By A Unite the Union member
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It’s right to back Sharon Graham

With voting underway in the Unite union leadership election, this piece outlines why Sharon Graham's the best candidate

Striking workers at Thurrock Council in Essex (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Balloting is underway in the election for the next general secretary of the Unite union and will run until 23 August. Why is the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) backing Sharon Graham—and why do we reject the argument that the left should rally to Steve Turner to ensure that the right wing candidate, Gerard Coyne, is defeated?

Our reasons can be summarised as:

•Turner represents a shift to the right especially in the union’s approach to employers

•Graham’s argument for a major change of direction in the union makes her the best candidate to beat Coyne 

•Graham argues that the strength of workers’ own organisation in the workplace is the key and that Unite needs to do much more to build that organisation, while Turner concentrates on his own abilities as a negotiator 

Turner represents the risk of a shift to the right

Steve Turner’s thoughts on industrial relations and politics are expressed in an interview he gave to  the Huffington Post in late April. He stresses his belief in the importance of the relationships full time union officials have with employers and the government: 

It’s looking someone in the eye, just sitting down and having a straight conversation. People talk about ‘beer and sandwiches’, but that’s where a lot of our business is done, in the evenings, in a coffee shop somewhere, just having that break and building a relationship. Because a lot of this is about trust – believing that people are being straight with you and being confident in the person that you’re negotiating with, for them and us.

This is ‘partnership’ talk and it’s disappointing that someone standing to be general secretary of the biggest private sector union in the country would make such a statement. Even more so today with a government happy to let the “bodies pile high” and with employers seizing on the Covid pandemic to use fire and rehire tactics to drive through major attacks on our conditions. 

Where unions search for ‘partnership’ with employers it entrenches the notion that the relationship between workers and bosses is one of shared interests in making a business ‘efficient’ – that is profitable – rather that a relationship based on exploitation and conflict. 

It also leads to seeing a cosy interpersonal relationships between union representatives and senior managers as central, rather than collective organisation and power. But the latter is the only guarantee of defending jobs and conditions when employers decide that being profitable requires attacking workers. 

Turner could have used his campaign to highlight the importance of workplace organisation in Rolls Royce to the victory at Barnoldswick. Not only the organisation at Barnoldswick itself which won the strike action but also in Rolls Royce nationally which produced their own strike fund to ‘top up’ Unite’s official strike fund (though Rolls Royce workers at Barnoldswick have now restarted strikes in the face of management reneging on the deal agreed in January).

Turner could have pointed to the Unite members at SPS-technologies in Leicester where every Unite member supported the picket line rota. Or the indefinite strike at Go North West in Manchester buses which saw the fire and rehire contracts withdrawn, or the action of Thurrock refuse workers in Essex. Turner could have pointed to the victory last December by Doncaster refuse workers after their vote for all out strike action or the highly effective action by rank and file construction electricians to defeat attempts at de-skilling. 

But instead Turner wants to highlight his ‘relationship of trust’ approach towards employers which places the premium on the union’s relationship with the employer, not the one with their members. 

Where this approach can lead can be seen at Honda in Swindon. In 2019, Honda announced the closure of the plant. Turner led the campaign to keep it open which included a sizeable march by Honda workers through the town. But the campaign centred on lobbying the firm and government to keep the plant open. Strikes, let alone occupations, were a threat to this strategy and so were not even on the table. 

The result? The Honda plant closes this month.

A ‘partnership’ approach also raises the question of what price is paid to maintain the ‘trust relationship’ with an employer. Would the union fail to support the anti-blacklisting campaign by construction workers because it might disrupt the relationship with the building employers? Or would the union be less enthusiastic about backing Unite members fighting cuts in a Labour council in case this disrupted the ‘trust relationship’ with Labour? 

And is this exactly what we saw coming from Turner when he said in the same Huffington post interview that “it angers me sometimes, that some of the union’s campaigning right now is pitched against our Mayors, against Sadiq and Andy Burnham. What’s that all about? I find that incredible that we would do that.”.

This was a public attack on Unite’s own campaign in support of bus workers in Manchester and London to publicly pressure Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan to use their powers as Mayors to deny contracts to firms that use fire and rehire. Sharon Graham was right to say: 

We are calling on Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan to publicly back a declaration which bars employers who use fire and rehire from bidding for future contracts in the great cities of London and Manchester. Warm words in support of the bus drivers in Manchester who are under attack are simply not enough and workers in London could be next. It’s time to act… While the government drags its heels, the Labour Mayors of Manchester and London must lead the way by using their powers to outlaw fire and rehire on their watch.

On the political front Turner has signalled that he is prepared to accommodate to Kier Starmer, telling the New Stateman last year when he launched his campaign for Unite general secretary that “I didn’t support Keir but Keir won. I’m a democratic centralist. It’s our job to steer and guide and influence the leadership, not to have a public spat with the leader of the Labour Party” and saying “I do not support in any way… a war of attrition inside our party which is being waged by some other candidates”. 

The election of Turner risks being a shift to the right in both political and industrial terms.  

Graham is the best candidate to beat Coyne

But wouldn’t Coyne be a much greater shift the right? It is true that Coyne represents the old Labour and trade union right, with ties to figures like Tom Watson who spearheaded the charge against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership inside the Labour Party, and the support of the right wing press. 

We are not complacent about Coyne. In the last Unite general secretary election in 2017, Len McCluskey received 1,185 branch nominations (double the number Turner received this year) to just 187 for Coyne. Yet when it came to the ballot of members, McCluskey only won by 59,067 votes to Coyne’s 53,544. 

But how did Coyne come so close to winning the general secretary position after over a decade of left leadership in Unite?

