Unite’s Sharon Graham: ‘I feel this is a moment of rebirth for the union movement’

Shortly before she became United’s secretary-general, a construction chief executive told Sharon Graham it would be too early if he never saw her again.

She thought it was a compliment. She might get more.

Last summer, 53 years old Graham Beating out predecessor Len McCluskey’s preferred candidate to become the first female boss of Unite, Britain’s largest union with 1.2 million members across 19 economic sectors.

Her approach sounds traditional. “I feel like this is a moment of rebirth for the union movement. I think we can win – more than we can – focus on jobs, pay and conditions.”

She said it was a sudden turnaround for a union that had developed an “obsessed” with Labour. Even before McCluskey’s decade-long tenure, she thought it was too personal. “You have to mobilize, build collectives. . . and frankly, not understanding that our strength comes from a collective standpoint weakens the unions tremendously.”

High inflation and cost of living crisis are unleashing more industrial conflict More than the UK has seen in years. This is not the 1970s: union membership may have increased slightly in recent years, but it is still — along with the number of days lost to strike action — at historically low levels. Still, rail unions voted for the biggest strike in decades, while the government fought back by recommending tightening laws on industrial action.

London-born Graham’s love of collective action began at 17 when, as a silver waitress, she led a protest against agency workers being paid less than other employees. “I said, ‘Okay, we’ll serve the first course, but we’re not going to clear.’

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is that I believe the importance of arguing — and you’re right — means you can change things. Then you see, no, it’s not because the world isn’t like this.”

Her negotiating instinct started earlier. At nine, the eldest of three Hammersmith sisters, she took issue with their brother’s more generous pocket money. “I mean, wait a minute, that means he can eat more candy. Why is he allowed to eat more candy? I just think it’s outrageous! It’s a huge win for me – half an hour Then I went to bed. I won a good game.”

If her predecessor was obsessed with Labour, Graham seems obsessed with winning. She built the organizational function at Unite. “This sector really started with me. . . 17 years later, we have 135 organizers and we advise other unions in other countries on how they can leverage.”

Leverage – obvious Leverage, Part of what separates it from financial terms is that, in addition to strike action, she finds ways to put pressure on what she calls “hostile employers.” Last year, one Conservative figure called the tactic “sinister”; others said it could become too personal, targeting people’s homes or families.

Graham rejected this. “I’ve probably done 16 or 17 leverage campaigns but we’ve never lost one. None of them crossed the line because the point of leverage is that you follow the money. . . make sure we’re putting pressure on the things that matter to the organization … they haven’t really been able to handle it yet.”

This means analysing the company, its directors, its clients, potential future clients or suppliers – in the UK or overseas – to find ways to advance alliances reason. It includes informing Norwegian politicians about the dismissal of Manchester Bus as owner Go Ahead looks to bid for the country’s rail contract, as well as the closure of a bridge in Toronto operated by Crossrail contractors.

It does not involve the shareholders of the company. Graham didn’t shy away from New York City: She spent two hours answering questions from nearly 50 analysts during a 2020 standoff with British Airways over a proposed “fire and rehire” proposal. But institutional investors usually don’t help: “Those shareholders are so tied to that company, they’re really unlikely to suddenly say, ‘You know what, that company sucks, I’m going to force them to do something else’. .

What about ESG or active engagement and management? “Absolutely loaded pants,” she said, “and they call it a different term every time. They’re right. But it never really changes. . . in my experience, they’re unlikely to switch employers to Somewhere. For me, it’s about winning.”

Graham’s win to become Unite boss disrupted the established order enough that there was a popular joke “they handed the wrong candidate”, referring to the expected transition to McCluskey’s newcomer Steve Turner.

“Within 48 hours, I called all the stewards in dispute: let them know the union is behind them, I’ll be personally involved in the dispute, I’ll be on the picket line,” she said. Details are laid out in Graham’s 8,000-word manifesto. A new division provides research, technical tools and forensic accounting support for those at issue. For the first time, Unite has an economist responsible for the Unite Bargaining Index (based on a higher RPI inflation measure) and a profiteering committee focused on pandemic profits. Graham said her approach “may be more worrying for bad employers than whether we support Labour”.

She is discussing organizing at Amazon with her peers in the U.S. and Germany, and is developing the union’s work in hospitality: “I’m going to put a lot of resources into this, and we’re now trying to help people who are in these types of jobs, zero hours, contract, without proper leave.”

Then there’s her “portfolio,” which brings together workers in an industry to agree on what terms and conditions or best practices should look like.You can’t blame her ambitions: First consortium will include attempt to reopen defined benefit pension plans [in which the employer guarantees the pension payments]”We were too timid. We said ‘let’s try to save them’. There was a time when we created these database schemes. It’s about social responsibility and employers understanding it’s a matter of deferred wages.

“We’re essentially using the power within the union to create an industry benchmark. It’s also about affordability. . . in many industries, workers only get a piece of the pie.”

It’s a looming question about which piece of the union pie Labour can expect. Unite has cut donations and Threats to cut further It comes after a dispute over the treatment of bin workers at Labour-run Coventry council.

“I’m going to use the money to mobilize in the community on issues like cost of living, old age poverty, investment in manufacturing – instead of me sitting there screaming ‘why don’t you listen and see what’s happening to people out there? So we The money will be used to mobilise – what the politicians will do is they will follow.” The strike fund was also increased from £36m to £50m

Graham was generally tough on Westminster. “They don’t understand, politicians of all parties. In my opinion, they don’t see the harm, people can’t continue the way they are. This talk is about the choice between heating and eating. It’s not a choice. They won’t Choose between a pair of shoes and a bottle of wine.”

But when will the general election be held? Unite donated £3m to Labour in 2019. “It depends on what they’re doing . . . I said to Kyle [Starmer], I have told many people. I hope Labour will defend working people, come forward without shame and say ‘that’s wrong’, no focus groups, or wait and see where the wind blows. “

It sounds like she sees more successful ways to use membership money. “I certainly don’t repeat prescriptions. I’m not in the scope of repeat prescriptions.”

Three Questions with Sharon Graham

The strike of female Ford mechanics in 1968 led to equal pay laws and inspired Graham’s activism © Trinity Mirror/Alamy

Who are your leadership heroes?

My heroes have always been plural. collective. Ordinary men and women come together to make a difference. For example, the 1968 strike by Ford machinists whose actions actually inspired the Equal Pay Act; everyone in the anti-polluted tax movement forced back this horribly unfair tax. Of course, there must be individual leaders, but it is the collective of ordinary people who put them at the forefront of history.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

I learned that “leadership” is truly leading from the front line, waking up every morning with real focus, pushing boundaries, having real belief in what you’re doing, and building the confidence that others will win. be yourself. You don’t always have to follow a set path. You don’t have to always do it just because it’s already done.

What would you do if you were not the general secretary of Unite?

Honestly, I can’t imagine my life other than union work. I’ll say, though, that I think I’m going to be an unfair thorn somewhere – a demagogue. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to change the inherent injustices in society.

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