Britain  •  Industrial  •  Unite the union

Strategy and tactics in Unite after Graham’s election

05 October 2021

By Tim Nailsea

Left-wing activists, rank and file networks like the electricians’ (sparks), and many of the Unite’s organisers and officials welcomed Sharon Graham’s recent election as general secretary.

Even the Communist Party-dominated United Left (UL), whose candidate Steve Turner was beaten into second place, congratulated her and promised to help “build the fighting union which our members need and deserve”. Cynics might say that they are just angling to keep their jobs within the bureaucracy, but Graham has shown no signs of wanting a purge. Maybe UL realises it has to adapt to a new mood among the membership.

In part that mood was reflected in the crushing rejection of right wing candidate Gerard Coyne and his attempt to take over the union on behalf of Keir Starmer and the pro-business wing of the trade union bureaucracy. 

But the result was an equally resounding rejection of United Left’s so-called ‘Broad Left’ strategy – the idea that left wing, even ‘socialist’ trade union officials can gradually win control of the TUC, which, alongside a left-wing Labour (or popular front) government, can transform society and the workplace in a socialist direction.

UL has followed the classic broad left path since the election of Len McCluskey in 2010. Since keeping control of the union trumped any other considerations, like defending members’ pay and conditions, McCluskey’s 11 years in office were peppered with rotten deals and climbdowns, most spectacularly at Grangemouth in 2013.

Similarly in the Labour Party, McCluskey was a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, sometimes for good reasons but at other times, for example over Brexit, or open selection of MPs, for bad. What was consistent was his method: backroom negotiations which used the union’s democratically agreed policies as bargaining chips rather than a mandate for action. No wonder that when Graham said in her manifesto that “politics has failed workers” she struck a chord.

Hold Graham to account

Graham’s campaign focused on getting ‘back to the workplace’, emphasised her record leading Unite’s Organising Unit and proposed several policies aimed at democratising the union.

Since her election, she has reaffirmed her commitment to focusing on industrial organisation as opposed to intervening in the Labour Party, announcing that she will lead a fight against fire-and-rehire practices, and an organising drive at Amazon, following the historic recognition deal won by the Cgil union in Italy.

Her combative rhetoric has clearly inspired many Unite members, both during and even more so after the campaign. The far left has tended to encourage these high hopes. For example, rs21 welcomed her election as: ‘a great boost at a time when members of the union desperately need a co-ordinated fightback against the employers and government. It is brilliant to have a strong left woman heading up Unite; brilliant to have a Unite General Secretary who has made a commitment to building industrial organisation and building the fightback we need.’

But hyperactive boosterism on behalf of a general secretary with an army of officials paid to implement her policy is no substitute for an independently organised rank and file with a clear strategy for building a fighting union with a socialist leadership. It helps no-one to substitute for the lack of such an organisation by downplaying defeats, exaggerating victories and making excuses for failure.

The left must fight to hold Graham to the promises she has made and organise independently to achieve them if she fails to do so herself. We should also agitate amongst the membership to go beyond the limited, if welcome measures Graham promised. We should raise expectations, not manage them.

Organising strategy

Unite’s organising strategy is a top-down model in which the leadership uses centrally controlled resources (the Organising Unit) to target previously unorganised workplaces and strengthen weaker ones in what it regards as ‘strategic’ industries.

Since taking charge of the Organising Unit in 2016, ‘leverage’ campaigns became Graham’s tactic of choice against employers. Put simply, leverage means running a negative PR campaign, in which small but noisy protests of affected workers and a lot of union officials, target shareholder meetings and public events. Graham won 12 leverage campaigns in her five years as Unite’s director of organising, an impressive record.

But there are limitations to this approach. Firstly, the focus on strategically important workplaces and industries can lead to the relative neglect of others. In areas where union membership is historically stable, there is a tendency toward the kind of industrial pacifism and amicable relationship with management common in other parts of the trade union movement.

The leverage strategy itself, of course, is one that deliberately avoids placing industrial action at the heart of campaigns. Employers are presented with a public relations problem, but rarely a production problem. Without at some stage of the campaign engaging, or threatening to engage in a head-on confrontation, only compromise can be achieved. Leverage must not in itself become a strategy, but only a staging post on the way to strike action.

After the caravan of the initial campaign with glossy leaflets, full-time organisers and high-profile stunts has rolled on to the next target, membership can stagnate or even fall. This is reminiscent of the Wobblies’ (the original IWW) unionisation campaigns in the early 20th century, which often left no real organisation on the ground.

This is not surprising since Unite (then TGWU) imported the strategy wholesale from Andy Sterne and the SEIU in the States, who notoriously locked their new recruits in enormous, remote ‘branches’ covering several US states. It is encouraging that Graham has promised a Democracy Commission to ‘take steps to make our Union more democratic, where the members, Shop Stewards and Reps have more say over the decisions made in their name’, but commissions are a notorious way to shunt difficult issues into the sidings.

Furthermore, while there is focus on recruitment and organising in these ‘strategic’ workplaces, this is not the same as a more general campaign for unionisation in workplaces and industries that are historically unorganised. The focus is on workplaces where a high return on resources and effort invested might be achieved, rather than on those that are difficult to organise.

No one is denying that national unions have to make priorities and focus their resources but it is a measure of Graham’s bureaucratic mindset that her strategy overlooks an active membership as the union’s greatest potential resource. Unite workplace activists are vital if unionisation drives are to penetrate the darker recesses of the world of work, as well as keeping those new recruits active and engaged in the longer term.

Finally there is also a danger of substitutionism, where full-timers are deployed to plug gaps and bolster organisation in place of sustained, grassroots activity by the membership themselves; the union bureaucracy substitutes itself for the membership. This can create a culture of dependency on the leadership and make attempts to build independent workplace organisation harder.

Demand More

A serious effort must be made to rebuild our local and workplace organisations, not by the national or local bureaucracy, but ourselves, as members, so that we can demand control over union resources and direct them where we consider it necessary. Demands also must be raised to direct national resources towards unorganised workplaces and industries that continue to be neglected.

The left in Unite should put forward a series of proposals which can organise members to hold the general secretary to her campaign promises and where necessary go beyond them. These should include:

Rank and file democracy: a sovereign annual conference; members and reps in control of their own disputes, strikes and negotiations; all officials regularly elected, recallable and paid the average wage of those they represent.

Force Amazon to recognise Unite through a militant recruitment campaign, which is used to fuel a rank and file led unionisation drive across all sectors.

Place industrial action at the heart of all leverage campaigns, so the bosses know there is a real threat to their profits and the members are actively engaged in their own campaign, not passive by-standers.

For over a century, trade union militants have organised under the slogan ‘With the union leaders where possible, without them where necessary’. Now, when the union’s membership are gearing up for a battle to stop the employers’ offensive, activists need to test Graham on the first part of this method, while preparing to act on the second when it becomes needed.

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