The truth of it is that I’d reached the point of exhaustion, I just didn’t realise it. After two years management could absorb our strike action and we had nothing left to beat them with. That was until Sharon Graham’s Leverage team came along. Four months later we’d won.
I was the lead steward for East Yorkshire at the ambulance service. The attack on us came in stages. First there was the coordinated attempt to remove active stewards. Of the 6 of us 5 were suddenly facing panels for sickness or final written warnings. That just made us dig our heels in.
Then came the plan to cut costs by de-skilling the ambulance driver and with that came de-recognition of the union. They thought that if they could beat us here then they’d set an example for the rest of the NHS.
We balloted and with more than half of the frontline workers in the union we knew we’d have an impact. I remember when we won the ballot a manager said to me: “I can’t believe you’ve gone on strike this early, now where can you go?” The problem is he was right.
We were having regular strikes for two years and we were hitting them in the media on a regular basis. I’m proud of the campaign we were fighting, but as time went on management were getting used to the level of pressure we could dish out. They were growing impervious and just waiting for us to break. They were vicious and it was taking a real toll on the stewards.
Then we met Sharon. Suddenly we were everywhere, we just overwhelmed them. It was immense! Sharon would speak to us at 6.30 in the morning and often at 10.30 that night. We’d review how we were doing every couple of days, and we were talking to reps and members every day to keep them involved.
I remember meeting Sharon in Leeds and she laid out the first three stages of the campaign. We never even made it to Stage 2. In four months they were beaten. Leverage is the best thing Unite does. It’s ace! Management didn’t know what hit them, it really rocks their world.
I want to see the principles behind Leverage applied to everything the union does. Sharon understands that to make employers respect us we need to have a real presence. We need to be able to pile on pressure – a credible threat used to deliver real aims. The only way we get that is being proactive rather than just being on the defensive. We could do that industry by industry. Pick targets, take on the rogues and set examples. It’s time to have that sort of industrial ambition!
Sometimes Unite seems like two organisations in one. What Sharon understands that others forget is that unless a union focuses on members, soon you won’t have any! Unite needs to be strong in the workplace before it can think about projecting that strength politically.
As far as I’m concerned, we should understand leverage politically too. Use the money we give to Labour as leverage – or even withhold it when we need to. Why would we give money unconditionally to politicians who resent us? If you want our money you need to get on board with what we’re about.
As a union we’ve lost ourselves a bit and we need to put our focus on the industrial. That’s why I’m supporting Sharon Graham 100%. She is our best hope.