So who is Sharon Graham and what does she stand for?

Sharon Graham on the picket line with Weetabix staff, 29 September 2021

In the second part of this three-post blog series exploring the recent election of new Unite leader, Sharon Graham, I’ll explain a bit more about her priorities and approach. I’ll focus more on one particular aspect of her strategy in the final part of the series: Leverage campaigns and how they work.

I interviewed her a few years ago for a research study on union innovation that myself and Helen Blakely carried out and her detailed responses to questions set out her priorities very clearly. She carried these priorities into her successful election campaign and so what she said in our interview provides a good picture of where she is likely to take Unite.

Her election material focused on getting “back to the workplace” and building “a progressive union that moves beyond internal Labour politics.” These views should not be a surprise to anyone who has followed Unite’s work over the last several years. Before the election, Graham was head of Unite’s Organising and Leverage Department which has had a very high-profile role in Unite’s work and has been central to winning a whole series of disputes with employers.

In our interview, she set out four aspects of her organising approach:

  • Strong workplace organisation as part of a broader industrial strategy. The union has adopted the slogan “Work voice pay”, meaning secure work, a strong voice at work and decent pay and conditions
  • “Strike ready workplaces” so that if strike action is necessary, the capacity to do that exists
  • Sectoral combine committees
  • Leverage campaigns

She explained that to be successful, “organising goes wide and it goes deep”. So one aspect of this was Unite’s 100% campaign aiming to push up union density (the proportion of workers who are union members) in the 36,000 workplaces in which Unite has members. It also aimed to target previously unorganised areas – the gig economy for example.

But the point of the organising campaign is to build workplace power and that means the creation of what she calls “strike ready workplaces”. So when facing a hostile employer, if necessary:

“my big thing at that point is obviously if strike action can be taken we should take it. I mean for me if there’s a way to do it collectively, a collective strength thing, we should definitely do that.”

She stressed the importance of a realistic assessment of the strength of the union in any particular workplace, avoiding a formalistic approach that pointed to employer recognition of the union for example as a measure of success.

“I’d rather no recognition and 90% density. I don’t know what our fixation on recognition is, because if you’ve got recognition and 20% density everyone’s scared to do anything in case we lose recognition – we don’t do anything and then we haven’t got any members.  What’s the point of that?  There isn’t any point… that’s why when I was talking about strike ready workplaces. I’m not saying they should be strike ready because we’re all going to go on strike tomorrow.  But that’s how we win, we win by collectives. So if we haven’t got a collective we’re not going to win very much whatever it might be…

“And also where there’s 20% density the reality is we probably haven’t won very much for people…”

She was keen to eliminate any traces of complacency about organising and identified the dangers of an attitude that says:

“we’ve got a great relationship with this company, fantastic relationship with this company.  You’ll be fine, they’ll be let in, organisers will be in.  But of course, of course we’ve got a great relationship because we’ve won nothing, we’ve got 20% density and we haven’t asked for anything in bloody ages.”

Action at workplace level has to be steward-led with strong participation from the membership. It won’t be successful in the long run if paid officers of the union are expected to do it for members.

“If an issue comes up we should make sure that we collectivise around the issue.  Just because we can go in, an officer can go into the door of an employer and say by the way we need to have X, and that’s easy to win.  If you don’t involve the workers in the win you’re disempowering them, and then when something happens that they can’t deal with by somebody walking in and asking a question, then they’re not going to win that…  I mean the sort of thing about collectivity winning. So whether it’s a water fountain or a pay rise you need to have the workers involved. And so we do a lot of stuff in organising around collective actions building up to the win.  They can be anything from a petition to strike action, whatever that might be… so when we talk about strike ready workplaces it’s not just the infrastructure, have we got the stewards?  It’s also about what’s happening in the rest of the workplace as well…” 

The industrial strategy of work-voice-pay applies as much to the well organised workplaces as the weakly organised or unorganised ones. It is an approach that stewards can use to examine what has been achieved so far in their workplace and where new gains can be made:

“those at the top need to push up.  So if you have got good facilities, if you have got a full complement of stewards, what else does secure work mean?  What else does a strong voice mean?  Why haven’t we got a seat at the table?  Where is our bigger piece of the pie?  It’s not always just about pay, although pay is there.  It’s also about the add ons to that… 

“…we need pace setters to keep pacing as we keep pulling up from those areas that aren’t recognised.”  

Another element is the focus on building sectoral strength – such as in construction, energy, transport, health. So for example in construction, she told me that they target the large construction companies and then

“We’re looking at their subcontractors to have relationships with them, and the agencies that have relationships with them. So we’re doing almost a supply chain sector strategy, because when we do that we build combines, we effectively are able to push in really key things like minimum standard agreements for agency labour.”

The creation or rebuilding of shop stewards combines (networks of shop stewards from different companies) in sectors is about building strength in depth. The aim is for engaging with and gaining collective agreements with 75% of the industry employers at the same time:

“we use trigger agreements where we get one employer to sign, we put that in a drawer.  And when all of the employers have signed we then enact the agreement.”

Graham also explained more about the final key part of her organising approach: “leverage campaigns”, which you can read more about in the third and final part of this blog series.

Read part three: Leverage campaigns and how they work


Image provided by Unite the union. Sharon Graham on the picket line with Weetabix staff, 29 September 2021.