'Let's build an international workers' movement'

Unite GS Sharon Graham hails global solidarity at dockworkers' conference

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Unite general secretary Sharon Graham hailed the triumph of global solidarity that is the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), which met in Liverpool this week for its mid-term conference.

Returning to the birthplace of the IDC in Liverpool, the global federation of dockworkers’ unions convened to discuss their shared struggles.

In her opening speech, Sharon praised their collective strength, noting, “If employers were looking in this room they’d be scared – I can feel the power in this room, and they should be worried when workers come together.”

Sharon paid tribute to the brave men and women who took part in the Liverpool dockworkers strike from 1995 to 1998. She highlighted how they mobilised unprecedented levels of support from around the world in one of the longest strikes of the 20th century.

“And they made that solidarity count, delivering days of global action without equal [including in] 105 ports and 27 countries,” she said, describing their efforts as “strong practical work” not just “empty slogans or letters or leaflets.”

Sharon drew comparisons between the industrial struggles of the past and present, as she highlighted the significant wins Unite has secured for members under her leadership with a renewed focus on the workplace.

These have included over 1,000 disputes, involving more than 200,00 members. 80 per cent of these disputes have been won, Sharon noted, which has put £430m back into workers’ pockets.

Sharon slammed the fact that during the Liverpool dockworkers’ strike 1995-98, their union did not support its members.

Turning to the Liverpool dockworkers’ strike in 2022, the first in over twenty years, she said, “This time their union did stand with them – and they won against the tax-dodging billionaires. And those who stood together secured an 18.5 per cent pay rise for their members.”

As Sharon urged conference to stand with workers’ struggles across the world, including in Britain, China, Argentina and other countries, attendees erupted in one of many standing ovations throughout her speech.

Sharon went on to emphasise the importance of “rank-and-file organisation”, noting that “if the bureaucracy will not work for workers, then workers must self-organise”.

She also denounced “concentrations of factional power” within trade unions, with their “lack of accountability” and “dangerous remoteness, far from the concerns of working people”.

Sharon warned of a “changing world order” where the “fault lines of self-interested states are laid bare”.

“And that all comes with conflict, war and greater misery for ordinary working people,” she noted.

She gave the example of the Covid pandemic, when it wasn’t millionaires who were still going to work and saving people’s lives, but rather ordinary working people who kept the world going.

“Many of those workers paid the ultimate price,” Sharon said. “And when the crisis was over, workers were told to accept business as usual and get back in their place.”

She recounted how workers in Britain were told they were a “national disgrace” for asking for a pay rise because their demands would stoke inflation and that “they needed to tighten their belts yet again”.

“Well newsflash – it wasn’t workers’ pay putting up inflation, it was rampant profiteering – and that is still happening,” Sharon said to thundering applause.

Sharon reiterated the importance of building “an international workers’ movement’, one where “our togetherness is bound by our shared class”.

Sharon praised the IDC for embodying the “best traits” of a global movement, including having a “rank-and-file focus” and being “industrially militant, politically principled, non-sectarian, and crucially, broad enough to bind workers together through their combined struggle”.

Sharon went on to vow that Unite would build on its international work, starting with the establishment of international worker-led ‘combines’ in key industries such as docks. This would empower workers to share their knowledge and “move the share price as well as the picket line”.

Turning to the pitfalls of the trade union movement depending on politicians, she went on to say, “left politics without industrial organisation is a cause without a class, and a cause without a class is destined to fail”.

“It’s now time to forge our path and chart our own destiny,” Sharon continued. “If we don’t want change to be done to us, we must mould the future to our will.”

She urged conference to build a solidarity based on hope – “hope that another world is truly possible: one far from poverty, from individualism, far from deregulation and privatisation, far from mass homelessness and rampant inequality, and far from the divide-and-rule politics of the elite”.

Concluding her speech, Sharon said, “It’s time for the trade union movement to be reborn. Let’s lift up our heads as well as our banners – let’s build that great furnace of collectivism. Victory to the dockers; victory to the strikes – I’ll see you on the picket line, solidarity.”

Sharon’s closing remarks prompted yet another standing ovation, with the next speaker, IDC general coordinator Dennis Daggett, commenting to applause, “That’s a tough act to follow.”

A later speaker, former docker and Unite member Tony Nelson, highlighted the huge difference in support striking dockworkers received from their union in the 90s and in their most recent dispute in 2022 with Sharon Graham as leader.

Tony recounted how he heard Sharon speak on the picket line of the Liverpool dockers’ strike two years ago.

“She said I’ll do anything I can to support you, and I had heard that same speech 20 years before, so there was the litmus test.”

Tony noted that later in the dispute, the union came under pressure to accept a deal that wasn’t acceptable to the workers.

“Sharon stuck with the workers down there, and they ended up with the biggest pay rise in the UK in 2022. That’s why leadership is everything.”

By Hajera Blagg

Photos by Mark Thomas