UniteLive stories of the year - ‘This is what a winning union looks like’

Unite GS Sharon Graham gives an empowering speech to the ‘parliament of our union’

Reading time: 19 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 barnstorming speech at Unite’s Policy Conference in July.

Wednesday morning’s conference highlight was always going to be Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary’s keynote speech.

The hall was abuzz with warm anticipation, and the delegates would not be disappointed. Sharon began, “Friends, it’s good to be back with you at our Policy Conference, the ‘Parliament of our Union’.

Winning disputes

“The last time we were together 20 months ago, literally within a number of weeks I was elected your general secretary. And since then, this union has been engaged in 890 disputes covering 170,000 Unite members,” she said.

She continued, “We have won over 80 per cent of those disputes, and £400m has gone back into the pockets of our members. So I want to start by sending solidarity from this room. To all our members who are on strike right now – many of you are here and represented today, and many of you are taking action for the very first time – Bristol Waste and St Mungo’s, Kingspan, Petraface, Darchem Engineering, Trelleborg First Manchester, Edinburgh University, Newbury Buses and many, many others. To our members in Allerdale and Morrison’s and Gibraltar. And, of course, the Murphy 4.

“This is the power of the union. This is the power of our stewards and our reps. This is the real power of Unite. This is a union that wins. So let’s send a clear message from this room to all of our striking members and striking workers here and across the world. We stand with you – victory to the strikers, solidarity.”

Sharon said that she laid out her vision for change 20 months ago, “to take our Union back to the workplace, back to our members and to focus on our core business – the jobs, pay and conditions of Unite members.

Collective bargaining is still the “tried and tested method of pushing up pay” she said, adding that, “for too long we had drifted from our fundamental purpose, to advance and protect the interests of workers.

“I did feel that our focus on the workplace had drifted. That our Union was weakened.

Our confidence waning. The political project of the previous decade had not bought home the goods. And how could it? It was abdicating our power into the hands of politicians. The trap that led us to trade our industrial muscle for political promises. The last 20 months have shown Sharon that focusing on action at the workplace, delivers results, and that now was the time for action.

“Winning is important,” she said. “We want employers to know we are not victims. We are here to win as many disputes as possible. To secure our members’ jobs and their pay. To ensure our members know that we will defend them and that we can win.”

Sharon quoted some stellar results by Unite reps and negotiators. These were:

Lerwick Port Authority, 34 per cent; Liverpool Docks – 14 per cent; XPO – 27 per cent; JW Suckling – 26 per cent; OCS Covent Garden – 22 per cent; Imperial Logistics – 21 per cent and Hull Stagecoach – 20 per cent.

“Literally hundreds of disputes settled and won,” she said. “It was Unite that led the way, our actions that took the first stand, our members that proved we could win and the flame certainly still flickers.

“Of course we won’t win every dispute, but we must win the majority. We must have clear plans to win, not just talk. New tactics to win, levelling the playing field.”

Coventry Council – longest dispute

She then spoke of how shortly after her election to office, “the Labour Council in Coventry attacked their own workers, our members, Labour Councillors who were then part of Unite, aided and abetted strike breaking and the victimisation and sacking of our reps. We’ve suspended every one of them and they’re not coming back. I say to Labour councillors, we’re not giving you any funding if you don’t back our workers.

She added that resolute Coventry Council members stayed the course, in a strike that was to last six months, the longest continuous strike in Unite’s history. Ending in victory, the strike resulted in “a pay deal worth up to 12.9 per and the reinstatement of our sacked steward. An example of levelling the playing field,” she said.

“In what we now call Strikes Plus, we commissioned a paper to look into every nook and cranny of Coventry Council. It was this work, coupled with our members’ steadfast determination on the picket line, which delivered the result.”

She added that not every win has needed strikes. “In many cases, the power in the negotiating room in thousands of workplaces has got good deals, with different percentage pay rises dependent on terms and conditions.”

“This is what winning looks like. Defending jobs, increasing pay, securing terms and conditions. And that’s why we are growing. Our paying membership is up.”

