Unite boss Sharon Graham shares some of the campaigning tactics that have helped the union win double-digit pay rises for its members in a series of successful recent disputes
By Mark Metcalf
Sharon Graham, the first woman to be general secretary of Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, is passionate about ensuring her members and workers generally do not become the victims of the cost-of-living crisis.
This has led to a willingness to lead her members into strike action when negotiations with employers have failed, with over 90,000 withdrawing their labour in the last 12 months. The result has been spectacular successes, such as double-digit pay increases at Stagecoach Buses in Hull and on Liverpool Docks.
But these wins are not just the result of strength of will. A rigorous approach to research and campaigning – pioneered by Graham – and a sound financial footing have been equally or more important.
Graham calls this approach “leveraging”. She says: “We look at companies as a whole so that when we need to have campaigns the employer knows we can affect their business. Using accountants, economists and investigative researchers we intensively look at their directors, shareholders, clients, suppliers, creditors, possible future clients, emerging markets, political structures where they are based and communities where they operate.”
Share prices and their possible volatility during a dispute are also considered. Pressure is then applied on the companies, many of whom are major multinationals in which key decisions are taken overseas, through a variety of options including “adverts, briefings and strikes”. These leverage campaigns worried one Conservative party figure enough to be called “sinister”.
In 2020, for example, Unite determined that BA was using Covid as an excuse for its plan to fire and rehire 42,000 staff on worse conditions. It highlighted that IAG, BA’s parent company, was not in any threat of insolvency because it sat on assets and reserves that could see it through the crisis without the need for permanent cuts or redundancies. And it wrote to members of the board of IAG, copied to Willie Walsh, IAG CEO and Luis Gallego Martín, chairman and CEO of Iberia, BA’s sister company, to make its point. Ultimately BA’s then CEO Alex Ctriz agreed, saying: “There is no need for British Airways to lay off cabin crew and then rehire them on inferior terms.”
Earlier Unite took similarly sophisticated and successful approaches to a union derecognition dispute against Yorkshire Ambulance Service and the victimisation of a senior union rep at Honda. That brought not only his reinstatement but an additional 1,000 members at the Swindon plant to boot.
Unite can fund disputes because over a decade ago it established a strike fund that is now worth £30 million. Other unions such as the RMT and CWU, both of whose members have engaged in long-running strikes this year, are unable to provide much financial support to those walking out.
“We are determined that anyone being brave enough to withdraw their labour is not starved back to work. I upped the daily strike rates to £70 when I became general secretary,” says Graham.
These funds have facilitated action by over 450 groups of Unite members against their employers in the last year.
“We have won 81 per cent of them and put £200 million into members’ pockets. I feel privileged to have participated in these victories that include, in some cases, double digit rises.”
Born in 1968 in London, Graham, who has strong North East connections, became aware at a very early age of the exploitation working people can suffer when she heard about the death of her uncle in 1921.
“He broke his back working as a miner in County Durham,” she says. “He left a wife and three children to live out their lives in poverty.
“The employer admitted liability and paid out just £300, equivalent to £15,000 today. I thought, they took away his life – how could that happen?”
Graham left school in Hammersmith at 16 in the mid-1980s to start work as a waitress. She was inspired by everything from Robert Trussell’s book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to the Dagenham Ford women sewing machinists she calls “heroes” for their successful strike in 1968 that led to the passing of the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Within a year she had led a successful strike in defence of casual workers’ rights that won equal pay.
Overall though, the 1980s were not a period when collective organisation was successful, with defeats for, among others, the miners, print workers and dockers. Trade union membership, which peaked at over 13 million at the end of the 1970s, collapsed and is now under half that figure. Workers became reluctant to take strike action, preferring to bargain for a better deal while staying at work. Since then, and particularly since the economic crisis of 2008, wages have fallen and rapidly rising prices are now hurting millions.
After attending the Trades Union Congress Organising Academy at 27, Graham was employed by the TGWU, which merged with Amicus to become Unite in 2007. Its members come from sectors including construction, manufacturing, transport, and logistics.
