Sharon Graham: “I’m trying to get what we do politically to mean something”

Sienna Rodgers
© Twitter/@UniteSharon

“I said to Keir Starmer when I met him in this office, I find it disappointing – and I’m being diplomatic – I find it disappointing that Labour are not coming out far more robustly in terms of what’s happening to workers and communities.” Sharon Graham is speaking to LabourList in her Unite office to mark her first 100 days as the union’s general secretary.

Describing her meeting with the Labour leader, she continues: “I said to him, ‘look, my conversations with you will not be about the internal machinations of Labour, it will be about practical things that Labour should be doing in order to drive forward what’s happening to workers’. And obviously, I said to him that I think that they are not stepping up to the plate as far as workers are concerned.”

Graham has said she will be seeking to cut donations from Unite to Labour. Not the affiliation fee, but the “awful lot of money on top of the affiliation fee” that the union has been giving to the party from its political fund – an amount she says is “staggering, sometimes, in its nature”. Where will that money go instead? Graham has a clear answer: driving campaigns that her members believe in. “Because if we do that, the politicians will take notice,” she says. “The politicians will take note, because their constituents are taking note. And that really is the people who gets them in. So for me, I’m going that way round.”

The former head of Unite’s organising and leverage department became general secretary after a surprise result in August, which saw Graham beat the two men then considered frontrunners – Steve Turner, Len McCluskey’s favoured successor, and Gerard Coyne, a fierce McCluskey critic. Although described by the last Unite general secretary in his book Always Red as “the best organiser in Europe”, Sharon says: “I think literally nobody thought that I was going to win.” Why is that? “Probably the main reason was that the establishment was going for another candidate… Since time immemorial, whoever they went for would be the person that got in.” Against the odds, she did win, however. And within 100 days, Unite says she has already won pay increases for members worth over £25m.

Since her election, Graham tells me she has “felt remarkably calm” because: “I know exactly what we need to do. The first 100 days has characterised a lot of that.” She has a detailed plan for reform, from collective bargaining to extending the use of leverage, which she started implementing immediately. “The first thing I did when I came in, within 48 hours, was bring all of the reps together in dispute. We enacted some of these things [from her 8,000-word manifesto]. We have won 26 out of 40 already of those disputes, and now there’s well over 100.”

Starmer’s Labour supports sectoral collective bargaining, but while the party is locked out of power in Westminster, Graham is determined not to delay any plans. One of her key ideas is ‘combines’, which means setting up new structures that run along industrial rather than regional lines. For example, she looked at a range of disputes in the bus industry, and last Tuesday – in her “proudest moment” so far – combined them. “I sat in a room with all of the bus reps from the bus industry, practically all of them, from the seven major companies, and said to them, ‘look around you, look who’s in this room – this is the entire negotiating team for the bus industry’.” This strategy will allow them to secure not only pay deals collectively but also to agree their approach to automation long-term. “I get really excited about it,” says Graham.

Her other focus is leverage, which is her speciality. This does not mean protesting outside directors’ homes, she says (“that has happened, but not as part of leverage”). It is a form of ‘vulnerability mapping’ used in hostile disputes and it involves looking at entire companies – for example, in her ‘fire and rehire’ fight with British Airways, scrutinising and dealing with its parent International Airlines Group. “I’m looking at their investments. I’m looking at how I can frustrate their investments. I’m looking at meeting the analysts and telling the analysts where we are. It’s a brains and brawn approach,” she explains. “Of course, all I’m doing is imparting information. What those companies do with that information is not really down to me.”

Leverage also means forensic accounting. “The difference between a forensic account and a Companies House account is it goes right underneath all of those figures.” To do more of this work, “we’re going to be bringing in people who are experts in this field in-house”. Another of her ideas is creating a Unite bargaining index, in response to government plans to scrap RPI (a measure of inflation that is inclusive of housing costs, unlike the lower CPI). For this, “I also want an economist to be working with us full-time”.

Graham asserts that Unite will use leverage “a lot more” now she is in charge, though does accept that there is a risk the Tories could move to legislate against this approach. “But I don’t think that should push us back. And I don’t think we should be less ambitious as a result, because that’s the problem. We’re so cautious a lot of the time,” she says.

The Unite general secretary is a straight-talker. Asked generally about women in the trade union movement, she notes that Unite’s membership – which is 70% male – was “not looking at whether I was left or right, or whether I was a man or a woman” and instead appreciated her platform of “jobs, terms and conditions”. But she also says candidly of her union: “What we don’t have is anything you can hold up and say, if you’re a woman in Unite, this is why it’s an important thing to join.” Again, she intends to tackle this problem with an industrial approach, by bringing together the top ten companies where Unite has the most women members and securing collective agreements.

In another frank admission, Graham tells me: “We have a gender pay gap in Unite, and that’s got to be dealt with. I’ve now got an opportunity to change that, so I’ve already started that conversation. Development centres have been set up, so we can speak to our women members about what it is to be an officer, what it is to be an organiser, or what it is to be a member of staff.” She wants to introduce job shares, too. “I’ve got a 12-year-old, I know how difficult it is. Certainly when he was younger, it was more difficult. I don’t want women not to be able to participate.”

Graham describes herself as “somebody who likes outcome”. She is critical of Starmer’s Labour crucially because she believes that “there’s a difference between intervening in politics and driving it” – and that he is intervening, not driving. This is also the key difference between herself and others, as she sees it. “The intervention stuff a lot of the time is comment, it’s all gratuitous comments, and quite frankly I don’t know what it delivers. It’s almost like putting a press release out. People might feel good for five minutes, but it doesn’t deliver anything.”

On issues such as a national care service and integrated care systems in our health service, the general secretary says of Labour: “I couldn’t tell you what they’re saying on it, because I can’t hear it.” Her concern over this week’s shadow cabinet reshuffle relates not to the politics of the individuals appointed but to her view that the individuals were at the centre of the shake-up rather than ideas. “If I was giving him advice, I would say that he needs to come out very strongly, and they need to have a lot more consistency in what they’re saying. It feels a little bit like the agenda has been led by the day. And that is never a good thing.”

At Unite’s recent policy conference, Graham employed a strikingly different style to her predecessors. “What normally happens is the general secretary gives a speech for 40 minutes and it’s very general. I thought, well, actually, I’m not going to do that. Because that’s not how I want to operate. I want to lay the programme out. And then I’m going to open up to questions. Everyone was going, ‘you’re mad, why are you doing this?’ But actually, for me, if I can’t answer questions, what am I doing in the position?” She delivered a presentation for one hour, then answered questions from the floor for another hour.

Graham’s detail-oriented style should not be interpreted as apolitical. With the Labour Party out of government, she sees her choice as a union leader as being between intervening in politics or driving politics. “I’m not abdicating the political field, of course I’m not,” she declares. “I’m trying to get what we do politically to mean something.”

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