join donate discuss

Sharon Graham: “Our obsession with the Labour Party needs to end”

Our written interview with Sharon Graham, candidate for General Secretary of Unite the Union. Graham currently leads the union’s Organising and Leverage Department. This interview is part of our series of interviews with candidates for Unite General Secretary – you can find our interviews with Steve Turner and Gerard Coyne here.

What is your main pitch – why should Unite members vote for you as the next General Secretary?

I have a very clear programme based on positive but fundamental change. The trade union movement is on life support, more of the same but worse is not an option. If we don’t stem the decline in both membership and collective bargaining coverage, then in 5-10 years it may be too late to turn the tide. It is time to grasp the nettle not fight yesterday’s Westminster battles.

We now need to do two things. First, we must return our attention to the workplace and fully focus on defending jobs, pay and conditions. This is the only way to build real power within trade unions. Influence within the Labour Party is no substitute for building strength within the working population. To earn the trust of working people and to grow the Union we must show that we can win the fights at the workplace on the issues that matter to them.

To this end, I am the only candidate who has fully committed to a serious programme to reform our industrial work. For too long we have been reliant on outdated structures that make no real sense when facing global employers. I will make sure that barriers to activity are reduced not increased and for the first time we will set about co-ordinating collective bargaining. A critical focus of mine will be to rebuild our Reps and Shop Stewards movement. They are critical to any trade union and it is only through a vibrant, radical activist base that we can push back on ‘fire and rehire’, threats to closure and resist cuts to pay and conditions.

Second, we need to finally organise the unorganised. As General Secretary I will make sure that there are no ‘no go’ areas for Unite. We will deliver the biggest organising drive in Europe, targeting ‘under-cutters’ such as Amazon and industries like hospitality. For too long our members agreements have been threatened by non-Union employers and we have shied away from tackling non-traditional sectors. This will change.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing workers in the UK today – and how will Unite fight them under your leadership?

Jobs are under threat, pay is being cut and conditions eroded. Bad bosses are using tactics like ‘fire and rehire’ and we are struggling to win inflation proof wage deals for our members. It is not a pretty picture.

That is why need fundamental change, not tinkering around the edges. Swapping one Labour faction for another is not a serious answer to the issues workers face.

Our obsession with the Labour Party needs to end. The Parliamentary Labour Party is not going to win a wage rise or an industrial dispute. Labour is out of power. The only way Unite members are going to be able to push back is through their Union at the workplace. That is the reality. Talking endlessly to politicians who are in opposition is not going to save one job and neither is sitting on zooms with civil servants . We of course need to engage but also be realistic about where we are.

As General Secretary I will use all of my experience of winning successive crisis campaigns to defend working people. I will deploy Leverage – a comprehensive campaign strategy – wherever it is needed and immediately begin the work of building in the workplaces. There will be co-ordinated bargaining plans for every workplace and our Reps and Shop Stewards will be brought together by employer and industry to agree common agendas.

Key to my programme, will be building Combines – networks of Reps – within every industry. I will plug the Unions resources into each network, so that our Reps whilst working to a co-ordinated plan, will have direct access to the support they need. Bargaining, organising, accounting, research, communications and political resource will all be made available so that we can really start to push up through a planned programme of change.

As Unite’s General Secretary, how will you ensure that Unite is growing support on the shop floor and in communities for a worker-centred just transition to a zero-carbon and ecologically just society? How will you use Unite’s industrial power to lead this transformation?

Climate change is a critical issue for working people. We have to do a lot more than make empty gestures and token commitments. For example, I have heard a lot of hot air in this campaign about candidates claiming the ability to create “millions of green jobs”. That is so obviously ridiculous. It is not in the gift of any trade union General Secretary to create green jobs. Of course we can make it a core part of our political agenda – and I will – but lobbying for someone else to do something is very different from making change yourself.

On a personal level the transition to a greener economy is very important to me and I will take clear, practical action at the workplace to deliver change. There are two things in particular that I will do.

First, our education programme. As part of my pledge to bring education back in-house, I will make just transition a core part of my Reps and Shop Stewards training. But it won’t just be an information exercise. We will focus on how we bargain for a just transition. That is absolutely key for any trade union.

Second, and as part of my plan to deliver a far greater level of planning and co-ordination to our industrial work, just transition will form a core part of our workplace agenda. Every industry combine will have an agreed, shared action plan for bargaining through the transition. This will be supported by expert analysis.

For me, the single most important thing that any trade union can do on this issue, is to bring its members with them. We can’t afford to talk over or at them, because if we do, we will end up in a cycle of positive rhetoric but zero action. We need to do the work to build a convincing majority for change across our Reps and industries. This in itself will not be a simple task and will require hard work, not the dolling out of easily ignored soundbites.

Last year membership of UK trade unions increased by 118,000 overall, but private sector union membership fell by about 110,000. As the UK’s largest union in the private sector, how will Unite begin to reverse this trend under your leadership?

Growing the Union is absolutely critical and the only way we can do it is through a comprehensive, joined up organising programme.

Unfortunately, I am the only candidate standing in this election who is resisting the call for us to retreat into regional apparatus. I had hoped that the argument for organising across local boundaries had been won, but clearly not. How are we going to organise firms like Amazon with small teams directed randomly by various local Unite HQ’s. It offers no more than a retreat from our current state.

Deciding where to take our operational base is one of the biggest issues facing Unite. Do we double down on structures developed for a 19/20th century economy? Or, do we look out into the world and build operations that increase our power and enable us to better confront global corporations? I know what must be done .

In my day job I have proved that it is possible to organise workers in both non-traditional industries and also to win agreements against hostile employers. As General Secretary I will be using all of that experience to supercharge Unite and create a dynamic, growing Union fit for the economy we live in today.

When elected, I will immediately set about delivering the change we need. Whether that be building a team to take on the hospitality sector and other ‘no go’ areas, executing a wholesale campaign to Unionise the critical national infrastructure or tackling every major non-Union employer in our industries to stop the undercutting of our members terms and conditions. As General Secretary I will deliver the most far reaching, transformative plan for growth yet seen in Britain and Ireland.

How do you understand Unite’s relationship to party politics? How will you ensure that the interests of Unite members and the broader working class are best represented in the political sphere?

We need to move beyond the internal struggles of the Labour Party. Labour will likely be in opposition for most of the next decade and workers can’t afford to wait.

As General Secretary I make no bones about saying that I will not be giving out blank cheques to any politician or political party. Our members need to see action for their money and my political work will extend far beyond the confines of Westminster parlour games.

It is my genuine belief, that for trade unions the route to political influence lies primarily in the workplace. Build a growing, radical Union with industrial power and our political influence will increase at the same time as our ability to take action. That is not to say that I will ignore policy or abdicate from Parliamentary politics – if anything I think we can be more effective by ridding ourselves of the obsession with fighting yesterday’s wars within Labour.

If elected, I will use part of the political fund to develop a non-sectarian progressive platform to do the hard work of organising within communities. For too long we have sponsored good causes rather than taking the lead.

If the left is to earn credibility within the working class, it has to be seen to be alive to the issues they face. Policies are not enough. Shared experience is critical and we will develop our community programme so that we are able to build sustainable organisation within our communities, as well as our workplaces. We do this by identifying and working with leaders in our communities to find answers to the issues they face. My Union will do the hard miles of winning respect and earning credibility. The path to political power requires so much more than finding the next leader of a Party.

Unite members should have received postal ballots, which must posted and received by Civica Election Services no later than 12pm on 23rd August 2021. Members who have not received a ballot paper by 6th August 2021 should contact the ballot enquiry service by emailing or calling 0800 783 3856.