Now it is time to take our union back to the workplace and Sharon Graham is the only candidate who will do this. Her actions and winning record show this to be the case, not just warm words.
At times many of us have felt that Unite has focussed far too much on the Westminster bubble and not enough on the workplace. Many industrial activists have felt disconnected from the goings on inside our union.
We need to get back to our bread and butter. It is clear for all to see that our industrial power continues to decline and that non-union employers are ‘undercutting’ our terms and conditions and taking work from unionised workplaces. We need change and a real industrial strategy before we are past the point of no return. And by ‘industrial strategy’ we don’t mean a shopping list for opposition Labour politicians to wave around, but a plan for the workplace; a plan to grow our organisation and strength at the sharp end. The only person capable of doing this is Sharon.
If we don’t build real, practical solidarity, both domestically and internationally, over the next few years then automation and offshoring will continue to hammer at our membership and jobs. Sharon’s building of Combines in every campaign she is involved in shows the way forward. We must have real space for shop stewards and rep’s to forge alliances around a common bargaining agenda.
This will allow Unite to build its power and help to stop petty divides that so often play into employers’ hands. We also need to tackle the ‘undercutters’ whose poor pay rates are so often shoved down our throats by bosses squealing ‘market rate’ every time we enter negotiations. By producing a credible plan to tackle Amazon and a clear strategy to unionise the major employers in each of Unite’s sectors, Sharon has proven herself to be the real candidate for the workplace.
Our shop stewards are under attack like never before. When employers are actively trying to sack our reps we must put a stake in the ground. Unite needs to step up to the plate and deliver vastly increased support to our frontline.
Sharon has already committed to concrete action. Sharon will authorise a ballot for industrial action every time an employer issues one of our rep’s with a notice for dismissal. Where that is not possible other means of action, such as Leverage, will be deployed. This is so important because all too often we are seeing different responses from our union to these cases due to a lack of industrial co-ordination and culture. Our workplace activists are the backbone of our organisation and any attack on a rep is equivalent to an attack on the entire union.
We have also seen that Leverage campaigns led by Sharon can help defend our activists. Defending and winning for blacklisted activists, such as the victorious Crossrail campaign and negotiations led by Sharon, was a proud moment for our union. Now we need the option of Leverage to be on the table on each and every occasion it is needed.
Every day our shop stewards are going above and beyond, but we need to better support and equip them. Sharon’s vision of support for shop stewards and reps is extensive. She has already delivered practical tools for the workplace through Work, Voice and Pay, such as the Pay Claim Generator. Sharon has now committed to going much further, including a radical overhaul of our Education programme that will see it brought back in-house.
We need a union that does more than talk a good game and send out strongly worded press releases. We need a union that puts action before rhetoric. Too often we have seen cuts to jobs or pay and conditions met with an air of resignation, when the expectation must be to give every support to reps, shop stewards and members who want to fight.
Focus on Westminster politics cannot replace developing confidence in the need to fight and the ability to win within our industrial base. Nor is it a substitute for putting our weight behind any kind of strategy for the workplace. Sharon has shown by action, not just words, that she can deliver at the bargaining table.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we can face the future with optimism if we grasp the opportunity to take Unite back to the workplace. As Sharon says one of the most important things our union can do now is to deliver a clear and simple message to employers. If you make compulsory redundancies or impose cuts without agreement expect a ballot for industrial action or Leverage. That’s a straightforward message that makes it clear who we are and where we stand; giving clear support to our shop stewards, reps and members.
We must never flinch from taking on bad bosses – whoever they are. If we are honest, most of us can recall situations where Unite has not really opposed attacks made on our members. We don’t always do what it says on the tin. We need to consistently provide better support to our shop stewards and officers.
We need a clear industrial strategy that is backed up with meaningful support. Every Shop Steward Committee or Sector Reps Combine should be able to decide on the course of action and get the back-up they need. The experience of our members can vary wildly and this is simply not good enough.
Sharon has demonstrated what can be done against bad bosses. She has led and negotiated fourteen Leverage Campaigns, where industrial action on its own was not enough or simply not possible.
We cannot allow the behaviour of bad bosses to go by without a real fight. We need to create a demanding culture that will provide effective opposition to cuts every time this is needed.
Sharon has already said that this means ALL bad bosses, which includes Labour Councils if they attack our members’ jobs, terms and conditions. There can be no ‘no go’ areas.
Unite has played an important role in Equalities and done many important things, but we have stagnated and while policies are important we now need to turn them into long overdue action. We have to ensure that more than lip service is paid to Equalities. It has to be properly supported and resourced. It is the only area where the National Officer responsible is also expected to cover other work. It can feel like the Cinderella sector.
Sharon understands equalities and will work with each and every strand to produce a serious route map forward, both for the workplace and for our communities. Women, BAEM, LGBT+, Youth and Disability will be brought together to agree a dedicated framework and decide upon achievable goals that will become requirements as opposed to optional extras. Each framework will then become a pillar of an overarching plan that will prioritise pursuing the Equalities agenda directly at the workplace. Concrete action. With Sharon as General Secretary we will see introduce dedicated campaign budgets to back these plans up with resources.
Progressing the issues of our members is always a good thing and placing equal pay for equal work firmly on the bargaining agenda is no such exception. No one wants to see their colleague undercut or discriminated against in anyway. Raising everyone up is good for all our members. Sharon has demonstrated this commitment in practice when she led the successful campaign for equal treatment of migrant agency workers in the meat industry. We don’t protect ourselves by making things worse for others.
