The Unite union general secretary election race is about to begin following Len McCluskey’s announcement earlier this month that he will step down from the role.
Socialist Worker is supporting Sharon Graham’s election campaign that is centred on the slogan, “Let’s get back to the workplace.” She developed and leads Unite’s organising and leverage department.
In her first campaign video, Graham says, “Our power is rooted in the workplace—that’s how we win.
“When it’s time to take on companies like Amazon, the prime minister won’t stand up to Jeff Bezos—we will.”
And she has vowed to ensure “workers do not pay the price of the pandemic”.
From 6 May to 7 June, Unite union branches will nominate their chosen candidate. Candidates must receive nominations from at least 5 percent of the total number of union branches—making the threshold 174 branches.
Richard Milner, a delegate to the East Midlands Unite regional committee, told Socialist Worker he is supporting Graham “because her emphasis is on building in the workplace”.“Her message is the workplace matters and we need to concentrate on that,” he said.
“Let’s build in the workplace, it’s where we have power, and she will facilitate. That’s what shop stewards want to hear.
“We can have a general secretary saying, ‘You’re the most important people and I want to support and help you do a better job.’”
Camille, chair of Unite Public Health England Colindale LE/985 branch (pc), is supporting Graham. “The main reason is because Sharon Graham is focussed on workplace organising,” Camille explained.
“This is where the power of the class lies.
“Graham is willing to direct the union to refocus efforts on workplace organisation—and she’s done this through several campaigns."
She added, “It’s important to organise in the current climate with fire and rehire. In desperate times we want more chances to organise in the workplace.”
The slogan “back to the workplace” can be a call for militancy and backing workers' resistance.
But it can also be a backward demand for retreating from wider political struggles, or not challenging right wing Labour leader Keir Starmer.
It's crucial that, while voting for Graham, socialists insist on breaking down the traditional divide in the British labour movement between politics and economics.
Camille explained that she would like to see from Graham more on “what to do about racism in the workplace and climate change”. “I’d like to hear what Graham has to say about connecting political issues with the workplace,” she added.
“How do we connect with people who are not hardened trade unionists, or young members?”
Pete Shaw is a member of the Unite national construction rank and file executive committee. “Sharon Graham has been a lifetime national organiser for the department she heads up,” he told Socialist Worker. “She’s always been there and has been supportive of the rank and file.
“Direct action is the answer and Graham is talking about workplace representatives.”
Pete is impressed that she’s “talking about another inquiry into backlisting and the collaboration of full time union officials with it”. “If she becomes general secretary we can get a better deal on this,” he said.
Graham is not a rank and file candidate who is directly expressing the feeling from the base of the union. Like other candidates, she is part of the Unite bureaucracy and that is a limit on her radicalism.
Pete said that “it’s very important” to have a rank and file acting independently that doesn't rely on full time union officials.
“Elections are an exercise in how we mobilise our forces and it is a democratic process,” he explained.
“But the workplace is where it all happens. Hopefully we can get someone that can give that proper representation.
“In my industry a lot of people won’t come forward and take on the bosses—they’re scared they might be blacklisted or sent somewhere else.
“I want Graham to openly state that shop stewards and any reps of our union will be defended to the hilt.”
Nomination period: Thursday 6 May 2021—7 June 2021
Deadline for receipt of nominations: Wednesday 9 June 2021 at noon
Voting papers dispatched: From 5 July 2021
Deadline for voting papers to be returned to the Independent Scrutineer: Monday 23 August 2021 at noon
Declaration of results: Thursday 26 August 2021