Unite not “standing down from the political arena”, Sharon Graham says

Elliot Chappell
© Twitter/@UniteSharon

Sharon Graham has described the idea that Unite the Union is “standing down from the political arena” as “totally wrong”, saying instead that the trade union simply wants to “build a different politics”.

In her first speech to Unite policy conference since being elected general secretary, Graham said she wanted to build a politics “not top down, but from the shop floor and the fabric of local communities up, in order to drive through the political process in an entirely different way”.

Graham declared on Tuesday that “Unite is going to be in the vanguard that can change what is happening to workers”, insisting that the Labour-affiliated union must “concentrate on defending jobs, pay and conditions”.

She warned that hostile employers had been emboldened in the new environment created by the pandemic. She singled out British Airways for its treatment of workers and said its use of fire and rehire tactics had created a “chain reaction”, with the airline becoming “became pacesetters for a drive to the bottom”.

Graham discussed her six-part manifesto: jobs, pay and conditions; actions not words; a democratic union, built on shop stewards and reps; campaigning beyond the workplace; retired and community; across our union: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Gibraltar, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; and a workers’ politics.

The general secretary pledged to use the creation of ‘combines’ to “bring all our reps together by industry or sector to create collective bargaining at the level of whole industries or sectors” to tackle multinational employers.

“I believe we can have more power at a time when we need employers to listen. I will be there, with workers on the picket line, workers in struggle. Wherever I’m needed I’ll be there, standing right beside you,” she said.

Graham was elected to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of one of the largest trade unions in the UK and the leader of the Labour Party’s biggest affiliate in August this year. She is the first woman to hold the position.

She emphasised a shift “back to the workplace” during her campaign, arguing that Unite needs to end its “obsession” with Labour’s internal wrangling and warning ahead of the vote that there would be “no blank cheque” for the opposition.

Graham has been commended for running successful campaigns using unconventional approaches and for diversifying union tactics. Ten pay disputes involving around 10,000 workers have been settled since her election.

Pay increases secured by the union include a 31% wage boost for 90 HGV drivers employed by Wincanton, a 6.2% rise for 200 Sainsbury’s DHL workers, an 11% increase for 150 Bexley refuse staff and a 4% raise for 1,000 GXO draymen.

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