Sharon Graham at the Durham Miners Gala 2022. Photo: Paul Mattsson
Sharon Graham at the Durham Miners Gala 2022. Photo: Paul Mattsson

As members of Unite prepare to elect a new executive council ROB WILLIAMS assesses how far the union has come under Sharon Graham’s leadership, and what steps need to be taken now to build on that progress.

The first Unite executive council (EC) elections are taking place since the election of Sharon Graham as union general secretary in August 2021. Socialist Party members are standing on the slate of candidates supporting Sharon’s leadership, looking to consolidate her victory and continue the transformation of Unite into a more fighting and democratic union.

This is vital because of the industrial and political conjuncture. The election takes place during the most extensive strike wave for a whole period, in the midst of the cost-of-living squeeze and the threat of new Tory anti-union laws. Action on the scale of a 24-hour general strike is being posed. Unite has been to the fore in the strike movement in all the sectors of the economy in which it has members. It has invariably found itself clashing with Starmer’s New Labour leadership, which is intent on proving its ‘fitness to govern’ to big business and the capitalist establishment.

This Unite EC will be in office after the next general election and, given the extent of the crises in the Tory Party, that could be sooner rather than later. Therefore, the stakes are high. What will be the relationship between Unite and a likely Labour government which, in Starmer’s own words, will be making ‘tough choices’? His starting point will be to live within the means of crisis-ridden British capitalism, at the expense of workers’ living standards and their trade union rights. There will be immense pressure exerted on the trade unions, including the Unite leadership, to form an obedient relationship with such a government, as has happened previously when Labour has come into office. But workers desperately need an industrial and political strategy that can alter the class balance of forces in society in the interests of the working class. This poses not just the need to force out the Tories but to challenge a pro-business Starmer government.

Stunning victory

The victory of Sharon Graham stunned many on the left, not just in Unite but across the trade union movement. The general secretary election appeared to be a straight fight between the ‘official’ left candidate, assistant general secretary Steve Turner, standing on the United Left ticket, against right-winger Gerard Coyne, the clear representative of Starmer and the Blairites, the capitalist establishment, and the employers.

To secure Unite would have been a major victory for these forces, on the back of the defeat of Corbyn and the left in Labour. They had backed Coyne for general secretary in 2017, against Len McCluskey, who had been a key supporter of Corbyn in opposition to the Blairites. They were determined to defeat Corbyn and any chance that Labour under his leadership could threaten the interests of the bosses. However, it became apparent in the 2021 general secretary election that the Starmerites could tolerate a win for Turner. He had made it clear in the United Left hustings that a Unite general secretary shouldn’t be an ‘attack dog’ but had to be a deal-maker ‘behind the scenes’.

That was a rebuff aimed at assistant general secretary Howard Beckett who, ultimately, mistakenly withdrew from the election to give Turner a free run. But Steve Turner also attacked the Unite Organising Department which Sharon headed, for its calling out of Greater Manchester Labour mayor Andy Burnham during the Manchester bus strike, along with London mayor Sadiq Khan.

In the Huffington Post on 28 April 2021, just before nominations opened, Steve criticised the leverage campaign that Sharon’s organising and leverage department was waging to supplement the strike by putting pressure on Burnham to directly intervene in the dispute: “I want to see Labour councillors elected on May 6. I want to see Labour mayors. And it frustrates me, it angers me sometimes, that some of the union’s campaigning right now is pitched against our mayors, against Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. What’s that all about? I find that incredible that we would do that”. Yet that action, supplementing the 85 strike days, was part of the victory of Unite members on the buses.

The election result represented a rout of Coyne and the right wing. He had got to within 5,000 votes of Len McCluskey in the previous general secretary election in 2017, building pressure on Sharon to withdraw this time in favour of Turner so as not to split the anti-Coyne vote. But Sharon’s victory showed that the best way to take on the right wing was with a fighting programme, especially in the midst of the Covid crisis, in which, at that stage, the employers were on the brutal ‘fire-and-rehire’ offensive. Sharon has estimated that one in ten Unite members have been affected by this vicious attack alone.

