Sharon Graham’s success in the Unite union general secretary election, announced last week, is a victory for the left. It is a sign Unite members want change from business as usual.
Right wing candidate Gerard Coyne came in last with 35,334 votes. The continuity candidate Steve Turner took 41,833 votes. Graham won with 46,696 votes based on her “back to the workplace” campaign.
Lyn Allan Scott, chair of the Unite health branch at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, told Socialist Worker the result “has been a long time coming”.
Lyn voted for Graham because “she builds activism from the ground up.”
“Reps will now be trained and supported in the workplace.” she added. “That’s the key going forward—to make people feel supported and that everything is achievable.
“Graham’s listening to her members. Without members the union is nothing. I’ve been feeling like I haven’t been listened to for a long time.”
Jackie Applebee, chair of Doctors in Unite, agreed. “It’s brilliant to have a general secretary who is a woman and someone rooted in the workforce,” she said.
During the election Graham came under sustained pressure to capitulate to Turner’s campaign. Graham was accused of “splitting the left vote” and clearing the way for Coyne.
But not only did the majority of votes go towards her and the left, but workers made it clear they want a different type of leadership.
Jed Ellis works at the Rolls-Royce aerospace plant in Bristol. He said, “I think the rank and file have been slightly repressed within the union.
“Now the front line will be in the workplaces with reps speaking to activists, not in the office talking about television deals.
“It’ll start slow, but I think this will attract a lot more younger people. We can show the power of a rank and file movement—and Unite should be encouraging this.”
Joe Pisani from Unite’s Greater Glasgow Electrical Plumbing and Mechanical branch told Socialist Worker he is “overjoyed that the rank and file backed the right person.”
“I think Graham will make real change and people are ready for it,” he said.
“I’m more enthused than I’ve ever been knowing fresh ideas are coming to the forefront. It’ll lead the union back to what it should be—fighting for workers.”
John Cooper, the Unite convenor of Vauxhall Motors branch in Ellesmere Port, said the win was “fantastic”. “Back to the workplace’ resonated so well with people when campaigning,” he said. “It’s about class action—the need for struggle and fighting back.
“Now we need to win over non-unionised workers who feel disenfranchised. An example to aim at is hospitality. It’s one of the biggest growing sectors and least unionised.”
Lyn added, “Some who had never been involved with a campaign before couldn’t have been more active in Graham’s.
“People had drive. We can’t lose momentum.”
Workers need to use Graham’s win to raise the level of resistance to the bosses and Tories. Who is at the top of the union makes a difference. But the general secretary is not the most important person.
Rank and file Unite members, the strength of their organisation and whether they fight are what matters.
Independent organisation of workers at the base is the key both to winning against the bosses and putting pressure on the union leadership.
Sharon Graham’s promises now need to be turned into action.
There need to be more workers’ fights from below rather than concentrating on manoeuvres from the top.
Helen McFarlane is a Unite national executive council member for Scotland.
She told Socialist Worker, “There’s a huge amount of work to be done. Some people join the union but aren’t active. It has to be a priority to engage them.
“I think this will be part of Graham’s vision to focus on the workplace and make it real for more people what a union is for and about.”
Helen hopes this victory will “attract bigger women’s membership to the union”.
“I’d also like to see much more transparency to move away from dodgy deals,” she added.
Joe said, “Next for the members has to be organising their workplaces.
“Workers are going to get the backup that they deserve. There needs to be the determination to see conditions and wages improve.”
John thinks the result “is a wakeup call for the Labour Party”. “Graham’s manifesto said no more blank cheques to Labour. We need to remember it’s not MPs who save jobs or stop plants from closing.
“I think Graham will also build combines between sectors—we in the automotive industry can come together with road transport workers.
“With the gig economy, fire and rehire, precarious work and zero hour contacts, trade unions have never been more relevant than they are now.”
Jackie hopes to see “increased strikes and Unite members having more confidence to vote for them”.
“This rhetoric will be coming from the leadership and reflect the hopes of people on the left,” she said. “I don’t want leadership compromising.
“And I’d like Unite to be challenging the leadership of Labour with confidence to hold them to account.”
There is a risk that Sharon’s Graham’s focus on the workplaces could become a retreat from wider politics. And throughout her campaign, Graham has been reserved on some political issues.
Jed said, “More could be put forward for things like green jobs and infrastructure. And more support for issues like Black Lives Matter.
“This is an important dynamic for the union—if Unite can be really strong on these issues it can be a platform which everyone feels comfortable in. These topics are really important in society.”
Jed added that BLM, green jobs, LGBT+ rights and other social and political issues are things a union “should be involved in and supporting on marches in the streets.”
“Unite banners should be at the front of protests, not the back—hopefully under Graham we will see this happen,” he said.
Jackie added, “To hold the government to account with struggle can make a difference.
“Mass struggle on the streets and workplaces can have a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change, for instance.”
“We need to invite Graham to speak at meetings or on demos and be engaged with the street movements,” thinks Jackie.
“Unite has to be centrally involved in struggles that impact workers’ lives, such as racism, the pandemic and climate change.”
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