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The first 100 days: Unite's Sharon Graham on the wave of militancy that's winning for workers on pay

New Unite general secretary SHARON GRAHAM speaks to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about combines, leverage and building working-class power

ON MONDAY Sharon Graham will have led the Unite union for 100 days — and she’s certainly hit the ground running.

In that time the union has secured 43 pay deals worth over £25 million covering 12,000 workers.

Many of these are big, above-inflation wins that will make a real difference, from the lowest-paid Bexley refuse workers who secured an 11 per cent increase to rises exceeding 20 and even 30 per cent for some lorry drivers. The deals will add thousands of pounds a year to predominantly low-paid workers’ incomes.

And it’s done it through industrial muscle: 32 of the 43 deals were won through disputes with strikes or votes to strike forcing bosses to improve their offers. 

Is this the shape of things to come — a wave of union militancy?

“Basically, yes! I want to get us into a much more powerful position so we can really drive up pay.

“What I’m proudest of in my first 100 days is definitely disputes. I put in a disputes unit in 48 hours. It’s got researchers, organisers, forensic accountants, leverage — so we could really make sure that the people at the sharp end have the information they need.

“And I also made it my business to be personally involved in as many disputes as possible because I want the employers to know that this is my priority. 

“So we’ve had quite a good start on that, we’ve won 25 of the initial 46 and a lot of the others are coming to conclusion. But we’ve got over 100 disputes now running, so it is the shape of things to come plus!”

Graham says she wants Unite to be “driving the jobs, pay and conditions agenda.

“Collective bargaining is the tried and tested method of improving pay and conditions. So we need to build organisation, build what I call strike-ready workplaces.

“When we sit across the table from an employer weight of argument isn’t what moves them. It’s what they think is going to happen when we come outside the room.

“And so if collective bargaining is the tried and tested method, how do we widen and deepen that? And for me, that’s combines.

“We’ve really got to start looking at what wins, and how do we create power within the unions themselves? I think that has been forgotten. The hard miles of building industrial strength is hard miles. It takes a long time. It takes resources and focus. 

“In Unite we have workers in 19 sectors of the economy. We are in the critical infrastructure areas, what people used to call the commanding heights. So the economic power is there.

“I want to win for bus workers. I want to win for aerospace workers. I want to win for civil aviation workers, so I need to bring together the reps in those industries and build one campaign with real resources behind it. 

“And so on Tuesday I was with our representatives in the bus industry. I was in a room with these reps and they were the negotiating team for the entire British and Irish bus industry, or 80 per cent of the market share.

“That’s what I mean by combines. We’re in that room so if we want to deal with automation and driverless buses, if we want to deal with pushing up pay, if we want to deal with what’s happening to workers out there, then we need to widen and deepen the collective and support it so it starts to set pay rates in the economy.

“Unions can do that. And I want to start in our own union. This is going to be a rebirth of unions I think in a way we haven’t had for a while.

“I’m going to start in my own union, but I will reach out to other unions about industrial co-ordination. And how we co-ordinate transnationally.

“Industry-wide bargaining — it’s not in legislation. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do it. And if you want it in the legislation then you need to drive the change through the movement, because if we build the power in the workplaces and focus on that, we will also begin to set the pace politically.”

Graham rejects the accusation that her industrial focus is a retreat from the political arena.

“Of course I’m political. But how do we win in politics? What we were doing previously, that focus on Westminster, it’s not working unfortunately. We are just asking for things.

“Can we have investment in aviation? ‘No.’ Can we have investment in aerospace? ‘No.’ Transport? ‘No’.”

Beyond Westminster she sees opportunities to work with Labour figures in devolved and local government.

“But you can’t do one without the other and my focus is absolutely on jobs, pay and conditions. And already we’re seeing these uplifts in pay — and it’s the percentages we’re winning as well as how we’re winning that is really important. Because we will build a union that people will stay in.”