Sharon was able to attract a layer of the most militant lay reps and activists and officers to her campaign. This included former leading members of United Left such as Unite national chair Tony Woodhouse.

Fighting union

In the 18 months since Sharon’s election, the union has taken big steps forward in the process of becoming a dispute-led ‘combat organisation’. The figures are impressive – over 600 individual disputes involving 80,000 Unite members. Over 80% of them have been successful in winning outright victories, or at least significant gains, totalling over £300 million won for members.

The disputes have been across all sectors and all over the country – from the Liverpool and Felixstowe docks, to bin and bus strikes, to ambulance workers in the NHS. Despite being a minority union in the public sector, Unite still has the ability to play a key role in the co-ordination of action, up to and including on the scale of a 24-hour general strike. It was in the lead, for instance, through its members in the ambulance service, in rejecting the inadequate NHS pay offer of the Labour Welsh Government.

The strike pay that was first instituted by Len McCluskey and then temporarily raised to £70 under his leadership to meet the ‘fire-and-re-hire’ threat, has been maintained and consolidated by Sharon.

She has also stood firm on her promise to take the union ‘back to the workplace’. A vital part of this re-orientation has been the start that has been made in building ‘combines’. These rank-and-file bodies can build on the historical legacy of shop steward organisation in sectors such as the car industry. This ensured that shopfloor reps could lead and control the union in their companies or in whole sectors.

By looking to establish combines, the union seeks to bring together reps and activists in specific sectors, and even sub-sectors that go beyond the scope of constitutional committees such as regional and national industrial sector committees. A general invite is given out in, for example, local government branches and workplaces, seeking a maximum turnout. The meeting would bring together collective experience to set and draw up an industrial strategy for that sector. It would have the flexibility to then convene a sub-sector combine of binworkers, for example, with a specific strategy for these workers, including looking at the potential for common pay claims and disputes.

There has been some resistance in the union to the developing of combines, on the grounds that they are ‘undemocratic’ and undermine the elected regional and national industrial committees. They should, however, be a complement to those bodies. And because they aren’t restricted to those who have been elected to the constitutional committees, they can become living, fighting organisations, attracting and developing a new layer of workplace activists for the union.

Confronting Labour

The character of the disputes has evolved as the economic conditions have changed. The initial stage of Covid saw a sharp contraction of the economy during the lockdown period. The employers saw the opportunity to go on the offensive, particularly in those sectors such as aviation, where big numbers of workers were furloughed. Inevitably, there were bitter defensive struggles against attacks such as fire and rehire.

However, as the economy opened up and started to grow, the balance of forces started to tilt somewhat in the direction of workers, particularly in key areas. Sectors such as HGV drivers saw a major labour and skills shortage, estimated to be as high as 100,000, as age-old neglect by the bosses was exposed. Unite went onto the offensive, securing significant pay victories for HGV drivers, which had a knock-on effect in subsectors like bus and bin drivers, where the shortages were also felt.

One of the bin strikes, in Coventry, proved to be a lightning rod for the industrial approach of the union under the new leadership, but also for the political relationship between Unite and Starmer’s Labour. The dispute lasted seven months, with a strong leadership from within the bin depot through the senior shop stewards, with the local officers and, increasingly, with the assistance of key new national officers.

But what at first was a fairly standard pay dispute, soon evolved onto a clash with the cutting Labour councillors and, behind them, Starmer’s New Labour leadership. In fact, for Starmer this was an opportunity to prove his credentials to big business, confirming that he was moving the party to the right, away from Corbyn’s legacy. For the Labour councillors, this was par for the course. It was a reminder of the Birmingham bin dispute a few years earlier, and their actions in other councils over the last decade or so, resolutely implementing Tory cuts.

In Coventry, their brutality was measurable in pounds and pence. Their strike-breaking methods, which included using an arms-length bin company that the council owned, cost over £7 million – around ten times what it would have cost to have settled the dispute. They also moved to victimise the senior rep, Pete Randle, as a clear attempt at intimidating the workforce. However, the workers and Unite secured a crucial victory.

