Unite rep and activist Raymond Morell assesses Sharon Graham’s time in office as leader of Unite the Union and its impact on the wider labour movement.
From the outset, Sharon Graham pitched her leadership as less interested in Westminster than members’ jobs, pay and conditions. She rightly argued that Unite’s political operation in Labour had failed.
Graham has promised that there would be no ‘blank cheques’ for Labour and reduced the funding to the minimum affiliation fee. She made clear that Unite will oppose cuts to jobs, pay and services from any quarter. The attack on bin workers and attempted victimisation of a senior rep by Coventry’s Labour-led council, which spent £9 million unsuccessfully trying to break the Unite strike, resulted in sustained strike from January through to July 2022, while Unite suspended the Coventry Labour councillors from the union. This was a historic shift, with Unite and predecessor unions for many years refusing to challenge the neoliberal policies of Labour councils.
With the Tories looking increasingly likely to lose the next election, the leadership’s focus has turned to the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum (NPF). Most unions were in favour of the NPF result when it met in July, with the GMB saying Labour had a policy programme ‘that would make a real difference for workers and industries they work in’.
However, Unite withheld its support. Graham said the leaked text of the policy on workers’ rights showed her union had been right not to back it:
What is evident is that there has been a clear rowing back on the New Deal for Working People document….The changes made at the NPF materially watered down workers’ rights and so could not be supported by Unite….Labour needs to make the right choices for workers now, not water them down to curry favour with big business. They need to stop wavering and make a clear signal that they are truly the voice for working people.
Her refusal to attend Labour conference and instead prioritise picket lines was a calculated snub to Starmer. So when Graham intervened at the Unite’s rules conference this year to secure continued affiliation to the Labour Party many on the left were surprised and disappointed.
At the conference, Graham mocked Keir Starmer’s ‘Five Pledges’ as instantly forgettable. She promised to spend Unite’s political fund on its own campaigns in ‘red wall’ seats, while maintaining Unite’s affiliation to the Labour Party to secure a say over policy. Graham argued, ‘This is not about Keir Starmer. This is a motion for leverage, for using our influence. If we are paying this amount of money then he has to answer our questions. I will keep his feet to the fire in those red wall seats.’
Graham pointed out that supporting other political parties or supporting candidates who stand against official Labour candidates would mean automatic expulsion under party rules. She said that ‘this would not be in the interests of our union at this time – especially so close to an election.’
However, what wasn’t outlined was the scale of political crisis that would be provoked if Starmer were to expel Unite, especially so close to an election. Would Starmer and the Labour right have the confidence and support to expel their biggest financial backer at this time?
Graham’s argument for holding Labour to account after they win the election was backed by conference delegates, defeating moves to democratise and open up the political fund. Unite’s position will be put to the test if Starmer does win the election and further waters down commitments to workers in response to pressure from business.
At the moment we are seeing a welcome change in the relationship with Labour. Unite have paid £1.1 million in affiliation fees so far this year. Graham claims that Labour are ‘on notice’, but she did not rule out providing more financial support to Labour in the run-up to a general election.
A significant part of Graham’s agenda has been to steer Unite away from being seen as overtly political, with a greater focus on industrial unionism. However, there is growing concern at Unite taking more overtly right-wing public stances on major political questions.
The UL was the faction of Graham’s predecessor Len McCluskey and of Steve Turner and Howard Beckett, two candidates she defeated. This year, the UL won a majority on Unite’s executive council (EC), defeating CC CCthose who supported Graham’s ‘Workers’ Manifesto’. However, the UL have controlled the EC since Unite was formed. It is a broad left organisation which has been in decline for many years.
Since Corbyn was defeated and Starmer launched his witch hunt, support from Unite for the left inside Labour has waned. Following the pulling of a showing of the pro-Corbyn film The Big Lie from one of the regional offices, Unite issued a statement about the issue and a related book launch which said ‘Unite has not “banned” the film mentioned nor the book, however, we have declined to use our buildings for its showing and a related book launch’. The statement continued by quoting ex-Corbyn supporter Paul Mason who is now openly collaborating with the secret services against the left. He said that the film ‘will offend and rakes up issues’. It’s a new low for Unite to quote a witch hunter to justify a political shift to the right.
The recent Unite policy conference discussed an EC statement on the conflict in Ukraine which rightly condemns the invasion but explicitly refused to condemn the aggressive NATO alliance. With no real debate, the only challenge to this position at conference came from the newly emerging pro ‘Workers Manifesto’ Unite Broad Left grouping, and the EC position was narrowly endorsed by delegates. The adoption of this statement from the UL-dominated EC marks a shift to the right on international politics.
