Why we should support Sharon Graham for Unite general secretary

Submitted by AWL on 11 May, 2021 - 6:13 Author: Matt Dunn
Sharon Graham

For debate and discussion about the election, see here.


The election for the General Secretary of Unite presents an opportunity to elect a candidate with a genuinely radical vision of change — with shop stewards at the centre of it — and a track record of successfully confronting employers with bold tactics and detailed strategy. It is also an opportunity to elect a woman as leader of Unite for the first time. These are powerful reasons to back Sharon Graham.

Shop stewards and the workplace

Central to Graham’s pitch is the criticism that Unite has drifted too far from its core purpose as a trade union — leading and supporting its reps to mobilise members in defense of their own workplace interests — and has become more concerned with Westminster chatter, and dominated by the interests of its own officers and political allies. Her slogan is, “let’s get back to the workplace”. She pledges to work to rebuild a shop stewards’ movement, to coordinate bargaining across sectors and internationally.

Her manifesto states, “I will immediately ramp up the resource required to defend jobs, fight cuts and protect pay... Now it is time to fight for jobs. Unite and the other trade unions have to deliver a serious, joined-up and strategic campaign in defence of working people.”

Sector-wide bargaining

Unite is constrained by its regional structure. Bloated regional bureaucracies compete with each other and duplicate effort. Reps meet and, as far as it goes, organise region-by-region. Capital organises internationally — or at least nationally. How do you take on a large transnational corporation region-by-region, with incoherent and competing strategies? How do reps coordinate their bargaining in a structure like this?

Sharon Graham has led efforts to gather Unite’s industrial data — pay deals and anniversary dates — and put it in the hands of reps; to build industrial combines as part of sector organising campaigns and to develop sector plans to organise the dominant (“top 10”) companies in each sector to take on shared concerns — be they automation, working hours, casualisation… These issues cannot be tackled shop-by-shop or region-by region. Bringing reps together and sector-wide coordination are essential first steps to rebuilding sector bargaining.

Taking on bosses

“We cannot be a union if we can’t effectively defend our reps” is a favourite quote of Sharon Graham. And it is not just a catch phrase. She developed Unite’s brand of “leverage” to hit back against bad bosses (usually when the rest of the union has failed). Talk to reps like the blacklisted Frank Morris, who won his job back at Crossrail after a leverage campaign, about how effective this has been and Sharon’s fighting qualities.

The record of Sharon Graham and the organising department in supporting action by workers — against very real resistance from many officials, including the “left” officials and regional secretaries, is a good one.

Winning

A hard-working ethic and a serious approach to strategy are qualities Graham brings that are largely absent elsewhere in Unite’s leadership. Her record of winning — against the high street supermarkets on the meat organising campaign, against construction giants in the BESNA and Crossrail campaigns, against Honda when they sacked our senior steward and derecognised Unite… stands in sharp contrast to the record of others.

Democracy and accountability

This is a theme Graham has talked about and sought input from reps on. Ideas like making contracts and salaries available online for members to scrutinise have been raised by reps. Building strong combines of shop stewards that can drive the industrial agenda is certainly central to her pitch. She is consulting on a detailed manifesto — a plan for change — to which she promises to be accountable.

Meetings are taking place on the key areas of Graham’s manifesto as part of consultation process. Reps are invited to email contributions into the consultation and Graham promises that the process will go on after the election and the manifesto is important for holding her to account.

Politics

Graham has been accused of being a syndicalist. It is not true, but it is true to say that her focus is very much on the workplace and building an effective, fighting union — as opposed to seeing the union as a prism through which to view the Labour Party and Westminster.

This is a good thing. Workers will have a powerful voice in politics first and foremost if we are powerful industrially.

She was quick to back Corbyn and has been sometimes in, sometimes out of the Labour Party. She doesn’t go to Cuba or go along with the Stalinoid nonsense that dominates in Unite.

Support

Sharon has the support of an impressive number of the more credit-worthy members of the Unite Executive — chair Tony Woodhouse, Dave Williams, Jane Stewart, Frank Morris, Steve Hibbert, Therese Maloney, and others who have been involved in recent struggles or represent well-organised workplaces..

The other candidates

Others have already pointed out why we cannot support Beckett or Coyne.

This leaves Steve Turner. Turner’s credentials seem to mainly come down to “it’s his turn” or “he’s the left candidate”. The first point is obvious nonsense, so is he the left candidate?

He is the candidate of the United Left.

The United Left routinely excludes genuine left activists; offers no vision of a fighting, winning, democratic union; is largely concerned about who gets what jobs; and is subservient to the leadership. Its selection process was clearly designed to favour its preferred candidate. Prominent bureaucrats, with no previous association with the “left” were welcomed in just in time to vote for their favoured candidate.

A large swathe of the rank and file leadership of the “United Left”, like Unite Chair Tony Woodhouse, National Executive local authorities rep Kathy Smith, and Ellesmere Port Convenor John Cooper, have been expelled for supporting Graham. The United Left is certainly not united and it has little credible case for calling itself left.

The UL is dominated by an awful Stalinoid politics which Turner is no opponent of. He was slow to support the union backing Corbyn as he didn’t think Corbyn could win the leadership election and he would not win a general election — better to support Burnham.

Turner has promised more power to these regional secretaries and an easier time for officials. He is the bureaucracy’s man. His campaign launch Zoom was dominated by officials and staff.

Talk to reps who have close experience of working with him and they will attest to his lack of work ethic or basic competence. An ex-convenor from an airline told me recently that he will be backing Sharon, “you have to remember, Steve was my national officer”. When he took over the aviation contractors’ combine, following an organising campaign that had won dozens of new recognition agreements and brought thousands into Unite organisation, he chaired one meeting, having not bothered to check progress thus far, got a hard time off reps who told him they had “gone through all this months ago, why haven’t you done your homework?” And he never convened the combine again.

Absence of a rank-and-file candidate

This has been raised as a problem in this election, and of course it is. It comes from the lack of militant activity in the union, activity that is not encouraged by a lazy, timid bureaucracy.

However, we did not back Ian Allinson or Jerry Hicks. Many of their supporters have already announced their support for Graham.

For sure Graham is not a Trotskyist.

Her leadership style is highly “command”. Simply electing her will not transform the union. That requires collective workers’ struggle and rank and file organisation. But there are many positive reasons, some outlined here, why socialists should positively support her candidacy.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.