Clearly, the number of branch nominations – largely voted on by the unions’ more active layers –

 was not a reliable indicator of voting once the wider membership was balloted. What this points to is that a sizeable section of Unite’s membership felt the union hasn’t done enough to defend their conditions and that life at work has got harder at work over the previous decade.

Coyne presented himself, as he does now, as an opponent of the Unite establishment who could offer ‘change’. Despite having no answers to the problems union members are facing, he was able to exploit the feeling that something is wrong in the union and that ‘business as usual’ is not good enough.

And Turner is effectively the ‘business as usual’ candidate. His pitch is that basically things are ok with Unite. This is simply not an effective pitch against Coyne’s demand for change. Unite is the biggest private sector union in the country and it is not reversing the downward trend of private sector trade unionism. By contrast Graham is open about the problems activists and members in Unite face. And she proposes changes to the union to start to address these problems. 

So at her campaign launch meeting, for example, Graham raised the problem that in 2018 approximately 50 percent of places where Unite has a collective agreement with an employer saw below inflation pay awards and that the number of Unite reps is not growing. 

Graham’s campaign proposes solutions built around the old TGWU (and now Unite’s) organising agenda, which places building in the workplace as crucial and did succeed in unionising huge parts of food manufacturing and the cabin crew in aviation, and succeeded in improving trade union density in parts of established trade unionised workplaces – for example, in aerospace. However, as quickly as the union’s organising department recruited members, they were lost elsewhere through a combination of passivity and the acceptance of job losses. 

Graham’s campaign documents talk about:

“Rebuild the Shop Stewards Movement”

“Work with our Shop Stewards to make every workplace ‘action-ready’” 

“Ensure that training for new Shop Stewards is focused on building organisation and power at the workplace” 

“Our Shop Stewards will be given access to the details of their membership to enable better communication and organisation” 

“Unionise the key undercutters. Organise workers at critical firms that help dictate poor standards throughout the labour market – starting with Amazon. Organise the unorganised. Stop the race to the bottom by organising workers in the service Sector, including hospitality, and raising the floor. “

“Strongly worded press releases will not be enough. We cannot continue to allow the experience of our members to be different depending upon whom they deal with. We must demand and install a fighting mindset throughout our Union.”

“For many, confidence is fragile, and expectations can be low. Sometimes fear is as prevalent as the will to defend and protect. That is the reality and the context within which we find ourselves. But it does not excuse what has become an increasingly passive tendency within the Union” 

And it’s clear that a substantial number of activists are also not satisfied with ‘business as usual’. While the Unite full time machine in Scotland backed Howard Beckett (who has now withdrawn from the election) the overwhelming majority of the rest of Unite’s appointed regional and national officials backed Steve Turner. 

Yet despite the absence of official machine support, outside of the organising department which she heads, Graham secured the second highest number of nominations. And the combined membership of those branches who voted to back Graham was just 20,000 fewer than for the branches which nominated Turner. In a union of approximately a million members, Turner’s backing from the appointed officials delivered just 2 percent more than Graham’s much more lay engaged campaign. 

Graham argues for change from below

Graham’s campaign launch video starts with “Our power is rooted in the workplace. That’s how we win.”. This was made even clearer in a recent interview:

I started work as a silver service waitress and by 17 had led my first walk out in defence of casual workers. Doing that in what was a largely non-unionised industry teaches you a few things. You understand that workers’ power is held by workers themselves not by a union machine or bureaucracy. That is critical to the way that I still see unions today.

We need to build an army of leaders at the workplace and throughout the economy… 

That is what I am offering. A real industrial programme to build power at work and drive the politics from the bottom up. That requires change and therefore is resisted by many who are already part of the incumbent machine

Levels of participation are as low as the activity in the workplace. If your workplace is highly organised, with layers of reps and great communication, then you will have a far more active and involved membership. Where the opposite is true then apathy rules.

I see rebuilding an active, progressive shop stewards and reps movement as being absolutely critical to increasing the levels of engagement more generally.

Graham’s campaign provides an opportunity to raise and prioritise the issue of building workplace organisation throughout the union, to put building workplace organisation front and  centre in the union, as opposed to private chats with the employers or battles within the Labour Party. 

This is not just why Graham is a stronger candidate than Turner – but also why her campaign is better able to counter Coyne’s dishonest attempt to channel discontent to the right. 

The demand that Sharon Graham stand down to allow only one left candidate is flawed. There isn’t a fixed ‘left vote’ which will simply be smaller if divided between two candidates. Graham can tap into a wider, diffuse discontent in the union in a way Turner struggles to – and which otherwise could go towards Coyne. 

Sharon Graham and the SWP do not share the same politics. But her slogan “back to the workplace” can open a space for increased workers’ organisation – and increased workers’ resistance. 

But the SWP  believes that the process of rebuilding workplace strength is strengthened by bringing politics into the union and crucially, onto the shopfloor. Not a politics centred on internal Labour battles or lobbying MPs, but raising issues from anti-racism to Palestine solidarity in the workplace. 

Not only can this help build greater unity among workers but also help enthuse a new generation of activists who can build workplace organisation and drive the battle to unionise new sectors of industry, like Amazon. 

Graham tends to suggest addressing politics question will follow once workplace organisation is rebuilt – we think the two have to go together, that politics on the shopfloor is indispensable to strengthening working class organisation. We need to bring the spirit of the movements on the streets – climate change, Black Lives Matter, against sexism, Palestine – into our unions and workplaces. 

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. The movement of lay activists that is coalescing around Graham’s campaign will need to be increased and brought together irrespective of whether Graham wins or does not win the election. Either way the argument for building in the workplace will depend upon the active support of these workplace activists and on these activists having a clear socialist political direction of where they want to go. 

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