Amid an attempt by Israel to ethnically cleanse Gaza, few unions have stood up for Palestine. The recent statement from Unite attempts to draw an equivalence between the actions of Hamas fighters and the Israeli occupying forces. There’s no mention of Unite policy which condemns the Israeli apartheid state and opposes its ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, nor is there any mention of our public support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions or our commitment to encourage Unite members to participate in solidarity actions for Palestine. It’s at times like this that Unite needs to stand in support of the Palestinian struggle and oppose genocide.
The coalition of Palestinian Trade Unions has called upon trade unions around the world:
To refuse to build weapons destined for Israel
To refuse to transport weapons to Israel
To pass motions to this effect in our trade union
To take action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege
To pressure governments to stop all military trade with Israel
These are the difficult issues we should be grappling with. Instead, the Unite leadership insists on producing hand-wringing statements without any reference to the EC, which are a rejection of our longstanding, democratically agreed policies and commitments to support Palestinians in their greatest hour of need.
On climate change and the just transition, Unite has for years had formally decent positions, however, these have always sat alongside policies that mean in practice we support ‘mixed energy’ (pro-nuclear) policies, airport expansion and corporate greenwashing initiatives such as carbon capture or the expanded use of biofuels. Looking both ways, or being ‘all things to all people’, on contested issues has been employed by the leadership and supported by the UL controlled executive throughout Unite’s existence. They end up providing left cover for positions that maintain the status quo. In this case, Unite policy creates the appearance of supporting a just transition while in reality supporting fossil fuel extraction.
Graham recently said that Unite wants Labour to reverse its decision and grant new North Sea oil licences and government support for steelmaking. Unite have said they will also use the political fund to target Scottish constituencies where there are oil and gas workers, calling for energy nationalisation, and a continuation of North Sea extraction until workers can move into new green jobs through a just transition. Unsurprisingly, the GMB also opposes the cancellation of new North Sea licences.
Graham is correct that there aren’t yet sufficient ‘green jobs’ in the economy, but this is because the labour movement in Britain has refused to campaign for a worker-led just transition. Aligning with the GMB leadership to demand more oil and gas licences and working in partnership with the worst polluters to achieve a just transition looks like a continuation of the same approach. Failing to play a leading political role leaves the right wing GMB leadership as the major brokers shifting the whole movement to the right.
As the planet warms at an alarming rate, measures will be forced by governments and corporations with little or no concern for the planet or the workers affected. The pressure on high-carbon sectors will only intensify. Without an independent strategy for achieving a just transition, workers will face the worst outcome possible.
At the end of September, Unite launched a campaign for steel. This is the first Unite for a Workers Economy campaign which could become a serious campaign to defend jobs on a sustainable basis. A worker-led just transition can only be achieved by developing a radical plan to oppose employers, the government and the status quo. It would involve winning over reps, workers and communities directly affected by the impact of the transition. As the saying goes – ‘transition is inevitable, justice is not’. Reps and activists now have an opportunity to turn this campaign into a fight for a just transition to a sustainable steel industry that could become an example for others to follow. Unite for a Workers Economy, the union’s political project, is beginning to take shape but it remains to be seen how activists can influence its direction.
The advances in some workplaces represent the beginnings of a turnaround in the fortunes of the union. These advances have been achieved against the backdrop of a recovery in the combativity and collectivity of the working-class movement.
The recent strike wave has ebbed, but groups who settled last year are due to press their pay claims again. With a recession looming, some of the conditions that have helped the movement recover will disappear. In previous recessions, closures and redundaçncies were largely accepted without much of a fight. The challenge for the Unite leadership and more importantly rank and file workers will be to prevent a repeat of this approach.
Recession this time comes on the back of growing levels of struggle and increased confidence with a smattering of victories. This means there are no guarantees that workers will take job losses lightly. There is more chance of radical action to defend jobs against such a backdrop. Meanwhile, with new anti-trade union legislation in force, employers and government will be devising ways to use minimum service levels against striking workers.
The challenge for activists who want to see more resistance is to develop a new left inside Unite that builds solidarity for each struggle and links political issues to workers’ experiences. We need to learn from the mistakes of the UL which operated with little independence from McCluskey. Without its leader, it has been struggling to find a role beyond frustrating Graham’s plans.
The newly formed Unite Broad Left organisation needs to be politically independent of the general secretary if it is to avoid the same fate as the UL. Broad lefts have a poor record when it comes to building independent rank and file leadership inside the trade union movement. This new left will have to fight for a more democratic union while being prepared to criticise the leadership when they sell members short or take opportunist political positions around NATO or Palestine.
To achieve this we have to build support for struggles across our class while putting pressure on the Unite leadership to take principled positions. We want to ensure that Unite fights to make sure that no closures are accepted without resistance. We want to prevent workers from paying the price of recession. We also want a union that is proud to be on the left of the movement and a beacon of international solidarity against western imperialism.
This article was first published on Rs21.org.uk.