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  • Interview

What’s at stake for the left in Unite’s General Secretary election?

As the election of a new General Secretary for Britain’s biggest trade union gets underway, Red Pepper speaks to left candidates Sharon Graham and Steve Turner

16 to 20 minute read

A red waving Unite the Union flag

Red Pepper

What motivates you to run for Unite GS and what distinguishes your bid from the other candidates?

Sharon Graham

I led my first walk-out at 17 and I understand the power of trade unions to change lives. I want fundamental change. Positive, progressive change. The reality is that trade unions remain on life-support in large areas of the economy and if we do not finally grasp the nettle and begin to really address the issues that are staring us in the face then in 5-10 years it could be too late to turn round the tanker.

I certainly don’t agree with further regionalising our industrial structures, which now appears to be being proposed by Gerard Coyne and Steve Turner. That is a recipe for disaster. Many of our members are employed by giant conglomerates where decisions are made thousands of miles away. Why would we be making the union smaller and more divided when we face threats to jobs, pay and conditions? It’s like handing a victory to the boss.

And that is the problem with ‘the machine’. There are too many hands out wanting a piece of the pie, there is no concept of change and no real focus on building power.

Steve Turner

These are changing times and Covid-19 is rewiring how we live and work. Trade unions need to shape the future for our society, communities and working people and their families.

Climate change is a real and present crisis which is not only reshaping the nature of manufacturing but also bringing real and exciting opportunities. Unite must drive green change, and this is what motivates me. My Magnificent 7 plan will bring green jobs and opportunities to every corner of the UK and Ireland.

Unite is an industrial union and it needs an experienced industrial negotiator to lead it. I have decades of experience of representing members, negotiating agreements and standing up for working people. Finally, we need a leader who recognises that we need a union that looks and sounds like the people it aspires to speak for. While trade union membership is increasing, it is doing so only in the public sector. We’ve lost over 100,000 in the private sector in the last year and that’s a huge challenge for us and our organising models, as is the need to bring younger and BAEM workers into the union.

I helped set up our organising department and I’ve been proud to have led the Unite Community section of the union since its inception, as well as looking after our retired members’ section. And as GS I will lead the fight to extend furlough until 2022, because it’s far better to have people paying taxes than sitting on the dole.

Red Pepper

How would your leadership differ from the stewardship of Len McCluskey?

Sharon Graham

As all the candidates have done at one time or another (including Gerard by the way) I have voted for and campaigned for Len. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be significant change.

I’m not part of the union machine in the same way Steve is. I’m not a member of the United Left and hold very significant differences in opinion with Howard Beckett, Turner and Coyne on a whole host of union-related issues.

In addition to change in the way I will approach politics – from the workplace up – I hope that our members will notice at least two big changes with me as General Secretary. First, I make no bones about the need to overhaul the way in which we deal with members. It’s not big politics but it matters to so many people, that calls can go unanswered or that services are not accessible. That will change.

Second, I am the only candidate with a real plan for collective bargaining and I have by far the most experience of winning actual disputes. So, when our members face a fight for their jobs or difficult wage negotiations they will see a completely different approach. A far more decisive and comprehensive attitude will be taken to campaigns. I would go as far as to say that in many cases jobs will be saved that would otherwise be lost. I will also bring together our activists by firm and industry, so that we can begin to push back and drive standards up – we need to start delivering better pay and conditions. Now is the time to be proactive, not retreat. 

Steve Turner

Len became Unite GS in a very different time to now. While automation and climate crisis were being talked about then, they are very much upon us now.  As for Covid, it was the stuff of sci-fi nightmares.

So for me this is about being a leader for these times. People want the right to live and work in their communities, not to have to move miles to find jobs. My Charter for Change sets out my vision for how Unite leads the conversation about the future for our nations, reconnects with our members and expands our reach into new industries and sectors.

