Exclusive interview: Sharon Graham ‘makes no apologies’ for holding Labour’s feet to the fire

The country is 'crying out’ for bold political action, argues the Unite leader

Sharon Graham Unite the union

A trade union general secretary who doesn’t hold back from speaking her mind, Sharon Graham of Unite the Union told LFF she ‘makes no apologies’ for keeping Labour’s feet to the fire over workers’ rights.

Having blasted ‘timid’ politicians’ and warned Labour against becoming a ‘nineties tribute act’, Graham argued now is the time to push the Party to commit to policies on workers’ rights, and provide real changes that the country is ‘crying out’ for.

“I don’t make any apology for keeping Labour’s feet to the fire,” Graham told LFF. “I’m a general secretary of a trade union, my absolute focus is fighting for workers.”

With Labour’s roots as a political party in representing working people, Graham said it’s her duty to continue to hold Keir Starmer to account.

“If I think that they are moving or sliding back on core commitments to do with workers, then I’m going to be very, very clear that actually, you need to do more.”

Commenting on Angela Rayners speech to the TUC Congress, Graham said there was ‘no doubt’ the country would be better off with a Labour government, but that the ‘devil will be in the detail’.

Graham has laid out five ways Labour could help workers, should they come to power, which include: stopping ‘greedflation’, nationalising the energy sector, buying UK-made products, making it easier to get a pay rise and making bargaining easier.

Some have criticised her approach, as the leader of a Labour-affiliated union, as too bold and that she should take a more positive stance to Starmer’s leadership. In response, Graham said ‘being on the naughty step’ was fine with her.

“If I’m the only one on the naughty step saying I’m going to hold your feet to the fire, it’s because this is the time to get the commitment.

“I do want the Labour government to come in and I want it to count. So I’m going to be fighting for workers’ rights all the way to the end.”

“I think caution is their biggest enemy,” Graham went on. “The key thing for me is, are they a 1945 government? Are they going to come in and structurally change the economy so it works better for people?

“I think that the country is crying out for something more bold. It’s a different electorate and economic climate to what it was in 1997.”

During her time as general secretary of one of the UK’s biggest unions, Unite has settled 900 disputes, seeing £400 million go back into the pockets of workers. They’ve also bucked the trend of declining union membership, having seen their net membership grow by 30,000 in 18 months.

This could be partly down to their focus on corporate profiteering, having set up an investigative team bringing economists and forensic accountants into the union, something never done before.

“I wanted to do that is as, whilst I’m focused on jobs, pay and conditions, the narrative that’s out there that said wages are pushing up inflation is just not true. I knew that wasn’t the case. I’m looking at profits all the time.

“So rather than just moaning and saying, oh, it’s really bad, we’re getting attacked, I can say, well, actually, hang on a second, what’s being said is a lie.”

She added: “It’s really important that trade unions are able to move the dial on the narrative as well as being able to move the dial on what’s happening in workplaces and getting better pay for people.”

On the changing public narrative around trade unions, Graham said she’s seen a ‘rebirth’ into how people talk about the movement and strike action.

“Even people I know, friends of mine who had one mind-set, are thinking, well, actually trade unions probably are a really good thing to society.

“I think there is a resurgence, but we’ve got to make sure we make that count. You’ve got to win for workers. You can’t just say, well, somebody’s in a union and they’re not getting any benefit from it.”

The biggest question Graham was getting from her members right now is, ‘when are we going out on strike’.

“Unions are a force for good. What we’re trying to do is we’re literally trying to say, look, actually, I want businesses to do well.

“But you cannot have a situation where workers’ piece of the pie is getting smaller, whilst profits are rising and shareholders’ piece of the pie gets bigger.”

(Image credit: Sky News / YouTube)

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

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