Graham became head of Unite’s organising department and built a large following, which later helped her defeat the strong favourite Steve Turner at last year’s general secretary elections.
“I believed I was saying something very different to what had been said previously,” she says. “We were talking the language of the workers and what they needed was for the union to refocus on jobs, pay and conditions, and by winning for workers this would give them confidence to ultimately change the political centre ground.”
Earlier this month Unite secured a pay rise of 20 per cent over the next two years after 250 bus drivers went on strike for a month. Graham is especially pleased for the Hull workers, who she felt were being exploited for living in a low wage area. Unite, which has led a series of productive bus workers’ disputes this year, successfully sought parity with terms and conditions elsewhere.
At Liverpool Docks nearly eight weeks of strike action has also won rises of 14-18 per cent for dockers there, depending on their grades.
Other ongoing disputes where pay is an issue include food manufacturer Quorn in Billingham, Co Durham, where Graham is set to attend the 24/7 picket line. “Nothing will ever be as powerful as workers withdrawing their labour and a properly organised picket line is key,” says Graham, who contends that it is only when workers take action that it becomes clear to the public that they are essential to the functioning of the economy.
But won’t pushing up wages lead to more pain in the future due to “wage-push inflation” – as the government has argued in its attempts to persuade workers not to take strike action – in which resulting price rises lead to ever more demands for higher pay? Not so, argues Graham.
“Our Unite investigative approach has shown that this second wave of inflationary pressures has been driven by excessive profits, not wage rises. All Unite members want is a fair share of what they have earned for their employers.”
Meanwhile, Unite, in a strategy that breaks with tradition, has transferred some of its political funds away from the Labour Party into a new campaign that takes the union closer to working with its grassroots members.
Some of Graham’s predecessors played a major role in the Labour Party. Len McCluskey provided significant support for Jeremy Corbyn when he was elected leader in 2015. Millions were spent supporting Labour, which nevertheless lost badly at the 2019 general election. Graham does not want to play such a role in the party. This may give her a chance to be more critical of a future Keir Starmer government.
“We have launched Unite for a Workers’ Economy, which seeks to use our power in workplaces whilst also organising in our communities to develop a workers’ manifesto to drive the political agenda,” says Graham.
To help do this Unite is looking to open community bases in Northern communities and is targeting Grimsby, Hull, Workington, Barrow in Furness, Leigh and Morecambe for special attention. It already has thousands of non-working members who pay a nominal fee to become community members.
“Politicians do not lead – they follow. In order to get a better deal for workers and communities we need to shift the centre ground to show what voters want. For example, pensioner poverty as a whole is linked to the demise of occupational pensions, which we are defending in workplaces and trying to reopen in others and which we want to see fought for more generally. We are not doing this through lobbies but by doing the five miles of organising.”
On food poverty, Unite campaigning will highlight how it is linked to low wages, meaning many people have to claim Universal Credit and use food banks.
“Why is it acceptable that a number of these people work for supermarkets that make massive profits and as such are being subsidised by the taxpayer?” asks Graham.
On the political front Graham has attacked the government for introducing the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, which makes it lawful for undercover police officers to spy on trade unionists if they believe they are engaging in actions that are “damaging the economic welfare of the country”.
Clearly, taking industrial action is aimed at causing economic damage in order to force employers to negotiate a deal that is satisfactory to both parties.
“We know spy cops collected information on building workers that was used to blacklist them so that they had to move to other sectors of the economy,” says Graham. “Good activists were victimised and while Unite has won many cases of compensation it was wrong and we need to stop it happening in the future so that workers can organise collectively to be properly rewarded for their work.”
With the government seemingly intent on passing more anti-trade union laws, Graham, who believes she can’t stop the legislation because Rishi Sunak’s party has an 80-seat majority, is focused “on how we can overcome any hurdles parked in front of us, including if they attack strike pay, to put our members in the best position to win. We are the last line in the ground for many people.”
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