I’d like to think that as GS I will be more of a team-builder than my predecessors, with more decentralised decision making and pulling diverse teams of people together to make better decisions. I want to engage with people in an open way, ensuring they feel free to contribute and engage and, of course, to disagree. That’s how we make our union stronger.

Red Pepper

How has your own experience as a union activist in the workplace influenced your vision for Unite today?

Sharon Graham

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. Of course we need to service individual members better and I will make sure that happens, but to build power and deliver real change we need strong self-sustaining organisation.

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.

Steve Turner

I’ve walked in the shoes of our members ever since I joined our union, sharing their aspirations and frustrations. It’s these shared experiences that set me apart from the other candidates and make me who I am today.

I’m a pragmatist. I understand that doing this requires us to sit down with whoever we have to sit down with. Yes, I’m a socialist and yes, I am a million miles from Tory ministers, but I will sit down with them to cut a deal for my members, like I did with the furlough scheme.      

And on steel, we’ve been here before. I was part of the negotiations that saved Scunthorpe and I’m at the table right now, dragging this government away from its instinct to sit on its hands and do nothing, because thousands of jobs depend on it doing the right thing.

Red Pepper

What is your assessment of the levels of participation of members in branches and in the activity of the union – education, campaigns and so on? Do you think it could be improved and how? Would you consider Unite a democratic union?

Sharon Graham

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.

Outside of the workplace, the union is basically a democratic organisation, but that certainly does not mean that things can’t be dramatically improved. As with any large organisation, oligarchy remains a problem, which is why I will introduce a Democracy Commission to work with lay reps and deliver a structure fit for the future. We must increase the flow of information and make decision making as transparent as it can be.

Steve Turner

Covid has certainly shown us just how the use of technology can increase the participation of members at all levels of their union by making meetings and activities so much more accessible. We are a democratic union, but this increase in participation can only make it more so. 

We must ensure that this increased accessibility continues, even in a post-Covid world. No one should be excluded from participation in the structures, life and democracy of their union. As GS I will put in place a new workplace development and innovation programme to support branches and workplaces looking to use digital tech to increase participation and build our organisation, test new ideas and methods of engagement.  

I will bring together a diverse ‘leadership team’ nationally and decentralise as appropriate. I will deliver more resources to develop stronger regions, workplace organisation, and more effective branches. 

Red Pepper

How did you understand the 2019 General Election result and the end of the Corbyn movement? What do you make of the fact that approximately 40 per cent of Unite members voted Tory?

Sharon Graham

In a word: inevitable. For all of the advances in policy and the profound change in rhetoric, very little was built beneath the leader. I think this is the main issue facing the left. Not whether or not Starmer must go, but how do we deliver power to win in key issues. I don’t see a serious theory of change coming from any of the left commentators. So much of the discussion is purely tactical and focuses on the day-to-day. It’s as if they have become completely disorientated.

In the same vein I was absolutely not surprised that almost half of our members voted Tory. Sadly, the union is not yet equipped to do the work within its membership and why wouldn’t Unite members be moved by the dominant narrative?

From what I can see, the left is continuing to talk relentlessly to itself and at times appears to be more interested in what it is against than what it is for. I think we should be more focussed on building a bridge to the population at large.

Steve Turner

We had a fantastic manifesto in 2017, built on in 2019. That manifesto didn’t lose us the 2019 election, it was Brexit. The ideas in that manifesto were incredibly popular, but we just couldn’t have the discussions we needed to because Brexit obscured everything. 

Of course, some Unite members in England voted Tory. But they have different options in the devolved nations and expressed very different opinions there. 

Our members didn’t vote to lose their jobs when they voted to leave the EU, but they did want Brexit done. Labour’s muddled policy looked distinctly as though it didn’t share that view. The party’s stated commitment that it would negotiate a credible leave option that protected jobs just didn’t seem believable.

Red Pepper

A lot has been said about union disaffiliation from the Labour party. What do you think of the current Starmer regime? In or out of the Labour Party, what role do you see for Unite in rebuilding or leading the wider Left? What do you think the role of Unite Community could be in this?

