Unite leadership race: Sharon Graham on strikes, sexism, and the myth of ‘splitting the vote’

"The movement is on life support," the Unite General Secretary candidate tells LFF.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham

Sharon Graham leads Unite’s organising and leverage department. In the first part of our exclusive interview, we discuss the campaign so far, her take on the other candidates, and her vision for the UK’s ‘leading union’.

There are three candidates now in the running, after Howard Beckett endorsed Steve Turner, with Gerard Coyne (who came second in 2017) also standing. Voting started last Monday and runs until the 26th August, with ballots going out to all of Unite’s 1.2m members in Britain and Ireland.

What got you involved in the union movement?

“When I was 17, I led my first walkout. We’d gone to the employer time after time to say an issue was occurring and every time he would just say ‘I’m not interested’. It went on and on.  

“This whole realisation that your weight of argument doesn’t move an employer – I found that out at the age of 17. We walked out and we won, in the middle of a of a banqueting hall.”

“We cannot lose the focus that as a trade union, our bread and butter issues have to be the workers, what they are facing, pay terms and conditions of employment. If we don’t focus on that, we don’t have a union because people will not come and stay in the union.”

One of your themes seems to be that Unite has focused too much on Labour in recent years.

“I absolutely do believe there’s an obsession with the Labour party. The reality is, right here and right now, that we need to move the government.

“The Parliamentary Labour party, as far as I know, has never given a worker a pay rise – that’s our work. Laws are important, but I’m saying that we need to do it the other way around: we shouldn’t have the political tail wagging the industrial dog. We [should] build from the workplace, and then we drive through what workers are asking us to do.

“The movement is on life support…We see what happens to workers after a crisis – they pay the price. And so, we need to get back into the workplaces, focus on the jobs, the pay, and the conditions of our members build the union. And if we do that, if we build the union, we can then move the politics.

“At the moment, we’re asking for aviation investment…we’ve got nothing, no one’s listening, because fundamentally the trade union movement is weak.

“If we don’t now begin to get back to do what it says on the trade union tin, we are going to get weaker and we’re not going to be able to win for workers.

How much has your background in leverage and organising helped and influenced your campaign?

“People often say, ‘Sharon, you’ve come from nowhere’, in the sense that I’m probably not very well known in the press or in Westminster or whatever – because most of my work has been directly with reps in workplaces.

“The momentum of this campaign has come from workers. The manifesto has come from workers.”

Let’s discuss some of the abuse and sexism you’ve spoken out about during this campaign.

“They had mock-ups of me as Margaret Thatcher. My father’s family were in the mines. I mean, the idea that that would even be said! My 12 year old son said: ”Why are they attacking you like that mum? You only want to help workers.”

“There was more this morning. The level of abuse has been quite unprecedented.”

“I think the movement has let women down…I will lead the fight for women and try and make sure that women have a much better deal at work than they have.”

What did you make of current General Secretary Len McCluskey backing Steve Turner?

“My first thought was ‘the boys are worried’. They know the people that are backing this campaign – remember, the lay member chair of the executive, the most senior position in the entire union (Tony Woodhouse) is supporting me. Numerous manufacturing reps are supporting me, Rolls Royce, British Airways [branches]…

“I do think it was a bit of a desperate move, but to be honest, I think that Steve’s campaign is failing. The group that nominated Steve was a very shrunken version of the left [United Left]. A lot of people had come out of that left prior to that vote taking place. But it was it was a strange, unprecedented move to have happened.”

“This campaign has got a life of its own. There are things happening in this campaign that I don’t even know about. I’m very confident, very confident that we are the ones to beat. I want us to get back to doing what we need to do, which is win for workers.”

Steve Turner and former candidate Howard Beckett are now running on a joint platform. Were you involved in the early discussions to have a single ‘left’ candidate?

“I haven’t been in any of the deal discussions. Although…my conversation right at the beginning [via a phone call] was that I was standing on a program of work to get the union back to the workplace. It wasn’t a program that you can compromise on. It was basically ‘we have to come back to the workplace, otherwise we’re on life support’.”

She adds that she doesn’t agree with an ‘undemocratic’ deal: “If there is a deal that has been done, and it’s a good deal, then why are we not seeing the deal? It’s akin to me going in and doing a deal with an employer, and we did the deal and we walked out to members and said: “We’ve done a deal. We’re not going to show you what it is, but it’s good for you.”

“I certainly will not be party to any deals of any nature. I’m standing on a program because genuinely, I want the worker’s voice to be heard in this election.

“The problem is that we have the conversation around Steve [Turner], and then we have the conversation around Gerard [Coyne]. And, for me, these are phony, old wars, and the union needs now to move on.”

How do you respond to the frequent criticism that you’re ‘splitting’ the left-wing vote?

“I’m not so sure Steve’s asked this question in the same way. The trick that is almost being put up on people is that somehow the entire left of Unite has gone behind one candidate…That is totally not the case.

“What is annoying to me is that if we were looking at who had the best chance of winning – who had the program, who had most of the reps…it would undoubtedly be me. But of course, that conversation was never going to happen because it ‘wasn’t my turn’. I don’t see me as splitting the left, because I believe the votes are with me.”

“I’m not so sure that there is this ‘left’ and ‘right’ block vote that people think we have in the union. If you look back at our history of voting, it doesn’t lend itself to say that that is what happens.”

What position will Unite be in in five years if you win? Will Unite’s membership have grown?

“If I take, for example some of the construction campaigns that I’ve been involved in – like blacklisting – every time we’ve won, we’ve put on vast amounts of members.

“We haven’t got legislation for industry bargaining. But if I am putting in a homeworking agreement with the four major banks, and it’s the same agreement – it’s a stake in the ground that will set what everybody else sees a good homeworking agreement looking like. So I’m going to be absolutely focused on industry agreements, driving forward what’s important for our members.

“I see us winning a lot more battles. I think we will grow in membership as a result of that, and I think the union will be viewed as what we are: that we are there to defend your work, and that we are there to be with you as you go through your working life.”

See Sharon Graham’s campaign website.

LFF recently spoke to Steve Turner. A contribution from Gerard Coyne is coming soon, with LFF providing a platform for all the candidates in the leadership race.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

LFF is proud to be supported by Unite.

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