Industrial  •  Unite the union

Sharon Graham: a mid-term report

11 March 2024

By Tim Nailsea

SHARON GRAHAM was elected Unite General Secretary two and a half years ago on a platform of focusing on workplace organisation and campaigns, a conscious break with her predecessor Len McCluskey’s regular interventions into Labour Party politics. Despite accusations by the then-ruling faction, United Left (UL), of splitting the left vote and risking the victory of the hard right candidate Gerard Coyne, she won a convincing victory.

Graham’s message of vigorous workplace campaigning resonated with workers who were tired of UL’s combination of timid negotiations and Labour Party politicking, with endless calls to ‘vote Labour’ as a solution to their problems. Graham promised action. She also galvanized a new, growing layer of lower-level trade union officials who resented the dead hand of the UL on the union machine and wanted a more dynamic organising strategy.

Limited success
Judged on her own terms, and those of her supporters, Graham’s record as General Secretary should be seen as a qualified success. In her first two years Unite trumpeted over 900 disputes with an 80% success rate. Among these were important campaigns in the refuse and bus sectors, where the union has done important work organising and mobilising these workers.

Unite, which mostly organises private sector workers, has been reaping the benefits of major shifts in the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic, where labour shortages have combined to give workers in some sectors a stronger position in the labour market. Graham’s focus on workplace campaigns and industrial power was the correct strategy for such conditions. If her UL opponent Steve Turner or another UL bureaucrat had been in the same position at the same time, it is almost certain that major opportunities for building union strength would have been squandered.

Despite these undoubted successes, however, there has been no attempt to link up the localised disputes into national campaign. On the buses, for example, strikes against subsidiaries of Stagecoach or Arriva resulted in wildly differing pay gains, by as much as 10%. A national strike within or across the bus companies could have yielded far more in terms of pay and raised class consciousness. The same could be said of the bin workers; Unite could not even coordinate strikes in neighbouring Tower Hamlets and Newham.

Several disputes, like Arriva, south London, ended with acrimony between local officials and the most committed strikers, with claims of underhand balloting practices and selling of bad deals. At St Mungo’s, a homelessness charity, a rank and file elected strike committee was kept out of key negotiations, while ‘official’ reps who had done nothing or even scabbed on disputes were invited in.

Unite’s strategy has been to focus on unorganised workplaces in strategically important industries such as the bins and the buses. This can lead to a relative neglect of other areas. Where union organisation is relatively stable, Unite continues to rely on the usual model of pushing to the limit at the negotiating table before cutting a “reasonable” deal. This tends to lead to patchy results, where any industrial mobilisation remains localised.

This has led to the North Sea oil workers and dockers taking matters into their own hands. Rig workers from various unions, but predominantly from Unite, successfully took unofficial strike action, angrily declaiming Unite’s cosy relationship with the bosses. Southampton dockers refused to handle cargo from striking Felixstowe; their solidarity was rewarded with higher pay deals across the sector. But these victories came despite, not because of Graham’s leadership.

Unite’s studious refused to build any kind of national working class campaign was shown in 2023, when the strike wave, led by the RMT, Aslef, CWU and RCN, broke out. Unite made no attempt to link with those struggles. In the health service Unite fared better than Unison or the smaller GMB, but largely failed to strike alongside the RCN. Unite took virtually no part in the coordinated days of action in February and March and stood aside from Enough is Enough, preferring to launch the disappointing For a Workers’ Economy campaign.

Graham’s whole industrial strategy is based on small groups of workers, using ‘leverage’, taking isolated strike action, sometimes lengthy, on typically £70 a day strike pay. This is pure trade unionism at its most minimal: one set of workers against one employer. At a time when there was a generalised resistance to inflation and the threat of the Minimum Service Levels Bill was going through, what was needed was class struggle trade unionism. Unite was found wanting.

A wide layer of new activists have been encouraged to attend mass meetings, vote for action and go on picket lines, etc. But, as the St Mungo’s example shows, there is a limit to such self-organisation. Members should actively support the action called by the leaders, not the other way round – that bureaucratic message has not changed.

While Graham never made union democracy a pillar of her campaign, many of her supporters hoped that her focus on workplace organization would go together with a galvanization of rank and file democracy. It was also hoped that her election would end UL’s domination of the union’s structures. Yet, the union continues to operate like a federation of fiefdoms. In the Executive elections, several of her key supporters failed to win, while the UL vote held up, allowing them to capture important positions. Graham’s attempts to build her own organisation ran afoul of vagueness.

The leadership did launch a series of industrial ‘combines’, with reps from certain sectors getting together to discuss strategy and organisation. However, these combines have no constitutional standing in the union’s democratic structures, meaning that real decisions remain in the hands of the General Secretary, the Executive, and union officials.

