'We must build working-class power'
Unite GS Sharon Graham on her vision for the future of Unite and the trade union movement
It’s only been a couple of months since I was elected to be general secretary of Unite. In that time, I have begun the change that I promised.
Unite is involved in more industrial disputes than at any time in its history. I have stood with striking workers rather than party leaders. I have brought reps together across industries, like road haulage, to build practical plans and fight back. Our lawyers have started fighting cases for Unite shop stewards, whether we’re bound to win or not. And we now have a disputes unit, which helps bring skills together to provide better support for action.
But it is also true that in my short time at the helm, the true scale of the crisis facing the trade union movement and wider left has become ever clearer.
The trade union movement is in a critical place. The flame flickers, but we cannot escape the reality. Unions are simply not present in many service industries and in some cases remain wedded to out-of-date structures that play into the bosses’ hands. Outside of the workplace, many comrades remain singularly enthralled to the restoration of a political project that has no realistic road map for revival.
Speaking plainly, it is time to face facts. There is no Westminster hero coming to save us. We must do it ourselves, before it is too late. Specifically, we must build popular, working-class power.
To that end, it is important that we remember that the progressive left is more than Parliament, and more than the leadership of one party. It can sometimes look as though we have forgotten that fact — forgotten that there was a time before Corbyn, and that the parliamentary road also has its limits; forgotten that while state power in one country is very important, on its own, in a global world facing climate catastrophe, it is also wildly insufficient.
Times have changed. The Left must once again recognise that power winds along a myriad of paths within our global economic system. Both the state and the local are critical, but so is the international, and so is the workplace. So is the working class.
Let us never forget that. We must be brave enough to stand outside of what is obvious and think, because the central questions still remain. What are we trying to achieve? What are we facing? And what do we need to make change?
What I want to offer is an opportunity to reflect and begin again, on a new path. Above all, I want us to begin to define a new strategy that matches the challenges we face: global climate catastrophe, mass automation of jobs, new waves of austerity, and emboldened mega employers. So where to start?
As trade unions, our priority must be to go back to the workplaces and build power. Without that foundation stone, political dialogue within unions will forever remain just that: talk. So, let’s look at where we are in the UK. With rising inflation and a tightening labour market, we are in the midst of another crisis.
In my own union we are now taking action in dozens of workplaces. I have been on the picket lines with members and there is now a real desire to see change. We must continue to build that confidence, and to show workers that as leaders we stand with them — not with the boss or the politician.
In some areas, Unite is now regularly delivering real-terms pay rises, after years of stagnation. Everyone in the union knows where our focus is. That is a resource in itself.
At Stagecoach, we showed that even where there is no national bargaining, it is possible to coordinate local strikes across sites. That allowed us to maximise our power and deliver better deals than would otherwise have been possible. Is it perfect? No. A step forward? Most definitely.
Across the public sector, we have seen ballots for action in higher education. Now there are moves within local government, and potentially within the NHS.
Be in no doubt: wherever Unite reps are in a position to take action, that will happen. Wherever coordination with other unions is required, I will make the calls to try and help make that happen.
The ground is there for us to build on, not just this year or next, but long term; not just opportunistically, but systematically.
For me, this is what real change within the trade unions looks like: building the power to take action, again and again. That is a real fighting strategy. That is why we need to look at reform from within as well as taking on the fights of the day.
In many of our unions, and certainly Unite, structures were built one hundred years ago for a very different economy and time. In some instances, those structures simply can’t work. Often, we are putting up accidental barriers to fighting bad bosses.
In response, I am also developing combines that bring reps together across companies and industries. If your union represents workers across multiple sites that have local bargaining, but they have the same employer or supply chain, it is still possible to act as one.
That also means working internationally, bringing together reps worldwide who work for the same firm. After all, who holds the power — the site manager in Lincolnshire, or the CEO in Detroit? Only by bringing workers together and facing the employer on an equal footing can we really hope to win. And we can’t do that without international trade unionism, without international struggle.
During the election, I talked often of the need for our union to get back to the workplace. For some who can’t see the woods for the trees, this meant an end to politics.
I’ll make it clear: that is not the case. But what is true is that politics does not reside only in Westminster and in the internal intrigues of one party in a single country. The Left cannot be a single project. It has to follow every path. I could have also used the term ‘back to the people’.
Because while the workplace, for me, will always come first, we must embed within communities if we want sustainable change. If we want people to see the Left as the answer, then we start work through painstaking organising — not through symbolic gestures, but through everyday activity.
What do I mean by that? Well, I look at Unity Shop in Hull, which was started by the local trades council and which is now embedded within that community, delivering food to those that ask. It is built on the principle of solidarity, not charity.
That is an example of unions doing practical work outside the workplace — work that people can see and touch. It’s not just campaigning for a candidate at election time. It’s the sort of work that builds trust.
By Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary
- This comment first appeared in Tribune on December 30, 2021.