Sharon Graham

Look, I think disaffiliation is a red herring. I’m not a great fan of what is going on but without PR electoral alternatives are difficult to envisage. Having said that, I certainly don’t agree with giving blank cheques to politicians. Together with our reps I will produce a Workers’ Manifesto and it should go without saying that I will expect serious movement on our priorities – the priorities of workers. 

If people read our Manifesto, they will see that in terms of this election we have a distinct view on politics. We see progressive politics as being a lot more than elections and the Labour Party – as important as that can be. We need to build a sustainable progressive platform that sits outside of any party. We need to build a real base within workplaces and communities – they are our twin pillars if you like.

You can’t rely on a leader or spontaneous action. We have to build a movement ourselves. That means organising properly in workplaces and linking that to communities. Fortunately we have the resources within the political fund to do this. Progressive politics has to start meaning something to people’s everyday lives. We have to work with people to identify issues and then set about solving them. We sponsor a whole host of noble causes but do very little of this work ourselves. We need to become part of the fabric of a community, build trust and earn your credibility. Great policies are not enough, we need to do the hard, unglamorous work of organising.

Steve Turner

I cannot hide my disappointment with Keir Starmer. I didn’t vote for him, I backed Becky Long-Bailey, but I’m a democrat and after he was elected with such a big majority and on ten clear, radical pledges, I committed to working with him. 

The pandemic was an opportunity for Labour to steer this country’s response to the crisis in defence of our national interests and our vision for our post-Covid economy.

Instead, Keir has made the choice to allow the government to disengage from Westminster and our party to become more and more irrelevant as the debate becomes more limited.

People want to see a clear vision for the future, not internal division and navel-gazing. A future that gives them the security they need for themselves and their kids and coming generations. Keir needs to step up to the plate and generate a clear distinctive vision for our party moving forward. Above all else our party needs to get back into our communities, which is why it was a huge mistake to close down the community organising project. 

However, I must be clear. I’m running to be general secretary of my union, not to be leader of the Labour party. Unite is not and must not be a political playground. That said, as GS I would work hard with other union leaders to pull the Labour left together – the inclusive, tolerant left – to create a vision of a better Britain. 

In terms of Unite Community, it has played, and will continue to play, a huge role in supporting families in our communities. Unite Community has brought a level of activism into our union that I’m proud of.

Red Pepper

There has been some excitement in union spaces about the rise of smaller, ‘more radical’ outfits such as IWGB and UVW who have been organising amongst supposedly harder to reach workers in outsourced industries. What do you make of them? Do you see them as a challenge to the more established unions?

Sharon Graham

We get why people on the left are attracted to it and there is much to be positive about. New initiatives, different voices etc. But we see a lot of their activities as akin to radical servicing rather than deep organising.

Personally, I think it is great to have people demanding more from the big unions and putting the spotlight on workers who are often forgotten, but this does not mean that they will emerge as major players. They will likely remain much smaller organisations and as such I see their role as defending the members they have and lighting a fire under some of us!

Eventually, if they grow to any size, they will face the same problems and have to learn the same lessons as the older, more established unions have faced: democracy, the role of collective bargaining, Westminster etc.

Steve Turner

These unions have ‘popped up’ in response to a vacuum in the representation of workers in the gig economy and precarious sectors. In that sense, yes, they are a challenge to us. But it’s a challenge in a good way. I’ve already mentioned the need to invest in digital tech and networks in order to reach workers in these sectors in ways that are most relevant to them. 

That’s what the new, small unions have been doing. Developing apps that bring workers together in the likes of Amazon, Deliveroo and McDonalds and all those high street restaurant chains where we’ve been trying to fight for fair tips and decent pay. We’re never going to reach and rebuild in the private sector unless we learn from them.

By examining and implementing new organising strategies to grow in expanding sectors such as IT, social care, online sales and the gig economy, I will ensure that Unite steps up to that challenge.