Reports vary from sector to sector, with some making progress particularly where there was previously virtually no organisation. However, the combines are generally not democratically elected, with attendees either drawn in by officials or, at best, self-selected. The meetings themselves can be highly stage managed. If they are to succeed, they need to become delegate bodies, elected from the workplaces, and free from bureaucratic control. They also need to draw up ‘workers’ charters’ of basic rights, conditions and pay and a strike strategy to win them across the board.

Graham’s approach to the Labour Party has shifted over the last two years. Her election campaign promised to end what she and her supporters saw as too great a focus on the Labour Party. Graham argued that now that the Labour Party had been closed to the left, a reorientation “back to the workplace” was necessary.

However, the reality was that industrial and political activity could never be separated. Even Graham’s hyperfocus on workplace activity would not avoid having political consequences, as was proven by the Coventry bin campaign in 2022. There, the Labour council conducted a vicious £9 million union busting campaign that immediately raised questions about Unite’s continued funding of Labour.

Graham has demanded more pro-worker policies and kept her distance from Starmer – Unite walked out of the July 2023 National Policy Forum after it watered down the New Deal for Working People and Graham refused to attend the party’s annual conference. But, as Graham revealed at the 2023 Unite rules conference, where she backed continued affiliation to Labour, these are meant as mere criticisms of an ally.

Unite For a Workers’ Economy focuses on purely economic issues – pay, food poverty, the NHS, pensions and energy bills – leaving ‘big politics’ to Starmer, Reeves and co. Furthermore, it’s a campaign for Labour votes in the ‘red wall’ seats. Without calling on other unions and community campaigners to join Unite in developing concrete demands on Labour and organising for action to force Labour’s hand, the campaign is doomed to irrelevance.

But it is Israel’s war on Gaza that has exposed just how much in common Graham’s Unite has with Starmer’s Labour. Initially Unite failed to call for a ceasefire, though on 3 November, four weeks into the conflict, it did manage to call for an ‘immediate ceasefire’. However, since then, Unite balloons, banners and placards have been noticeably absent from the mass demos and rallies. Indeed, Graham and the NEC have banned regions from bringing banners or officials from speaking on pro-Palestinian events.

Worse, Unite’s leadership has failed to publicise, let alone take action in response to the Palestinian TUC’s call, endorsed by the General Union of Palestinian Engineers, on all unions to ‘refuse to build weapons destined for Israel’ and to ‘refuse to transport weapons to Israel’ in their hour of need.

Given that the UK, next only to the US, is one of Israel’s biggest arms suppliers, and given that Unite organises workers in BAE factories and on the docks, and given that Unite has policy supporting Palestine and deploring apartheid Israel’s racist policies, this is a disgraceful dereliction of the most elementary trade union solidarity and internationalism. It places Graham shoulder to shoulder with Starmer in supporting British imperialism’s interests against the Palestinians’ human and democractic rights.

Sharon Graham’s first half performance in her tenure as General Secretary has brought some welcome changes: more members, better workplace organisation; more strikes, better pay and conditions. But even here the dead hand of bureaucracy has remained in control, denying even greater victories; the union failed to respond positively to the strike wave and coordinate their actions with other unions; the combines remain advisory bodies, not the means for concentrating and accelerating action.

Politically Graham has not broken with the UL strategy of waiting for a Labour government. Worse, she has effectively collaborated with Starmer and Reeves in keeping the official labour movement on the sidelines of the Palestine solidarity movement. On several occasions Graham has denounced attempts to pose a real political problem for Labour on the basis that Unite must stay within the Labour fold during an election year.

These problems with Graham’s trade unionism will not diminish next year; they will grow more persistent and pressing. The plight of the Palestinians facing genocide at the end of armaments made and transported by Unite members for one will continue. The need to fight against a Labour government already pledged to carry out big business’ agenda will also test her resolve to fight austerity and job cuts.

In these circumstances the socialist left need to organise to stop any further retreat. The first test will be the Tata Steel closures and 1,500-plus job cuts. A strike ballot will run throughout March but nothing has been said of the kind of action needed: an all-out indefinite strike and occupation of the plants. Graham told a Port Talbot rally at the end of February that Labour ‘must do more’ but failed to call for Tata’s renationalisation, without compensation, and for it to be run with green electricity under workers’ control.

The newly formed Unite Broad Left has been active on both these issues. But it needs to develop its policies beyond simply supporting Graham’s 2021 election manifesto and it needs to turn decisively towards organising the rank and file, rather than focusing primarily on the EC and elections. If it can do that, we can apply real pressure on Sharon Graham and replace the UL placeholders with real class fighters.

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