But as part of the campaign, Sharon was prepared to confront Labour. In a city centre solidarity rally, she announced that the union was suspending cutting Coventry councillors who were members of Unite. This was the first such dispute since a Socialist Party-inspired motion was passed at the previous autumn’s Unite policy conference, calling on Unite to urge Labour councils to refuse to pass on any more Tory cuts and, instead, implement no-cuts needs budgets.

Coupled with Sharon’s stance that Unite should only support those political candidates who support the union’s policies, a future clash is being prepared. The fact that the motion wasn’t opposed at the conference reflected the lack of confidence of the opposition in the aftermath of Sharon’s victory as well as their being unsure how to challenge such a call.

Right-wing backlash

However, it would be a mistake to believe that there is total acceptance of such policies and the other changes that have taken place within the union.

Sharon has also been prepared to stand up to more conservative sections of the union. In the Royal Mail dispute, the leadership of the CMA section of Unite, which represents managers, had come to an agreement with senior management in Royal Mail. This opened the door to attacks on the CWU, involved in a bitter industrial struggle that has lasted more than six months. Sharon and Tony Woodhouse issued a statement that repudiated any such agreement.

The United Left has developed into a conservative wing of Unite. Their new tag-line ‘Members First’ is reminiscent of the one that had previously been used by the right wing in unions such as PCS and Unison. The fact that, despite the positive progress that has been made in the last 18 months, the United Left is standing an alternative slate in the executive elections shows that it is determined to challenge Sharon’s leadership.

Behind this is the determination of the capitalists to roll back the militancy of Unite under Sharon Graham’s leadership, after the defeat of Corbynism within Labour. This is the context for the Unite EC elections and how vital they are.

Steve Turner’s comments during the United Left hustings in 2020, and his defence of Burnham and Khan in 2021, reflect a section of the Unite officialdom, and even lay reps, who believe that there is no political alternative to Labour under Starmer, and that Unite must reconcile itself to the party, even if it moves onto the offensive against the working class.

We are currently seeing a harbinger of this in Wales, where the Labour-led Welsh Government has built ‘social partnership’ agreements between the government and unions, with many of the union leaderships seeing it as a ‘lesser-evil’ to the Tories. Strikes were suspended in February by the NEU, RCN, RCM, CSP and GMB for relatively minor improved pay offers although, significantly, Unite refused to suspend its action in the Welsh ambulance service.

Starmer was explicit when he addressed the TUC Congress in October 2022. Speaking literally as Truss was preparing to resign and the Tories were at rock bottom, he was confident about his power. He told the TUC that he wasn’t going to apologise for not supporting strikes and that this wasn’t going to change under his leadership. But he was also adamant that a government led by him would have to make tough choices – curbing spending if necessary to adhere to the limits of crisis-ridden British capitalism. This is the significance of Starmer’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn, which Sharon opposed on BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg programme.

Political challenge

It is therefore essential that the left in Unite and in general across the unions draws the necessary conclusions from Starmer’s swing to the right. It would be just as big a mistake to draw the conclusion that unions do not need a political dimension as to capitulate to ‘lesser-evilism’ and the idea there is no alternative to Starmer’s Labour Party.

While Starmer is likely to be the main immediate political beneficiary from the Tory Party meltdown, a future Starmer government could be quickly plunged into clashes with the unions. And if there existed now a political challenge from the unions, even of a relatively modest size, with perhaps a few left MPs and councillors, and with some union support, it would be a vital political and industrial weapon in the hands of the working class – supporting strikes and standing on a pro-worker, pro-public ownership platform, and acting as a left check on the union leaders, and even on the Starmerites.

But perhaps just as importantly, if not more so, it would be a political down payment on a future Starmer government, setting out to workers a political alternative to a pro-capitalist New Labour administration.

Socialist Party members in Unite argue that steps should be taken to free up the union’s political strategy. In the summer rules conference, the rules could be amended to enable Unite to support candidates outside of Starmer’s Labour: to allow it, for instance, in Islington North to support Jeremy Corbyn, who Starmer has confirmed will not be allowed to defend his seat on the Labour ticket at the next general election. It would also allow Unite to support council candidates who supported the Coventry bin workers against the cutting Labour councillors.

