Trade Unions

How radical is Sharon Graham’s organising strategy?

14 August 2021
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By Tim Nailsea

The challenge of Sharon Graham in the Unite General Secretary election has attracted some positive attention from the left and the trade union movement. Rejecting what she claims is too narrow a focus on the Labour Party, she has raised the slogan “back to the workplace”, and her campaign has adopted much of the rhetoric of rank-and-filism, despite the candidate herself being a full-time official and career bureaucrat.

Graham’s background in Unite’s Organising Unit is highlighted by her supporters. This institution, which has a reputation for loud, often successful campaigns, is something that deserves attention by members who are considering a vote for Graham.

Unite’s organising strategy

The history of Unite’s organising strategy is intertwined with the history of the union itself. Leading up to the merger between the TGWU and Amicus that formed Unite the Union, TGWU General Secretary Tony Woodley, in 2003, introduced a new organising strategy, hiring 80 new organisers. When the merger took place in 2007, Len McCluskey was made Assistant General Secretary for Industrial Strategy.

This strategy combines recruitment with the building of workplace organisation, the latter seen, correctly, as necessary for retention of recruits and lasting gains for the union. There have been undoubted gains in this regard. The central leadership using its considerable resources to identify areas of potential growth and target them with money and full-timers has organised previously unorganised areas and strengthened weaker ones.

Unite drew on the legacy of the CIO in the 1930s United States when developing its organising strategy. The CIO was able to organise workplaces, such as in steel and car manufacturing, by sending militants, many of whom were militants from Communist or other left-wing backgrounds, into those workplaces to lead militant action and win victories which would galvanise others. The tactics the CIO employed were often more radical than Unite uses today – strikes were more common, and most famously, sit-ins were organised – but the model was in many ways the same.

It is the Organising Unit which is in many ways the organisational expression of this strategy. Accountable only to the General secretary and the NEC, it parachutes organisers and resources into areas that require attention, often securing big victories. In doing so, it often by-passes Unite’s more slow-moving regional bodies, going direct to workplaces.

Leverage

A favourite tactic of Unite’s organising strategy is “leverage” campaigning. These are protest campaigns which stop short of strike action. Protestors – often affected workers, but quite often also large numbers of union full-timers – will target offending employers offices, events and homes, with noisy protests to apply pressure. Applying pressure to local Labour politicians has also proven effective. Most recently, leverage tactics were successfully utilised as part of the campaign against fire and rehire at Go North West buses.

These tactics are an extension of Unite’s overall strategy – targeted pressure and concentrated resources to achieve the maximum effect. They have scored many important victories and are a far-cry from the “beer and sandwiches” approach of many trade union leaders to negotiations, which demand a cosy relationship with bosses.

Positives

The positives of Unite’s organising strategy are clear. It makes sense for the central leadership to martial resources to target strategically important workplaces and industries, and to maximise the gains made for resources and effort invested.

That it is an aggressive strategy should also be commended. Steve Turner, the United Left’s candidate for General Secretary, has bemoaned the use of leverage tactics as being too antagonistic towards Labour councillors, and openly advocates a “beer and sandwiches” approach to negotiations. An abrasive, often antagonistic approach to campaigning, which aims at applying pressure to bosses and politicians to get them to cave to demands, is refreshing in comparison.

That the strategy involves establishing lasting workplace organisation is important. As if the fact that such efforts are often directed towards workplaces that are either weakly organised, or completely unorganised. Too often in the British trade union movement, the leadership has focussed upon maintaining its membership where it is already strong, often through advocating amicable relationships with employers.

Negatives

There are some drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, the focus on strategically important workplaces and industries can lead to a 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.

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 which are difficult to organise.  

Substitutionism

There is a more fundamental problem with Unite’s organising strategy, which is a result of the bureaucratic structures of modern trade unionism and is unlikely to be remedied while the union maintains its current form.

Trade unions maintain a layer of full-time professional officials who dominate its internal life and structures. Unite in particular has a massive bureaucracy relative to the size of its membership (as noted, purposely expanded as part of its organising strategy). While maintaining workplace structures, its regional and national apparatus remains dominant, leading to a top-down approach to organising. Its organising strategy is an extension of this, with the bureaucracy controlling the direction of resources, organisers, and funds independently of local democratic structures.

Its tactics, such as leverage, are further examples of this, with the full-time apparatus substituting for the self-activity of workers. This is not to say that members and activists are not involved in these campaigns, or that they do not encourage the creation of workplace organisation; but they are often reliant on a full-time apparatus external to the workplace and dependent upon the continued support of the bureaucracy.

The Organising Unit has often provoked the ire of regional bureaucrats by by-passing them to go directly to the workplace. The Unit has also provided a career path for new organisers distinct from the traditional structures. This gives it a radical and proactive veneer. Unite’s regional structures are often slow-moving and conservative, and these complaints, while often coming from a resentful and petty direction, do touch upon a valid concern amongst activists that the Organising Unit lacks accountability.

This leads to a culture of substitutionism, where full-timers are deployed by the centre to plug gaps and bolster organisation in place of sustained, grassroots activity by the membership themselves. The union bureaucracy thus substitutes itself for the membership. When deployed effectively, it can leave behind organisation where previously there was none. It can also, however, create a culture of dependency on the leadership and make attempts to build independent workplace organisation harder.

Build the Rank-and-File

Unite’s organising strategy is in many ways positive when compared to the more conservative and pacifist wings of Britain’s trade union movement. However, it does not break entirely from the problems that are the result of the dominance of the trade union bureaucracy. Furthermore, the hyper-centralisation and top-down approach of Unite’s leadership are in many ways heightened by this approach.

So long as Unite continues to be dominated by its full-time apparatus, some version of these problems will remain, whether it is a top-down, substitutionist approach to confrontation with employers, or a conciliatory “beer and sandwiches” method of arbitration.

Serious effort must be made to build up our local and workplace organisations, not by the national or local bureaucracy, but by members ourselves, so that we can demand control over union resources and direct them where we consider necessary. Demands also must be raised to direct national resources towards unorganised workplaces and industries that continue to be neglected. Simply because this is harder does not mean that it is not necessary.

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