That combines with the community presence Unite has begun to build up through initiatives like Unite Community. 

“I want to be in communities. I’ve just had a conversation about the fabric of communities in Hull, Unite runs the foodbank there. And if you build properly in the workplace and build properly in the community you will change the politics because that’s where the MPs are.”

Her position on Labour is well known: Unite will pay its affiliation fees, but the “eye-watering” sums she says have been paid on top of that could be better deployed “where it has an obvious outcome for workers and communities.”

The government and business seem determined to make workers pay for the pandemic — with the Tories seemingly switching from a project of levelling up the regions to one of levelling down, with infrastructure investment in the north being downgraded and threats of massive cuts to London transport that could see scores of bus routes and even Tube lines shuttered. 

Yet paradoxically there are pressures in the other direction, in sectors like haulage where labour shortages create an opportunity to push pay up. Is the economic fallout from Brexit and the pandemic something that can be turned to workers’ advantage?

“I suppose where I’d start is that — if we take the driver shortage — this isn’t a moment in time, it isn’t the result of ‘Brexit and the pandemic.’ When I had the drivers together, we brought the reps on the HGV areas together and I was on the combine with them, what came out clearly is that the shortages are the result of years and years of neglect.

“Being a driver is a profession, whether you’re a bus driver or an HGV driver. 

“These people are treated disgracefully. They’ve got nowhere to go to the toilet. They’re told ‘find your own’ to knock on a door and ask if they can use the toilet.

“Add to that the long hours, the conditions for sleeping, if you’re someone who’s got a family, why would you want to do those jobs? 

“The shortages have come from an absolute disrespect. And I will use whatever I need to in order to make sure that we change that — which means bringing together our drivers.

“Let’s have the same anniversary dates, let’s negotiate at the same time, and we will start to set pay in the economy.”

Talk of Unite doing whatever is needed reminds me that Graham has been targeted by the right-wing press over her use of leverage to win disputes.

“Leverage is often misrepresented. The question for me is when we’re trying to move an employer — who is the real decision-maker?

“Is it the MD at the site in Lincoln — or the CEO in Detroit?

“I’ve been working on this kind of strategy for 20 years and we’ve been getting better at it. Looking at the entire network of the company, who owns it, what are they investing in? Where are their vulnerabilities?

“If I give a very concrete example, the Go North West dispute in Manchester where the workers are out on strike — and that was key, nothing replaces strike action. And week eight or nine of the dispute the stewards asked me to be involved and so we did a leverage paper.

“They’re very detailed papers, about 1,000 pages long. And we found out who owns Go North West and who owns them in turn and that they were bidding for £3.8 billion rail contracts in Norway.

“So I started up negotiations in Norway with the people who were giving the rail contract, spoke about the health and safety breaches and other things. The company was faced with a decision — do we stop the fire and rehire here, or do we risk losing the rail contract there? They stopped the fire and rehire.

“You wouldn’t use this in everyday pay negotiations — but when a company crosses the line, as British Airways did, as Go North West did — the union has to do everything in its power to protect our members.

“Leverage is very particular in its nature, each campaign will be different. It’s very very resource-intensive, you maybe end up doing three months just researching. But it works — take fire and rehire, every case we have beaten it — leverage has been used in every single one.

“I’m very excited about how we can use this in a strategic way. In Unite we’ll have at least 19, maybe 24 combines where industry reps come together and they will have leverage prepared — so we’re not reacting. We have it ready in case a move is made like fire and rehire.”

Graham’s enthusiasm for getting on with the job of building working-class power is infectious at a time when the left is in retreat and disarray as a result of the defeat of Corbynism and Labour’s stampede to the right.

“Politicians are failing at the moment. Collectively failing. They’re talking about stuff that frankly no-one I know is talking about.

“They are living in a different world. We have a responsibility to do what we know we can do — organise around the issues people are facing. 

“For trade unions that will create deep roots — and a renewed credibility as well.”

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