Sharon Graham’s Fighting Union

The new leader of the British union Unite is meeting workers’ militant mood with a strategy rooted in the workplace. By Olly Haynes

 

Source > Dissent

In April 2021, nearly 300 workers at a coffee factory in Banbury, a small town in Oxfordshire, England, faced being fired. The factory, managed by the Netherlands-based firm JDE Peet’s, was profitable despite pandemic lockdowns; cafés had closed, but at-home coffee consumption had skyrocketed. Like many corporations across the United Kingdom, JDE was using COVID-19 as an excuse to lay off workers—and then rehire them with worse pay and benefits. The workers, represented by Unite, the second-largest union in the country, voted to strike and began negotiating with management.

At the same time, Unite’s general secretary election was approaching, with three candidates on the left and one on the right. One of the candidates, Steve Turner, seemed like the left’s best bet, but some worried that with the leftist vote split, the union would fall into the hands of Gerard Coyne, a figure whose political conformism was matched only by the quietism of his manifesto.

In July, Unite and JDE struck a deal after three months punctuated by short strikes. Turner—who was backed in the election by the same faction that supported the outgoing general secretary, Len McCluskey—hailed it as a victory for the union. A Unite press release celebrated the deal, saying the union had scored a “major achievement” by removing the clause that allowed the fire-and-rehire process, known as Section 188, from all future negotiations.

Some members of the Banbury 300 (as the workers called themselves) were left angry and disappointed, however. According to one strike participant I spoke to in August, at least thirty people have since left the factory because they believed the final deal didn’t adequately safeguard jobs. Other workers told me that Section 188 had not, in fact, been permanently revoked and that the new contract featured twelve-hour shifts, instead of a standard eight-hour day, and a rotating timetable that meant employees would no longer be paid overtime for working on weekends. The workers I spoke to were also upset that the steward for the Banbury branch of Unite, Chris Moon, had left the factory not long after the deal was struck and took a paid job in the union. Unite had managed to secure better pay for the lower-paid workers at the facility, but higher-paid workers lost out. Several workers said that some people had their pay cut by £20,000, taking their salaries from roughly £60,000 to £40,000. The union’s press release representing the contract as a victory left a bitter taste in many of their mouths.

Just after the deal was voted through, Sharon Graham, a lifelong organizer who led her first walkout as a waitress at the age of seventeen, won the Unite general secretary election. Her victory confounded media commentators who had viewed the race in terms of Labour Party factions: a straightforward left–right battle between Turner and Coyne. But while the other candidates were fighting an air war on social media and through the press, Graham was winning the ground war by meeting with individual branches and rallying enough members to win a plurality of votes. It was a preview of the strategy she hopes to pursue as Unite’s leader.

Graham won the leadership against the backdrop of forty years of declining union membership in the United Kingdom (though that decline has slowed). After a surge in 2020, the country’s union membership rate fell to 23.1 percent in 2021, the lowest it had been since 2011. At the same time, the government stopped publishing data on strike action in 2020, which industrial relations experts say could be because such action has increased. High-profile industrial actions have occurred in vital infrastructure sectors in recent years, with railway workers, postal workers, and dock workers all launching protracted strikes. Junior doctors are also threatening to strike, and a wave of wildcat strikes in Amazon warehouses suggests that the mood for militancy is entering parts of the private sector.

Indeed, Unite’s self-reported numbers suggest a resurgence of industrial militancy. Unite has won 80 percent of the 450 disputes it has been involved with under Graham’s leadership, resulting in an additional £150 million ending up in its members’ pockets. To Graham’s supporters, such as Jed Ellis, a shop steward at a Rolls-Royce aerospace facility Bristol, these developments, which include the two longest strikes in Unite’s history, show that Unite has become a “fighting union.” According to Ellis, Graham’s regular appearances on picket lines have made the rank and file “see her as a member rather than a general secretary.”

Graham’s campaign manifesto also promised an end to “jobs for the boys”—a good-old-boys culture of arbitrary patronage that some Unite members allege handed jobs to male union members in exchange for favors and fostered a generally sexist culture. She also vowed that she would take Unite “back to the workplace.” Under McCluskey, Graham’s predecessor, Unite was very close to the Labour Party. The union was the party’s largest donor, using its influence to try to steer Ed Miliband to the left, to attempt to get socialist MPs selected, and to back Jeremy Corbyn between 2015 and 2020. Under Graham’s leadership, the union has entered open confrontation with the party. As she put it to me in an email, “The days of the political tail wagging the industrial dog are over.”

A garbage-collector strike in Coventry this year—which ran from January 31 to July 29, making it the longest strike in Unite history—is illustrative of the union’s new political strategy. The dispute was over pay, with Unite claiming that Coventry’s basic salary of £22,183 for collectors was much lower than the compensation in neighboring councils. Because the collectors were public servants working for the council, the negotiation had to involve a skills evaluation process, which complicated the dispute. Although the Coventry City Council is held by the Labour Party, the city wouldn’t negotiate in good faith and brought in scab labor from a company that lists three councilors as directors. In response, Graham threatened to further cut Unite’s funding of the Labour Party (McCluskey had cut the union’s donations by 10 percent in 2020 to express displeasure with the party’s rightward shift).

