Sharon Graham is running for general secretary for the Unite union based on a campaign calling for a return to the workplace.
She has large support in the union’s rank and file workforce—the most important section of the union.
Unite members across Britain spoke to Socialist Worker about why they’re backing Graham for general secretary.
Joe Pisani is from Unite’s Greater Glasgow Electrical Plumbing and Mechanical branch, who nominated Graham to put her on the final ballot. He said, “We believe in Graham’s vision for this union.
“Graham is my candidate for general secretary because she will reinvigorate it to where it should be. She will make it more focused and driven to organise in the workplace.
“If you don’t have active branches and workplaces, the union will eventually die out. An organised workplace makes a strong union.”
Joe added, “The deskilling agenda has been a major dispute for us.
“Graham has helped with organising and strategy to fight against that agenda.”
Kathy Taylor is branch secretary of the Unite health sector branch in Bristol. “In her manifesto, Graham says she is for action above rhetoric,” Kathy explained.
“I’m sick of people giving us a whole spiel about doing things differently, but things stay the same. And it would be fantastic to have a woman in charge.
“Coming out of the pandemic, people want change. It’s not the same old that is going to give us it. Graham’s not fazed by anything. It shows strong character—we need that, not flip-flopping about. Graham will keep fighting for the rank and file.”
Chrissie Gardner, who is assistant secretary of the same branch, agreed. “Graham is not rank and file, but she is the best pitched and placed person to create space for the rank and file,” she said.
“I thought she had an inspiring industrial manifesto. She’s been very good at tackling big bosses.”
John Cooper, the Unite convenor of Vauxhall Motors branch in Ellesmere Port, said, “Our branch and shop stewards’ committee is in full support of Graham. She’s the only candidate that talks about genuine fightback. The others are a boys’ club.”
“I’m happy to support anyone who brings lay members into all aspects of our trade union,” John added.
“It takes us back to the workplace where trade unions were born. Trade unions begin in the workplace, not in parliament.
“It’s about workers pushing back against unscrupulous bosses. That’s why if we get our industrial strategy right, which we will, the correct politics follow—left politics.”
Frank Morris is from the Unite construction rank and file executive, whose committee has come out in support of Graham.
“We’ve just led a rank and file campaign once again halting deskilling in construction—Sharon Graham’s the candidate who opens doors to that kind of organising,” he said.
“If you want elected reps and workplace representation from the shop floor, vote for Sharon Graham— simple as that.”
‘Why should we now be settling for the second best?’
Other candidates in the election race are Labour right-winger Gerard Coyne and assistant general secretary Steve Turner.
Howard Beckett stepped out of the race saying this would allow Turner the best chance to win.
Calls are now being made for Graham to also step down to set up Turner as a “left unity candidate”.
But John says Turner is only running as “he believes it’s his turn”. And John doesn’t think Beckett’s supporters will now all assist Turner.
“Two weeks ago Turner and his supporters were vilifying Beckett, now they’re on the same platform,” John explained.
Pictures of Graham have also been created with her face superimposed on hated former-Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
John called this “disgraceful”.
“They’re doing it because they’ve taken a misogynistic stance,” he said. “They can’t attack Graham’s politics, so they make personal attacks.”
Joe thinks “people will get more of the same” with Turner. That can create space for Coyne to exploit.
“Beckett decided to capitulate because he didn’t get as many nominations as Turner did,” he said. “But it didn’t surprise me.”
“Previously, general secretary elections turnouts weren’t high for the size of the union,” Joe added. “People are disenfranchised.
“Graham has vision, and is clear what she wants to do to reinvigorate the union.”
Chrissie says she won’t support “blokes within the hierarchy of Unite.” “I have no confidence in them,” she says.
“Coyne is very dangerous. He’s pretty poor on immigration and has no vision at all.
“Turner is all ‘let’s talk this through’ with bosses.”
Kathy added, “Turner should step down and push Graham forward if the fear is two candidates will split everything.
“She’s more creative than some career politicians like Coyne. And she comes across as way more inclusive.
“We’re not going to settle for second best.”
Graham is the change needed
Some Unite members believe Sharon Graham is the change the union needs.
Chrissie’s regional committee has a shocking lack of representation. “There were a handful of women and around two black people. I feel that speaks volumes,” she said.
“I think it does matter that Graham is a woman. And her equality strategy is really good.”
Kathy added, “I want Unite to grow with women. We make up the majority of low paid and part-time workers.”
Joe is concerned about the difficulties rank and file candidates face to run for general secretary.
“I don’t believe it’s right that union employees should decide lay members’ organising structures,” he said.
He explained that paid officials have voted over things such as collective bargaining.
“This is a path and mentality being bred by the Turners and Becketts,” Joe said. “Both are eager to take agency away from lay members.
“Even though she’s a full time employee, Graham’s taking it back to the workplace.”
Don’t drop the political fight
Although Sharon Graham is committed to supporting shop stewards and union reps, there has been less focus on political campaigns.
Graham needs to focus on political issues such as anti-racism, climate change and Palestine.
And opposing Labour leader Keir Starmer’s politics can’t be ignored.
It’s vital unions take up questions of oppression—as well as exploitation—because they’re used to divide workers.
Changes are won when the working class unites and takes wider battles into the workplace.
It’s good that Graham is campaigning for equality in the workplace.
But it must be extended to the wider issues that affect workers’ everyday lives.