Now that Sharon Graham has taken over as general secretary of the Unite union, activists are discussing how to implement promises that were made during the election campaign.
Graham won because of the feeling for change. Now there needs to be a reset in the union’s approach.
It must be more aggressive towards employers and the government and ditch any notion of “partnership”.
That will also mean more democracy and more participation by ordinary members.
Camille, chair of Unite Public Health England Colindale LE/985 branch (pc), wants to see “more lay rep involvement”.
“This was the main promise of Graham’s campaign—getting people in the workplace into trade union structures and revitalising branches,” she explained.
“Any new activist trying to understand the union structures will have difficulty.
“It’s about helping people to understand rules, deadlines, how to pass a motion, working out which branch they’re in.
“Then people can start organising and agitating, talking to members, and building the confidence to start call meetings at work and finding what motivates people.”
Pat Carmody is a Unite activist in Oxford and the south east. “The structures need change—we’ve got a problem where too much power is vested in regional secretaries,” he explained.
“We need to make sure young members are central to activity, and the structure and leadership of campaigns.”
Pat said there are upcoming campaigns that will need support. “The NHS consultative ballot needs a big turnout in the strike ballot and then victory.
“The days of action need to be stepped up and supported—every Unite activist should be around them, and health branches need to take those seriously.
“Then there’s the fire and rehire campaign—that really needs to be ramped up.
“Take lessons learnt from the defeat at JDE to work out how we turn future struggles around.
“And we need to make sure activists on the ground are given the confidence to take a lead in disputes and take them out of the hands of the bureaucrats."
Richard Milner, a delegate to the East Midlands Unite regional committee said, “Really we want people to show solidarity through industrial action.
“For the JDE strike—why was there no leafletting across every supermarket explaining that certain companies were threatening to move work offshore and implement a £7,000 wage cut?
“With more activists involved that could’ve been done and it’s a form of leverage."
“Or the rank and file should be able to contact all other shop stewards and activists to say we’re in dispute and please support us without needing full time officials,” Richard added.
Camille also said ways of contacting members could be made simpler.
“Being able to contact members has to be tightened up to get organised,” she said.
“Any industrial action will depend on how well connected you are to members and basic communication is vital. From that people can get involved, find networks and build solidarity.”
Right hasn’t gone away
Camille explained that the Unite United Left is “dominated by bureaucrats looking to parliamentary politics”.
“It’s broken,” she added. “People involved in Graham’s campaign don’t want a version two of the United Left. It’s been made very clear that this doesn’t work.”
“Just because we’ve got a left wing general secretary doesn’t mean the right has disappeared—they’re still organising against it,” she added.
“So we can’t just change the whole structure, it has to be brought up from the ground.
“Graham will bring more accountability for reps by broadcasting meetings so we can hear what they’re saying, giving transparency. People are sick of backroom deals.”
Richard pointed out that people who are active at work where the union is not recognised should be fast tracked to be a union rep.
He said, “We need to facilitate people trying to build the union’s recognition through the union.
Pat agrees, “There are huge swathes of Unite members in places that don’t have recognition but want to get active. We have to find a way to create a space for them.”
We must make reps’ meetings regular
Sharon Graham has promised to build combines within the union—something that activists think is crucial.
“Reps combines are where all the reps from a sector are put in a room together from loads of companies to talk,” Camille explained.
“The benefit of this is finding out that the company next door gets six more days of holiday pay than you. So reps can go back to bosses and ask why they don’t.
“We need to make them a more regular thing to get more contact between lay reps.”
Richard said, “Not every rep will know how to improve workers’ confidence in the workplace. This happens by the working class winning a big victory, and with lessons on how to organise in the workplace.
“We need meetings to be really good, because people get confidence from being together. Graham needs to teach that to people.
“She’s already made the commitment to provide resources to help every branch get dispute ready.
“Things like records being up to date are important to know. Unions can help sort this out and help disputes to find out what they need to win."
“We also should be looking to create Stand Up to Racism groups or green groups and so on at work. There is union policy in favour of doing those things and it’s a way to take more issues up” said Richard.
Pat added, “Graham’s victory opened a door—we need to use this space to argue for activity and workplace organisation and how we go back to basics."