In addition to the strike, Coventry trade unionists protested at the offices of companies that had contracts with the scab labor company, prompting those companies to sever ties. Graham pioneered these kinds of leverage campaigns over several years while serving as the head of Unite’s organizing and leverage department. She said that leverage involves using “brains as well as brawn” to put pressure on companies. For instance, creating a detailed profile of the company in question means that the union can end up “knowing more about the corporate giants we are taking on than they know about themselves.”

Another recent case where Unite deployed leverage to great effect involved a bus company in Northern England that was attempting to fire and rehire. The company was about to sign a deal to provide the public transport in a Norwegian province; after Unite got in touch with politicians in that area, local officials told the company that its actions in the UK would jeopardize the contract. The company reopened negotiations with the union and stopped its fire-and-rehire plan.

These campaigns are indicative of Unite’s broader strategy under Graham: when facing an aggressive employer, don’t roll over—get aggressive yourself. So far, deploying leverage against hostile employers has seemed to work, though a key tenet of the strategy is to run leverage campaigns only when there’s a good chance of success.

Graham’s other goal is to make the relationship between Unite and the Labour Party much more transactional—with the union gaining clear policy concessions or candidate selections as a result of donating money or resources—rather than simply supporting the party by default. “It is corporate Britain that calls the shots,” Graham told me, “not the politicians. That’s the power that needs to be challenged if workers are to get a better share of the pie. . . . As far as I know, the parliamentary Labour Party has never won a pay strike.”

Unite’s shift in strategy represents not just a general opposition to parliamentary parlor games but also a response to the changing circumstances of UK politics. Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour has proved increasingly hostile to organized labor (the party released some pro-union proposals in October, but they have not been mentioned since and animosity between shadow ministers and unions has increased). Starmer has banned members of the shadow cabinet from attending picket lines, and there is mounting evidence that candidates backed by Unite are being excluded from the longlists of potential parliamentary candidates, despite a rule that should guarantee a longlist place for those with union backing. Even if Graham wanted to cozy up to the Labour Party, it seems doubtful that Starmer would accept such advances.

Despite suggesting that some of Graham’s more pointed criticisms of his tenure were just campaign talking points, McCluskey, the outgoing secretary, told me that “Sharon has earned the right to take a new approach” and called her “a force of nature” and “probably the best organizer in Europe.” (He also told me that he believes Unite “should not be more conciliatory” with Starmer.)

Other unions under radical leadership in the UK, including the Communication Workers Union (CWU), led by Dave Ward, and the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT), under Mick Lynch, have recently seen an uptick in militancy, and the trend has not gone unnoticed by the government. During the Conservative Party leadership elections this summer, Liz Truss promised a raft of measures that would make it much harder to engage in strike actions and easier for companies to source scab labor. The outgoing government also introduced legislation designed to clamp down on protesters, which may make some of the tactics involved in a leverage campaign harder to pursue. Despite all this, Graham remains unfazed. During his tenure, McCluskey removed a clause from Unite’s constitution that had limited the union to strictly legal activity. Graham has repeatedly threatened to use this freedom, saying that new trade union legislation won’t stop her or Unite from fighting for working people—and that Unite is willing to act “outside of the law.”

In reaction to the polycrisis of general inflation, the tripling of energy bills, ecological breakdown, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CWU and RMT have joined with other left groups in a campaign to bring down the cost of living, called Enough Is Enough. EIE’s demands include a £15 hourly minimum wage, an end to food poverty, an array of taxes on the country’s wealthiest 5 percent, a renters’ rights charter, and a house-building program. While Lynch and Ward have been major boosters of EIE, Graham and Unite have remained conspicuously absent, leaving some Unite members wondering why the union hasn’t jumped onboard—especially considering that Graham herself has commissioned reports on the cost of living that show that wages do not cause inflation, and Unite has launched its own campaign, Unite for a Workers’ Economy.

Graham’s general approach to union strategy helps to explain the split. The EIE coalition contains members of Parliament, and two of the coalition’s five demands—building affordable housing and imposing heavier taxes on the rich—could only be enacted directly through state power. While Unite for a Workers’ Economy focuses on many of the same issues as EIE, its official goals include only those that can be won in the workplace. Demands include higher wages, adequate pensions, investment in and protection for NHS workers, freedom from food poverty, and an affordable energy demand leveled at energy companies. Graham no doubt supports building affordable housing and taxing the rich, but she has remained committed to the message of her manifesto: the workplace is where you build workers’ politics.

The Coventry refuse collectors ultimately won their standoff with the council, gaining a pay increase of 12.9 percent, among other financial advances. Pete Randle, a Unite union rep who had been suspended from his job by the council, was reinstated, and by the time the months-long fight was over, it had become a national political battle. Upon the workers’ victory, Graham said that “this win shows the new direction of Unite. We will defend our members’ pay and conditions, however long it takes.” If Graham keeps Britain’s largest union on this militant trajectory, then exploitative bosses across the country had better prepare for a long, hard fight.


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