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Labour needs to ‘grow a spine’ and stand up for workers, Unite chief says

LABOUR must “get a spine” and back working people, Unite’s Sharon Graham demanded today, as unions warned of a wave of national strikes this autumn amid the worsening cost-of-living crisis.

The union’s general secretary, who marked the first anniversary of her election as leader at the weekend, said the party needs to provide a strong message that it stands up for people seeking pay rises from profiteering bosses.

The call came after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was slammed for imposing a ban on his frontbenchers attending picket lines during Britain’s “summer of discontent,” with unions and Labour’s left accusing him of kowtowing to right-wing newspapers.

Ms Graham told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme: “If [Labour] came out now strongly and said: ‘These abhorrent profits and what’s happening with the cost of living, this is what we think should happen’ — then I think they would very much get elected.

“From my point of view, I think we are doing Labour a favour actually by saying: ‘Look, get a spine, stick up for workers.’

“I think people want a strong message.”

Workers in various sectors are fighting back against more than a decade of austerity pay, attacks on working conditions and 2022’s double-digit inflation figures, as the cost of food, energy and fuel skyrockets.

Rail staff, posties, BT call centre workers, Openreach engineers, dockers, criminal barristers, exam board employees and local government workers have all walked out in recent weeks, while ballots for NHS staff, teachers, lecturers and civil servants are either open or pending.

The explosion in industrial action has met anti-union legislation from Tory ministers and an apparent reluctance by Sir Keir to back working-class people.

Ms Graham reminded Labour that it was formed to represent workers in Westminster but warned: “There isn’t really a very strong voice for workers in Parliament currently.

“It is more likely [Labour] would get elected if they spoke up for workers more,” she argued.

“You cannot defend workers by being silent,” she said, accusing both major parties of failing to grasp “how bad it is for people out there.

“People keep talking about making a choice between heating and eating — they won’t be able to do either.”

Sir Keir, who insists his plan to fund a freeze in the energy price cap by expanding’s April windfall tax on the British profits of energy giants would help millions of families, is set to make his first in-person speech at the TUC annual conference next month.

A series of motions tabled by some of the country’s biggest unions ahead of the four-day meeting in Brighton, which opens on September 11, would, if passed, mandate the union body to co-ordinate strikes and deliver the greatest impact.

The call for synchronised action, backed by Unite, Unison, RMT and the Communication Workers Union, would not constitute a general strike but rather instruct the TUC to “facilitate and encourage industrial co-ordination between unions so workers can most effectively harness their union power to win.”

Unison is also set to urge synchronised union action to address the “low-pay crisis” with pay rises “at least in line with inflation” and a £15 per hour minimum wage, according to the Observer newspaper. 

An under-pressure Downing Street claimed at the weekend that more support for working people would be coming from the winner of the ongoing Tory leadership ballot between Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor Rishi Sunak.

A result is due next Monday when Boris Johnson’s successor as prime minister is expected to be sworn in. 

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