4,500 members join in one week

Then Sharon revealed a truly significant result for Unite – that as a result of Unite’s escalating actions “4,500 members were joining us in a week. Not because of gimmicks or free pens. But because of what we do at the workplace.

“This is the first time in Unite’s history that paying membership has gone up, quarter after quarter at such a rate. We have bucked the trend. Why? Because we have focused on winning, focused on the workplace. Focused on jobs, pay and conditions.”

She believed it was “no coincidence winning on pay and conditions has allowed us to buck the trend,” while the union movement was down by 200,000. Unite was steadfastly focusing on the workplace agenda.

“This is how we move the political centre ground,” she said. “On organising around issues that affect workers, the great furnace of collectivism. This is what trade unions create that others cannot. Turning acceptance into anger and anger into hope.

“Everyday, in thousands of workplaces, we make change happen, you make change happen and that is what defines us. We just need to believe in the power of trade unions.”

Sharon continued how the rich and powerful, the political elite, the government, those with much to lose would all be on the attack. “But,” she said, “We are ready, it won’t stop us. Whatever hurdles they put in our way we will jump them.

“If they tax our strike pay we will add the tax on. If they try and force people to break our strikes we will use strikes plus. If they fiddle with thresholds and notice periods we will change our tactics. We didn’t change our rule book to work outside the law if necessary to make it neater. We changed it for the days to come.

“Outside the law or inside the law we will defend our members by all and every means. Unite will defend its members by all and every means.”

Supporting reps

And importantly where our reps can find themselves in the eye of the storm, Unite will be there to support them. “The power of our union lies with our reps. We absolutely must be able to defend our stewards, in the field but also legally.

“That is why we have ripped up the 50/50 rule for legal representation for reps, giving all reps access to our lawyers, giving support when it’s needed as soon as it is needed.”

She continued, “We’ve also put more resources onto the frontline. New resources that allow you to dig deeper when bargaining with your employer. In-house forensic accounts, statisticians, economists and investigative researchers. With new Work, Voice, Pay tools, you can get expert support at the push of a button.”

She added that there were many more innovations to come including a review of reps’ education and training.

No blank cheques for Labour

On the Labour Party Sharon’s focus is that Unite’s, “route of our power comes from the workplace. This is where it began, from the ground up, not the top down. That is why we need to focus on the political demands that actually matter to workers, rather than the Westminster bubble.

“We will only spend money when we believe our members are getting value for it. As I said when I got elected, there will be no blank cheques for Labour.”

And to loud applause she said, “This government is a disgrace, but they are doing what it says on the Tory tin. And I expect Labour to do what it says on the Labour tin. Be Labour. And yes we want rid of this government. But this does not mean we won’t hold Labour’s feet to the fire.”

Sharon continued, “Just a year ago Labour MPs were told not to share picket lines with our members. What an outrageous comment from a Labour leader. Not because MPs on picket lines changes the course of the dispute. They don’t. But because it made out the picket line was a bad place to be. The naughty step. This was wrong and I said it was wrong, very publically.

“Labour cannot be just better than the other lot. They must be Labour and we should be able to tell the difference. We know Labour need to get a spine. They won’t make the right choices on their own.

“In place of their caution, we will deliver a real Workers’ Manifesto. We need a clear industrial plan for the next 10 years and beyond, not the next 10 minutes. And if no one else is capable of putting that together, then we will be the voice of the worker,” she said.

Economy – Unite Investigates

On the economy Sharon explained the Unite Investigates initiative had been set up to develop Unite’s industrial plan for the economy.

“In a £2 trillion per year economy we can make different choices. We don’t have to just accept what we are fed. When I went on the Sunday shows and was asked to justify asking for pay rises, which the Bank of England said was driving inflation – Unite challenged the status quo – with [hard] facts.”

“[Unite Investigates] uncovered the truth about profiteering. It was the first document done on it in Britain and now is mainstream narrative. We have changed the narrative. It’s not wages pushing up inflation, its rampant profiteering.

“The narrative has changed so much that the vanguard of socialism, the IMF, now even agrees with us. By doing the research ourselves, by investing in our own agenda rather than piggy backing on others we created a debate where there was previously none.

“We have made sure by credible, detailed Unite Investigates reports that the Governor of the Bank of England and others can’t just get away with trotting out the usual lines. Now he is being asked about price gouging, about billionaire corporations using wars and pandemics for financial gain, about Greedflation.

“It was those mega corporations that made 89 per cent higher profit margins in 2022 than before the pandemic. It was the agri businesses making hundreds of millions extra out of a conflict. The logistics firms taking advantage of disrupted supply chains. And the energy firms making billions for shareholders whilst people went cold in winter.”

In short, “This is the real story of the cost of living crisis.”

The story of unfettered greed

Sharon then spoke of the privatised utilities, under regulated housing markets and out of control monopolies. The story of unfettered greed.

She asked, “And is it in those same hands, in those private interests that run many of our foundation industries, that politicians are willing to entrust our fate? How can the energy cartels or the overseas owners of UK steel be entrusted with decarbonisation and a just transition? How many jobs will be lost? How many climate targets missed? How many consumers are to be ripped off before business as usual is consigned to the bin?

Sharon said that two further Unite Investigates reports have been commissioned looking into energy and steel.

“Our nations now need bold thinking, not tinkering around the edges. It’s not just our schools and hospitals that are crumbling. Our critical industries that make any major economy ticks are faltering. It’s not 1997. Our infrastructure is on its knees. A failed economic model is playing out its final tune.”

But decline is not inevitable, she said, “we just need to be make different choices – choices that prioritise communities not the markets. Take our Paper on the renationalisation of energy. It would be just £90bn pounds to renationalise our energy at book price. £196 bn pounds at market price. If we owned our own energy we could have reduced business and household bills, inflation would have been down by over 4 per cent.”

Essentially Unite would make a “bigger impact than anything we’ve seen from the Bank of England, and all without jacking up mortgages and rents for ordinary workers.”

Even the Financial Times agrees with our findings that it is affordable – and as for renationalisation it would pay for itself in a few years.

As a case in point Sharon quoted steel as an example. She said, “It would cost less than £800m to take our vital steel industry into public hands, giving us the vital control over the green transition, the power to de-carbonise a key product that our manufacturing and construction industries relies on.

“These industries as a whole account for 25 per cent of British GDP. It would give us the ability to invest, maintain jobs and reduce our reliance on cheap steel dumped on the market by the Chinese state. We could also simply change the law, so that all UK infrastructure projects use UK steel. That’s a plan that most politicians should be able to get behind.

“In an economy worth trillions you can make different choices. Or you can bury your hand in the sand, afraid of change. Let me make this clear. We will not let any group of workers become the coal miners of this generation.

“Yes we need to drive down emissions. But there needs to be a plan with workers at the heart. Jobs need to be real.”

“I don’t trust vague commitments made by politicians seeking power. Is a low paid job driving an electric bike delivering pizza for Deliveroo a green job? It is certainly not a replacement for union jobs on an oil rig or in a steel mill.”

Sharon continued, “So I want to put our politicians on notice. In order for support for a green transition, we need a plan for jobs. To move the issues and our politicians we need to do things differently. We need to use our resources differently. Instead think about how we can truly build power in communities that can be sustained. Because it’s what lies beneath professional politicians that is really important.

“If we mobilise people to our cause in the red wall seats, politicians will have to react. To pick up the baton of our policies or risk losing. That is why I want us to start to build our strength within communities. That’s what Unite for a Workers’ Economy is for.

“Now we will also make our case to the people, on the issues important to our members, linking our industrial work with our political work. We will commit resources to Scunthorpe and Corby and build a real campaign for better public procurement, investment and the renationalisation of steel.

“[Unite will prove] key “marginal” that can make a difference. We will take our Workers’ Manifesto not be afraid to put politicians of any party on the spot. We are affiliated to Labour, but independent from them. It will be the TU voice heard at the election, not just that of our political class.

‘Now more than ever we must help ourselves’

Sharon stressed that “politics alone will never be enough. I stood for election to help rebuild the industrial base of our Union. To widen and deepen the collective. Now is the time to come together across our workplaces and industries.

“We have made a start. But there is a long way to go if we are to build real worker power. Now more than ever, we must help ourselves and reduce the barriers to effective industrial co-ordination.

“Combines should never become a series of meetings, they are live industrial campaigns and places for us to prepare for what is to come. Because it does not matter whether you are a bus worker, finance worker or a dock worker Industry 4.0 means change is coming.

“And unless we are organised,” she warned, “more organised than the employers, more coordinated, then it will be shareholders who pocket the gains of automation, not us.”

She said we needed to “pre-empt what we know is coming. Because if we mobilise together, if we can build then it can be workers who gain from change. It can be our members who negotiate shorter working time without loss of pay and share in the spoils of automation.”

Equalities and retired members

Sharon said, “If we are to face the challenges to come, we need to embrace the entire diversity of our Union. That’s why I am proud to have delivered equalities development centres for the first time.

“I am proud that we have more women at the top of the organisation. We have cut the gender pay gap by over 3 per cent in 20 months, and abolished the 50/50 rule, giving our members full legal support in discrimination cases covering equalities.

“That is progress but much more remains to be done. Equalities is first and foremost an industrial issue. Discrimination of any kind must be fought at the bargaining table.”

She continued, “And whilst homophobia and transphobia remains rife in workplaces the job is not done.

Sharon reported on her work to support retired members. “To our retired members, who for the first time, have in place, dedicated campaign resources to support them. We are starting to co-ordinate activity across our branches.”

She added Unite was “campaigning on issues that matter to our retired members and linked to our industrial agenda like 68 is too late. And as we build a genuine web of activity we will push further.

“Supporting more campaigns in line with increased activism, building an enhanced Retired Member Section for older people in society with Unite leading; building deeper links with allies like the National Pensioners Convention; and making our retired section a core component of Unite for a Workers’ Economy.

“The experience of our Retired Members will be valued and put to use, whether that be linking up with our workplaces on issues that matter to us all, like pensions and social care, or supporting new Reps, as we look to roll out a new mentor scheme. Our retired section will be valued not ignored,” she stressed.

Putting members and reps first

Sharon began this section by returning to the pledge she made in her election manifesto.

“I promised transparency. And I promised you I would be a leader with the courage required to make the difficult decisions. To put our members and our reps first. That is what I will do, no matter what the obstacle.

“I will deliver the jobs, pay and conditions agenda voted for by our members. The change we have embarked on is working for our Union as an institution, and for our members at the workplace.

“I’m delighted that despite not putting subs up for two years, a commitment we made to our members in my manifesto to help them through the cost of living crisis – and rightly paying £4m a quarter in strike pay, £70 per day – the highest in the movement – we still last quarter still made a surplus of £900,000 on income versus expenditure.

“This is due to the membership increases and because we have been responsible in our spending, focusing our resources on our industrial business and trimming the fat on anything not industrial.

“Whether that be saving half a million on Labour conference, or saving over £90,000 each month by moving call centre services in-house.

“Friends, decisions made have meant we have managed to protect and support our members, invest in services and stay in the black. We can look to the future positively. And be certain that we have the stable footings and resources required to deliver.”


Concluding her inspiring address, Sharon said, “Conference, when I look to the future I am optimistic. I am optimistic because we are winning. I am optimistic because we are growing. And I am optimistic because the change is delivering.

“This is just the beginning. Together, we can build a movement, not just a moment. We can become the strongest trade union in Europe both industrially and politically. No longer content to wait on the side-lines for politicians to act, or be defined by which party we support. But centre stage. Independent and powerful. The industrial dog that wags the political tail.”

Sharon thanked delegates, “Thank you, each and every one of you, for everything you do every day for our members. Let’s rise up together, let’s lift up our heads as well as our banners.

“The rebirth of the trade union movement has begun. See you on the picket line. Solidarity!”

Delegates thanked the general secretary with a standing ovation, cheers and applause.

By Amanda Campbell

Pics by Mark Thomas