Red Pepper

Reducing carbon emissions to save the planet – and humanity with it – will involve a decarbonisation of the industrial production that involves many of your members. What positive role would you lead Unite and its members to play in the necessary process of transition to a low carbon economy?

Sharon Graham

We all agree that climate change is a critical issue for working people. Nobody on the ballot would disagree with that. The issue is what do we do as a trade union? Fundamentally, we have to bring the members with us. That means we have to do a lot more than make statements and waste our time getting ignored by civil servants and junior ministers. One of the first things I will be doing is bringing our shop stewards together by industry to discuss the future, including how we tackle decarbonisation. The issue will also from a core part of the new in-house education service that I will introduce.

But the single biggest thing we need to do is to develop a coherent bargaining agenda on the issue. It is no good just telling people what to do. We need to get people on board with any change – our reps have to own it for any practical action to be successful.

One other thing. It is easy to talk about creating ‘millions of jobs’ but no General Secretary is going to snap their fingers and make that a reality. We can argue for it, we can demand it and we can build the power to try and force it. But no GS is going to single handed deliver ‘green jobs’. That is a fairy tale without foundation or substance.

Steve Turner

There’s a real opportunity right now, not just because of Covid, but with the climate emergency and our post-Brexit trading relationships, to reset the clock and put manufacturing back centre stage in a new, greener and fairer economy. 

For me, a strong manufacturing base is central to reversing the shocking inequalities in this country, but the government seems clueless on this. That’s why I’ve developed Unite’s own industrial strategy, in the absence of a government one.      

As I said, I recently launched our Magnificent 7 projects to create over a million new green jobs. This is about transitioning our existing core industries: our auto industry to move from combustion engines to green technology – batteries or fuel cell hydrogen – and our steel manufacturing to ARC furnaces and hydrogen.

We need to manufacture that hydrogen and generate that green electricity here in the UK. And if we’re to build the million new council houses, we need to address the urgent housing crisis, and to retrofit our homes and commercial properties to decarbonise them. And we must do it with directly employed, skilled, secure, unionised, well paid jobs.

We have the largest off-shore wind farms in Europe around our coasts, yet not a single wind turbine is made here. What could have been a real success story in the generation of non-fossil fuel power has become a huge obstacle to the creation of good, legacy jobs. 

We want to put broadband into everyone’s homes. That ridiculed Labour policy – how useful would that have been over the last year? Doing this will create thousands of jobs. But we don’t even manufacture the high-speed fibre optic cable we need.

Red Pepper

Given the result of the UNISON elections where left candidates split the vote and let in the right of the union, why is there not a single left candidate?

Sharon Graham

This whole ‘unity’ line is largely a cynical device being used by a certain camp to rally the troops. It was purposefully fed to certain members of the commentariat who have little or no knowledge of Unite and who then whipped it up into something faintly ridiculous and at times downright obnoxious. The reality is that there are no ‘block votes’ in the Union for either the so-called left or the right. I’d challenge anyone to go back through our electoral history and show a clear pattern.

The truth is, my campaign always knew that Gerard had a very good chance of making the ballot. It doesn’t fundamentally change the dynamics for us in a way it clearly does for others.

It’s true that he is on the softer side of the Labour Party. People forget that Gerard voted for Len in the first two of his elections. The fall-out surrounded Labour as opposed to anything to do with workers. The next period of our union cannot be dictated by the settling of old scores and phony wars – workers do not have time for this.

My campaign has a fundamentally different view about the future. There was never a deal to be done that wouldn’t have compromised our entire programme for change. Turner believes that the union should retreat into regional apparatus whilst my plan is to reduce the barriers in the union that stop workers coming together.

This is not just about driving the organising programme, it is also about building a union that can defend jobs and deliver better pay and conditions. Beckett / Turner did not offer that. It is interesting that at no time was it considered that Steve should stand down. The ‘it is my turn’ tactic is simply wrong for our union. We need a programme of urgent renewal.

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