England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Sharon Graham and Unite: Six months in

Andy Ford is a member of the Unite Health National Industrial Sector Committee, writing in a personal capacity

Defeat for machine politics

Sharon’s victory was a victory over two forms of conservatism – firstly the old right wing class collaboration of Blairite Gerard Coyne; and also the washed out machine politics of the United Left and Steve Turner. Sharon’s nominations mainly came from the living and active parts of the union, rather than craft unions in the West Midlands or branches run by retired members. Many reps and active members simply could not bring themselves to vote for ‘more of the same’ and voted for Sharon with her promises of renewal, support for reps and a focus on the workplace.

Manifesto: a good beginning

Sharon Graham has begun to deliver on her manifesto of ‘back to the workplace’ with resources being put into the branches and workplaces who are taking action. As a result, while membership is down 7% overall, it is up 30% in the workplaces that have balloted for action. In fact, Unite has unleashed a mini-strike wave with over 100 live disputes and many more ballots that have never even come to a strike because the employers have caved in before the action even starts. Pay rises of up to 20% are being won in key sectors like road transport. Sharon has set up an independent QC led inquiry into possible union officer collusion with blacklisting of trade union activists by employers in the construction industry.

The Unite conference in 2021 was largely free of the managed democracy we see in other unions, and some past Unite gatherings, and as a result adopted a more or less fully rounded socialist programme of a Green New Deal, rebirth of manufacturing, an end to precarious contracts, Universal Credit to be set at the Living Wage, criminal prosecutions for Covid corruption, a Trade Union Freedom Bill, abolition of the internal market in the NHS, Labour councillors to refuse to make cuts, state pension of £225 a week, and Clause 4 – nationalisation of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy – to go back into the Labour Party rules …and even fair tips in restaurants.

Unite and the Labour Party

All this is of course at complete odds with the present programme of Starmer’s Labour Party and it is hard to see how the tension will work its way out while maintaining the current Unite-Labour relationship. There is a danger that Unite will not actually pursue these policies in the Labour Party structures, instead restricting itself to losing votes at the NEC and Regional conferences. Under Sharon Graham the union has stopped simply handing over huge sums to Labour and has now restricted its payments to the basic minimum required for affiliation. This new approach on funding means the union now has millions of pounds to spend on political campaigns outside the Labour Party. Sharon Graham has indicated that one early priority would be to campaign for a National Care Service to bring elderly and dementia care into a state-controlled system similar to the NHS, and so to pay the staff decent wages and ensure much better training – and care. This was of course an idea put forward by Jeremy Corbyn. It is certainly long overdue. We would also advocate that Unite gets directly involved in the numerous social movements and protests taking place, around gender-based violence, police violence, climate destruction, and so on – both by mobilising the membership to take part and by channelling serious resources to support the organisation of these movements. We have put forward the idea of “conferences of resistance” to bring together struggles at a local level and work out joint demands, campaigning and political conclusions. Unite is well placed to resource and support such initiatives. We welcome Sharon’s announcement that the Coventry Labour councillors waging war against the refuse collection HGV drivers employed by the city council will be suspended from the union.

But there is more to do

But many of the problems she inherited remain. Individual officers are doing case work because there is no-one else to do it. But it is hardly cost effective for an officer to do simple disciplinary and individual grievance cases. Nor is it the way to build the union, as shown by the ongoing decline in the number of Unite members. The only way is to rebuild the workplace reps structures. However, Unite takes an almost totally passive attitude towards the crucial process of finding reps. Even in the present period of election of reps no-one is out in the workplaces helping or encouraging activists to become workplace reps for Unite. The union is just waiting to see who gets elected or re-elected, and then work with what emerges. While Sharon Graham and parts of the national union have played a great role in recent disputes, the bureaucracy has not been transformed. Old problems remain among much of it: inertia, infighting, and especially the lack of a fighting strategy of co-ordinated action. Open combines are a big step forward but much more needs to be done to help workers in dispute arm their struggle with a strategy for victory, and to mobilise maximum support for key disputes amongst the wider membership. The campaigning approach of Unite Hospitality in Northern Ireland needs to be replicated across Unite more widely. Sharon and the leadership can play a big part in this, but it also needs to be built from below in the workplaces among the reps/stewards.

Rebuild by empowering the grassroots

After years of neglect the roots of the union need to be rebuilt. Branches have almost no role in Unite. They do not send delegates to conference although, oddly, they send motions. This leads to the spectacle of motions with no movers. They do not contribute to Regional Industrial Sector Committees or Regional Committees. As a result the Regional Committees quite often have no branch motions to consider. The Unite conference last year had only 40 motions from branches out of a nominal 3,000 branches, and only 162 motions in total from a union of a million members

The potential is there

All this leads to a chronic failure of the different parts – the reps, the committees, the officers, the organisers and the senior officers – of Unite to mesh together. Everything is far harder than it needs to be. For Sharon Graham to fundamentally deliver on her programme this must be addressed with an annual branch-based conference, and branch delegates to Regional Industrial Committees and Regional Committees. Organisers should be employed in each region to help reps set up and run branches. The union should return to the election of senior union officials by the constituency they serve, on salaries commensurate with those of Unite members.  Rank and file activists need to link up across the base of the union, mobilise for each-others’ struggles, and build an alternative power to the officialdom. Together with well-publicised victories in the workplaces, this will start to rebuild the lay member structures and allow the members to really lead their own union. The union has to be rejuvenated from the bottom up so that Unite can finally punch its weight industrially and politically. Combines can be a part of that.

Unite and Labour – what Socialist Alternative says:

Sharon Graham has rightly argued that the union should be primarily about the workplace and communities, not about Westminster, but of course electoral politics cannot be ignored. If Labour leader Keir Starmer persists in his current path then at a certain point the issue of disaffiliation could be posed, particularly if Starmer attacks the Unite MPs who form the core of what ‘left’ remains in the PLP. If Jeremy Corbyn is willing to run as an independent at the next general election, Unite should throw its full weight behind him financially and in terms of the membership, and if that means breaking the link with the Labour party then so be it. We need a real discussion at all levels of the trade union movement about the future of working-class political representation. Socialist Alternative believes we need a new mass left-wing party of struggle, bringing together the trade union movement with youth and community movements and all those who were enthused by Jeremy Corbyn, to provide a political vehicle for class struggle and socialist ideas.


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