Learning from experience: retired members
Like others who come under the umbrella of Equalities, retired members have too often been left on the outside looking in. Too often viewed as no more than voting fodder who are promised sweeties at election time and then tolerated. Sharon won’t treat our activists as a mild hindrance, instead she sees retired members as a source of vital experience. She has a long history of working with our activists whether as a 24 year old campaigning with Jack Jones for universal benefits or much more recently leading the campaign to stop the TTIP trade deal and prevent the privatisation of our NHS.
If elected, Sharon will put her money where her mouth is and introduce a specific campaign budget for retirees. She wants our retired activists to get out and campaign on the issues that matter and she wants to find practical ways to draw on the experience of retired members, like a mentoring programme to help and support new shop stewards. This is the kind of action we can get behind.
This is not the time for business as usual. At times it can feel like our union is stuck on a hamster wheel, going round and round, but going nowhere in particular. It can feel like the union is just going through the motions. Marching behind the banner because that is what we have always done. Sending out the press release because that is what we have always done. Talking about the Labour Party, because that is what we have always done. We need to do more.
Our union can do better. We are not just an attachment of a political party. We are an industrial organisation with thousands of activists, ideas and a sense of who we are. We must now turn this promise into real change and Sharon is the only one with a clear strategy for the future.
Sharon has proven that she gets the need to for change. She is the architect of our Organising strategy – which is respected across the trade union world. She developed Leverage, an unsurpassed campaign strategy that actually beats bad bosses rather than just talking about it. She is action over empty rhetoric and that is what we need now.
Sharon has already committed to delivering a real industrial strategy for our union. One that will grow our power and influence from the workplace up. She is not going to dress up a shopping list of political demands as a meaningful plan. With Sharon as General Secretary, our union will return to the workplace. All major employers in each of our sectors will be unionised and the ‘undercutters’ like Amazon will be tackled. That is a real union plan. We need to take Unite forward, out of Westminster and back to the workplace.
What is Unite? How do we judge what has worked or not? Do we even have an ‘approach’ outside of internal party politics? We do of course, but if you read the media that is how it can feel at times. We must start being much clearer about where we stand and where our focus is. The workplace – jobs, pay and conditions.
Part of the problem is that the bright lights of Westminster have too often left what really matters to members in the shade. There is simply no coherent, credible plan for the workplace. And because there is no plan, we can’t be particularly effective or really harness new ideas and innovation. Our attention has been elsewhere for far too long. Sharon is committed to putting in place a concrete plan of action to defend jobs and protect pay and conditions. Her approach is dedicated to the workplace.
Sharon has already demonstrated her ability to generate and deliver effective new ideas. Unite Leverage, the plan to organise the Top 10 employers in every Sector and Work, Voice & Pay with its new digital tools for shop stewards, have proven her capable of forging a much more dynamic, forward thinking trade union.
Sharon will set the direction but also encourage everyone to contribute. New ideas won’t be lost in transit or simply ignored and mistakes will become opportunities to learn. She is not part of the ‘club’ and does not want to create a new one. Sharon believes in our union and the potential of our activists and that is what we need.
In many ways our union is one of the most democratic mass membership organisations in the country. Amongst other things members still get to elect the governing body of Unite and over 1,000 delegates attend conference to decide policy. But, like many things in our organisation we need to now go further. Without an effective and representative democracy Unite becomes distant from its rank and file members, elites form at the top and decisions taken in the name of the members are often completely unrelated to the reality of the workplace.
Now is the time to reform our democratic structures and take our union back to the workplace. That is why we are supporting the call made by Sharon for a comprehensive review of our democracy. Our union has over 20,000 industrial activists in the workplace and the shop stewards must be given a greater role in the decision making of our union.
Our reps must be empowered to take industrial decisions through the development of Combines and, through new mechanisms, take greater control of other areas of Unite’s work. We must also be creative and make use of new technology to really open up our policy making to ordinary workers. We know that Sharon is committed to creating a real Shop Stewards Parliament that will help take us back to the workplace.
It is clear that our union is at a cross-roads. We do not want an ‘elite’ to run Unite from head-office. We want a workers' union dedicated to delivering democratic policies agreed in the workplace.
Party politics should never be more important than the workplace and yet many of our members accuse us of exactly that. Losing ourselves in the internal world of the Labour Party has not been welcomed by the membership at large and neither has it happened overnight. Whatever your view, none of the warring Labour ‘factions’ has ever really talked to union members or can claim any credibility as far as the workplace goes.
For too long our members have seen their union as no more than a proxy for others and politics has been done from the top down not the bottom up. That has to change and Sharon Graham is the only candidate willing to do things differently.
Sharon is open about being on the left but she wants the power to start in the workplace. That is how we can move the politics in favour of workers. We have to make demands but we also need the power to push them through.
Sharon's commitment to a Workplace Manifesto agreed by a Shop Stewards Parliament, as the basis upon which to do our business, is a breath of fresh air.
Sharon will take union policies into Westminster not be lobbied by politicians who just want their programmes adopted by our union. Critically, Sharon will only use members’ money to support parliamentary candidates who have represented our union at the workplace and support Unite policies. Surely that is how it should be.