongst the first to examine this. Our most recent Unite Investigates report showed how in the first half of the 2022 FTSE 350 profit margins were 89% up on the same period in 2019. We’ve looked in depth at where and how profiteering is happening, analysing the supply chains of household goods which are responsible for the majority of inflation.

So-called “second round” inflation has been stoked by companies raising their prices by more than their costs. The cost of living crisis is the result of this compounded along supply chains.

We’ve all seen this close up with jumps in food and petrol prices, energy bills and mortgages. For example, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda – the top three supermarkets – doubled their combined profits to £3.2 billion in 2021 compared to 2019. Big brand food manufacturers like Nestle and Unilever have done similarly well.

What’s less immediately visible are massive profit jumps at the start of supply chains. For example, the four giant agribusiness corporations (ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus), which dominate key global food markets, saw profit shoot up 255% in the same period. Likewise, the supply chain behind the petrol pumps refineries and oil companies are smashing corporate profit records. BP boss Bernard Looney described the oil giant as a ‘cash machine’ even before making the biggest profits in the company’s history in 2022 – £23 billion.

In between are the transport nodes this island economy depends on. Probably the most blatant example of all are the container shipping giants such as Maersk, COSCO and Hapag-Lloyd – in 2021 the industry boosted its profits an incredible 200 times higher than in 2019, and is set for an even bigger take from 2022. Port owners such as DP World and CK Hutchinson have also seen big gains, while the profits of the biggest road freight operators were up 149%.

Not all companies have done well. In particular many smaller businesses have suffered. But the glaring issue is how, across so many industries, the broken economy has created so many opportunities for bosses to profit from crisis.

What of our politicians? Instead of tackling the real root cause of the cost of living crisis – the unfettered influence of corporations and the city together with the imbalance of power between workers and the bosses, both major parties are instead obsessing over GDP. No growth, no cash they all say.

This fixation was at the root of the Thatcher revolution and helped cause lasting economic damage. The benefits of which were largely captured by a small elite. We should be wary of any policy sold in the name of growth. In recent years the UK has had economic growth – albeit lower than in previous decades – but at the same time we have had falling real wages.

We need a lot more than higher abstract economic indicators to deliver in the real economy. That’s why for me it all starts at the workplace. It is there that we can make change ourselves and not rely on the whims of others. We can focus on defending jobs and securing the pay and conditions of working people. And perhaps most importantly, we can empower people not just teach them to be dependent on change at the top.

I’m proud that my union has helped lead the way. Over the last 18 months since my election, we have had over 700 disputes covering over 100,000 members. We have won over 80% of those disputes and as a result put an extra £300 million into the pockets of workers. That is change I can believe in.

By Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary