'Unite members are my first priority'

Unite GS Sharon Graham on why she’s not attending this year’s Labour Party Conference

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In August, I won the election to succeed Len McCluskey as the general secretary of Unite, one of Britain’s biggest and most powerful trade unions. Judging by the newspaper headlines, the result took many commentators aback. The words “surprise” and “shock” featured prominently,  my campaign team were neither shocked nor surprised. We knew that it was time for change.

Currently, there are 16  industrial disputes involving Unite members. These include nationwide action on pay from drivers at Tesco, fighting “fire and rehire” tactics by Weetabix, and a possible strike at a family firm of locksmiths in Wolverhampton.

So when, last Monday, I met Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, I told him that I would not be going to Brighton this weekend to attend the Party’s annual conference, which is a break with tradition, but right now my focus lies elsewhere.

My absence from the conference should not be interpreted as a snub to Keir Starmer or the Labour Party. Rather, I am simply doing my job, which is to try to make sure that workers do not pay the price of the pandemic. Those Unite members currently involved in disputes are my first priority.

That is not to say that trade unions in this country should not have a political voice, but our political demands must come from the workplace up, not the top down. To my knowledge the Labour party has never won a collective bargaining agreement, secured the reinstatement of a sacked shop steward or forced a belligerent employer delivering ‘Fire and Rehire’ threats back to the negotiating table.

I believe that ordinary members who are interested in the union’s affairs are fed up with the political tail wagging the industrial dog. That is why I argued during the leadership campaign that it was time for the union to get back to the workplace, to fight for jobs, pay and conditions. The industrial base of the union needs to be rebuilt.

So next week I’ll be on the workers’ protest picket lines, and not in Brighton. After my election there was huge demand from the media for interviews. I did a few but what took precedence, in my first day in the job, was organising a meeting with shop stewards to get updates on where they were in their disputes.

It is no coincidence that the decline in collective bargaining over the past several decades has been matched by a fall in the share of the national wealth taken home by workers. Between 1980 and 2018, the share of national income going to workers fell by nearly 3 per cent. The balance of power has shifted too far away from the labour force. Strong, assertive trade unions are the counterweight to that.

The task of rebuilding and strengthening the trade union movement has to begin in the workplace. British workers cannot afford to wait for a Labour government for this to change. We have to bring about change ourselves, and if I have anything to do with it, Unite will be on the frontline of that attempt.

Achieving these goals will require internal reform and a new industrial strategy for the union, delivered on a scale not seen in decades. My plan will begin with bringing together all union reps from different companies collectively in each industry or sector — creating what are called “combines” in the trade union jargon.

For example, on the question of homeworking in the banking sector, should Unite have separate negotiations with each of the big banks or should we make a collective effort, with all our banking reps coming together and working towards one single homeworking agreement for bank staff? Why can’t the huge profits of the banks, and the stellar salaries of their executives, be reflected in decent wages and pensions for their workers?

Together with organising those already in the union more effectively, we need to break new ground and reach workers in sectors of the economy currently hardly touched by trade unions. For example, we need to do more to recruit young workers on zero hours contracts, in hospitality, to the union.

Finally, it is time for Unite to work with other unions to develop a common strategy in workplaces across the country. I believe this is a moment of opportunity for the trade union movement. We must grasp it. Building a powerful union capable of winning disputes and workplace battles is the best protection that I can offer my members through the pandemic and as the country deals with its aftermath. The union grows by winning.

Unite’s existing structures were built to serve the local bargaining model of the 20th century. Today we need to build an organisation that can deal with the multinational, high-tech employers of the 21st century. That work starts now. There is much to be done and that’s why this weekend I won’t be with the Labour Party in Brighton.

By Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary

  • A version of this comment piece first appeared on the Financial Times on Saturday (September 25).

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