This may pose a clash now with Starmer, but it would be on Unite’s terms, explaining in practice to members the importance of the union having an independent political weapon to complement its industrial strategy.

This will become ever more important, especially if the economy continues to stagnate and even tips into recession. This will pose the need for defensive struggles, employing militant tactics, such as occupations. But such battles will be strengthened with the demand for nationalisation and if the union has a political arm to help in that fight.

The opponents of Sharon have been reluctant to openly criticise her stance on Labour. But given the history of many of those who remain in the United Left, it is fanciful to think that they have accepted it, as well as agreeing with the no-cuts position. Starmer’s blatant efforts to signal to big business that he is safe for them, including sacking shadow minister Sam Tarry for supporting striking workers, has made it even more difficult for her opponents to put forward a pro-Labour position. This trend, not just in Unite but across the union movement, is manifesting itself at this stage in a non-political direction. However, in the absence of an alternative political vehicle for workers, it is, in reality, a pro-Labour position. And as the next general election nears, it is likely that these forces will be more confident to be bolder in arguing for Labour.

The SKWAWKBOX blog has consistently opposed Sharon and has now attacked candidates in the EC elections, including Socialist Party members. Last September, it reported that a Unite EC member claimed that the union hadn’t officially supported the ‘Enough Is Enough’ campaign because “Sharon didn’t come up with it. She won’t back it”. The major weakness of EiE is that while some of its leading members such as RMT general secretary Mick Lynch have been prepared to criticise Starmer, especially for his refusal to support strikes, the campaign hasn’t set out to build a political alternative to Labour. The concern of some of Sharon’s supporters is that the EiE campaign seeks to ultimately channel support to Labour.

It is vital that a political alternative is put forward and argued for, linking it together with the industrial struggles. It is potentially positive that Unite under Sharon’s leadership has launched ‘Unite for a Workers’ Economy’ – a campaign looking to embed in working-class communities. It has particularly targeted Tory MPs in ‘Red Wall’ seats and taken on the profiteering energy companies. But workers need political organisation and representation through standing in elections against pro-business parties, to fight for policies such as renationalisation and the taking back of the NHS from the privateers, which take on the Tory sharks and their echoes in Starmer’s New Labour Party at Westminster and at local level.

But this whole debate, along with the steps being taken to transform the union industrially and the latent resistance to it, shows why it is essential that a new left organisation is built in Unite, that wants to consolidate Sharon’s victory, the changes that have been made, and the industrial and political programme that still needs to be developed. An essential step in this is bringing in changes that increase the lay democracy of the union, such as extending the number of officers who are elected.

It is important that a left organisation is able to develop an independent programme that, in Sharon’s own words, can ‘hold her feet to the fire’. Such a broad left can be built on the layer of activists and more militant officials that has been energised by the general secretary campaign and, crucially, in the multitude of strikes and disputes that have mushroomed under Sharon’s tenure. These workers have seen in practice how a forceful, battle-ready union can push back the bosses and win significant gains. They also understand how Unite, along with the other more militant unions, can be the centre point in fighting for generalised strike action against the Tories, their pay restraint, and their planned new anti-union laws. Unite may not be the majority union in the public sector but it has earned its place at the militant front of the unions.

It is a measure of the effect of Unite industrially since Sharon Graham’s election, and the intense period that we have entered – with the speeding up of events – that her term of office feels much longer than barely 18 months. But this is the new normal for workers. The new strike figures – the highest since Thatcher’s reign – confirm that the level of action has been transformed as workers fight the cost-of-living squeeze. In 2017, only 33,000 workers took strike action all year, yet on 1 February this year, up to half a million walked out together.

In such a period, workers will need to build militant unions capable of facing up to the remorseless offensive of the employers and their political representatives. The election of a fighting Unite executive is part of that process.

See also: Unite executive elections : Vote for campaigning, socialist candidates supporting Sharon Graham’s manifesto