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Hope for a stronger union in the U.K.

An interview on the Unite union election

On August 25, 2021, left-wing candidate Sharon Graham won a competitive union election, becoming the first woman general secretary to lead Unite the Union in the U.K. Tempest’s Joe Allen interviewed Ian Allinson, a member of rs21 and former rank and file socialist candidate for General Secretary of Unite the Union in 2017, on the recent election and the opportunities this creates for labor and the Left. 

Joe Allen: Please explain to our readers why the recent election in the U.K.-based Unite the Union was so important.

Ian Allinson: Unite the Union is the second biggest union in Britain, and it also organizes in Ireland. The product of successive mergers, it has members in almost every part of the public and private sectors, with large numbers in manufacturing, transport, health, and construction. Unite accounts for a high proportion of the strikes and strike threats in Britain, though these often involve smaller numbers of members than strikes by smaller industrially-focused unions. As well as its industrial importance, Unite plays a significant political role as the largest affiliate to the Labour Party and was supportive of Jeremy Corbyn when he was its left-wing leader. Len McCluskey had been the leader of Unite since 2010 and was backed by the biggest left grouping within the union, the United Left, though dissatisfaction with the status quo had been growing. His retirement sparked a major battle over the future direction of the union, with ramifications for the whole labor movement.

JA: Can you tell us the significance of Sharon Graham’s election for moving the trade union movement in a better direction?

IA: The election presented members with a choice of three roads for Unite to go down. Steve Turner was McCluskey’s chosen successor and broadly promised more of the same. This included rhetorical and financial support for various left-wing causes, but also a desire for “partnership” with employers and a reluctance to challenge the rightward moving Labour Party, which is out of national government, but still controls many local parts of the state that employ Unite members. Gerard Coyne was a clear right-wing candidate who sought to build support with populist criticisms of the status quo and promised competent management of the union as a provider of individual services for members. Coyne claimed to be disinterested in politics, but in reality his main backing came from the Labour Right and the Tory-supporting media, rather than from inside the union.

By contrast, Sharon Graham offered hope for a stronger union. Though union membership in Britain has been broadly stable in recent years, Unite’s paying membership has declined, only offset by mergers. Graham had been head of Unite’s “organizing and leverage” department and was identified with many of the disputes where Unite adopted the most “no holds barred” approach, often with positive results. This meant her campaign attracted support from many of those involved in key disputes and the most militant activists. Unite’s organizing hasn’t made great breakthroughs in recent years, since the union’s focus switched to “infill” recruitment and organizing in workplaces with existing collective [bargaining] agreements in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Part of Graham’s pitch was to identify the top ten companies in every industrial sector, along with any key undercutters, and target them for systematic organizing work. Her pledge to go after Amazon helped her get across the idea of a union getting off the back foot at last. She published a detailed manifesto which included reforming the union’s dysfunctional structures, which currently make it hard for people to participate, hinder a coordinated response to employers that span multiple regions, and often lack concrete plans of action or the resources to deliver them.

Unite the Union protest at HS2 Euston site, London 6th August 2021; Photo by Steve Eason.

JA: The broad Left in the U.K was very split about whether to support Graham’s campaign. Why was the Left so divided?

IA: The United Left had been the main grouping in Unite since its formation. Though it sometimes played a useful role, such as securing Unite’s backing for Jeremy Corbyn, it had increasingly become an electoral machine closely aligned to the paid union apparatus. As a result, it often opposed left-wing positions in key debates at union conferences, relied on bureaucratic and anti-democratic manoeuvres to maintain its power, and attracted people with no real left credentials who simply wanted leadership positions. There were always left activists outside the United Left—a minority supported Jerry Hicks or me when we stood for General Secretary in previous elections. But the decay of the United Left meant that when this election came around, many people’s allegiances arose from personal loyalties rather than political differences. The United Left split three ways–with members supporting Steve Turner as the official United Left candidate, Howard Beckett (who claimed Turner’s supporters rigged the election, then withdrew to back him), or Sharon Graham.

Beckett’s campaign was the most politically radical and appealed to those in Unite whose main activity was in the Labour Party, rather than in the union. But Corbynism is over, Labour is moving to the right, and plans for Unite’s political role didn’t address the concerns of members about their union. Many of those who were most involved with Labour were suspicious of Graham because she said, “We have tried our political project within Labour—it has failed,” and, “The almost exclusive focus on the Labour Party has been at the expense of building organization that can be sustained outside of the ebb and flow of Westminster cycles.” Turner attacked Graham in the press for putting pressure on Labour mayors during a bus strike. The fact that, despite this, many of Beckett’s supporters followed his lead to back Turner suggests they prioritised loyalty to Labour over a left-wing agenda.

Supporters of both Beckett and Turner often claimed that there was little to choose between either of them and Graham. They piled pressure (some of it sexist) on Graham to stand down, claiming that Turner, as the official left candidate, had the best prospects of defeating Coyne. They overestimated the support for the official Left and underestimated the thirst for change. There are also grounds for skepticism about how serious Turner’s camp was about prioritising defeating Coyne over his own victory. Everyone agreed that a high turnout would help defeat Coyne and the Right, yet not a single one of the union’s regions—all controlled by Turner’s supporters—arranged debates between candidates, despite these being authorised by the union’s Executive Council.

JA: What do you expect from Graham over the next year?

IA: Graham has already signalled a change in union culture by moving her office to be more accessible to members and setting up a hotline for members to contact her team directly. She is arranging a meeting for all reps involved in disputes to discuss how she can ensure they get the support they need. She is launching a new inquiry into the involvement of union officers in the blacklisting of members in the construction industry. Some of the worst officials are reported to be looking to draw their pensions. The media is reporting on the launch of her campaign to unionize Amazon, where she plans to work with unions in the U.S. and Germany to force a neutrality agreement to make organizing easier.

Central to Graham’s plans are the creation and strengthening of “combine” organizations, which bring together activists from within a particular workplace or industry so that they can share information and plan organizing and campaigning in a coordinated way. At the moment, most union resources are held in regions and the union is pretty bad at expanding unionization efforts to job sites in different regions. Unite has a major delegate conference taking place in October and we expect this to be a major focus for rolling out Graham’s plans.

JA: What are the perspectives of rank and file socialist activists following Graham’s election?

IA: The leader of Unite has a lot of power and can contribute to changing the policy, culture and direction of the union, but they can’t do it on their own. The right-wing media are already attacking Graham. She will meet resistance from parts of the bureaucracy who oppose confrontation with employers and the government. The Labour Right will try to take advantage of her for prioritizing the workplace over politics. We need a strong rank and file and a strong Left, independent of the general secretary, to take advantage of the opportunities her election presents. One of the weaknesses of her campaign was a focus on the workplace that sometimes sounded narrow and economistic. It’s not that she is against politics, but she recognizes that without rebuilding workplace power, the union’s political power declines, too. However, she was reluctant to argue for positions on key issues during the election–from dealing with COVID-19 or the climate crisis to responding to new repressive legislation.

Socialists have an important job to do in arguing for left policies within the union and against any attempt to narrow our focus to purely jobs, pay, and conditions, rather than encompassing all of the issues affecting members, from migrant rights to a just transition away from fossil fuels. A stronger and more combative union at the workplace level is more fertile ground to make such arguments, but they won’t be won automatically. Equally, we have to ensure that a “Democracy Commission” which Graham has pledged to set up gives more power to rank and file members. Graham’s victory opens up new opportunities, but as she recognizes herself, this is the start of the work, not the end of it.

Featured Image Credit: RS21. Tempest.

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Joe Allen View All

Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.