In part one of a two part article, Unite rep and activist Raymond Morell assesses Sharon Graham’s time in office as leader of Unite the Union and its impact on the wider labour movement.

Photo credit: Andrew Skuder/Flickr

More strikes and victories

Since being elected as Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham has been seen to be supporting those fighting against the cost-of-living crisis in the workplace. The spike in strike action is impressive and while many disputes would have taken place regardless of the change in leadership, many concessions have been secured because of Graham’s change in priorities.

According to the Financial Times,

Graham recently sent a memo to regional officers at Unite, one of Britain’s biggest unions, saying that over 950 disputes had covered more than 150,000 members of the union. Unite has spent £10mn on strike pay so far this year, and spent £18mn last year and £5mn in 2021….. The figures are a marked increase compared with the equivalent £735,000 in 2020, £1.4mn in 2019 and £1.1mn in 2018.

The September report from Unite’s Executive Council claims a win rate of over 80% with over £400 million in members’ pockets as a result. There have been some genuine breakthroughs, but the picture is more mixed.

In air transport at Heathrow, Gatwick, and Manchester airport, workers won significant increases in pay and improved terms and conditions. At Edinburgh airport, a vote to strike was enough to win a 12 percent pay rise and a £1,000 lump sum.

As the Unite website reports:

‘The most industrially active area of the union has been the bus/passenger transport sector where there have been 140 disputes. Detailed analysis by Unite of Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures reveal wage rates in this sector have risen overall by £2,000. However, where Unite members have been involved in a dispute, pay has increased on average by £3,170, creating a Unite premium of £1,170.’

At Arriva in Newcastle and Northumbria workers won a twelve-month 11.9 percent pay rise and at National Express in the West Midlands they settled for a twelve-month deal for 16.2 percent with other improvements.

However, Unite members at homeless charity St Mungo’s won an improved, but still poor £1200 lump sum on top of already agreed pay rises after a 13-week strike. Unite refuse members in Cumbria who have been on an all-out strike from May to August, won a rise of 8.3 percent for loaders and 13.6 percent for drivers. In UK Power Networks, the two year 18 percent settlement looks impressive, but is below inflation.

Assessing the results

While Unite describes many below-inflation settlements as victories, we should be wary of painting them all as defeats. Some outcomes clearly are setbacks or defeats, for example in the public sector. However, we’re in a process of recovery where many workers are taking action for the first time and organisation is being built and rebuilt. Few strikers are returning to work feeling smashed. Most have something to show for it. The issue is that more could often have been won.

Below inflation pay offers have been the norm for many years. However, when inflation was low, they weren’t leading to action. While most pay disputes have resulted in below inflation deals, the fact that workers are fighting is an important step forward

At the core of the strategy is the ability to undertake sustained industrial action. With a strike fund in excess of £35m and members spread across industries so not striking at once, Unite offers £70 a day strike pay. This is higher than most other unions: GMB match it and only the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) pays more with £80 per day.

Another key element of Graham’s strategy has been the development of national ‘combine’ structures. Historically ‘combine committees’ were unofficial bodies made up of delegates from union committees in different workplaces in the same company or sector. Graham’s approach is to bring together reps from a group of workplaces, often an industry rather than a company, as a ‘combine’ that elects a leadership committee. One aim is to overcome the way regionally focussed structures can inhibit national coordination of disputes across the union. This approach is intended to encourage coordination and solidarity and limit the ability of employers to play workforces off against each other.

The development of combines has been relentlessly opposed by the broad left organisation, the United Left (UL), but has led to more action in local authorities on the bins and the buses. Workers learn about other disputes in their sectors across the country and gain confidence and institutional support to fight. In the finance sector, the combine has developed workplace and sectoral organisation that is helping reps break from a tradition of partnership with employers. This new approach has led to membership growth in a sector where the ONS has reported declining trade union density overall

Unite’s success in the private sector is due to a combination of factors. Inflation provides an incentive to take action, while labour shortages reduce its risks. Collective action challenges decades of atomisation and the weakening of collective organisation and cultures of solidarity. Significant organising resources and financial support helps Unite members use their structural power effectively. Some members have workplace bargaining power, where one group striking can cause much wider disruption in a service or production process or in the wider economy. Some have marketplace bargaining power from tight labour markets. High demand for labour across most sectors of the economy combined with tight deadlines puts some groups of workers in a powerful position.

It is notable that many of the biggest Unite successes involve bus, refuse or HGV drivers, where the labour shortage has been acute. In addition to trying to weaken workers’ bargaining power by slowing the economy through rising interest rates, the government has lowered standards for HGV driving tests to increase labour supply. Despite recent victories, pay rates for bus drivers remain fairly low – often around £15-£16 an hour outside London.

Public Sector

Unite have been unable to make any breakthroughs in the public sector where the Tories have been successful in pushing through significant pay cuts that no union has effectively challenged. While Unite have minority status as one of 14 unions in the health sector, it remains the largest sector in Unite with at least 100,000 members organising across a wide range of professional groups. It’s not credible to blame other unions for the lack of progress in recent pay campaigns. Unite is well-placed to take a more independent role in areas it represents and lead demands for above inflation pay rises need to retain staff in the NHS.

In education, Unite joined UNISON and the GMB in raising a complaint to the TUC against the NEU for organising and balloting school support staff. This resulted in a fine of £153,952 to be paid by the NEU to the three unions with a judgement stating “In future the NEU should take no action that could be regarded as organising activity amongst these workers.” This outrageous manoeuvre was more about protecting Unite, the GMB and UNISON interests and nothing to do with the interests of school support staff.

Decline in movement – Unite bucking the trend with growth?

This year’s ONS trade union membership statistics showed a decline of about 200,000, which came as a surprise against a backdrop of growing strikes. However, Unite has reported a steady increase in members over the last twelve months, with a net increase of over 23,600 across sectors excluding Docks, Food, Drink and Alcohol, Construction and Government, Defence, Prisons and Contractors.

Unite under Graham’s leadership is bucking the trend. The positive picture reflects the growing self-activity of reps and member and mark a historic turnaround with a significant reversal of the decline that had been evident for many years in Unite and its predecessor unions.

The increase in struggle combined with a number of victories, net membership growth and a shaking out of a number of older reps who have internalised decades of defeat are part of the process of recovery at a molecular level in some sections of the movement.

Part two will consider the political aspects of Sharon Graham’s leadership.


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