Unite the Union’s new leader, Sharon Graham, like the railway workers’ leader Mick Lynch, is being held up as an example of a new kind of trade union leader, “determined to win for workers”. She heads the country’s second largest union of around 1.3m members and has been described as “left” and even “hard left” by some of the press. Since her election just over a year ago (on 26 August 2021), she has been credited with having resolved over 450 disputes, many involving workers taking strike action over pay, and achieving an 80% success rate.
She says that she is just “doing what it says on the trade union tin - fighting for jobs, pay and conditions”, and that she (or the workforce on strike?) wins because she is prepared to play hard ball - taking no nonsense from the employers.
What is apparent and indeed seems a little different from the recent past, is that the workers belonging to Unite are at least being called (“called” being the operative word) to go on actual strike, rather than have their strike ballots used as mere bargaining chips in negotiations and hardly ever put into action.
So for instance, at the time of writing, 560 Liverpool dock workers employed by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) are striking for 2 weeks over pay (delayed in respect of the dead queen), which has not happened for several decades. What is more, in the past many years, when any of the union leaderships called a strike, it was usually for a token 24 hours at most. Graham has appeared on the Liverpool picket line. She has also called a second, overlapping, 8-day strike at Felixstowe, the largest container port in the country, where, at the end of August, workers took the very first strike action seen on Britain’s docks for 30 years. So yes, it does indeed seem as if she means business.
But what “business”, exactly? This article is an attempt to answer that question. But also to try to assess what Graham’s approach might signify for the workers involved in Unite’s current flurry of strikes or indeed, for the working class at large. It ends with a section discussing in some detail, Unite’s recent intervention at the BMW Oxford Mini plant’s logistics contractor, Rudolph and Hellman, where subcontracted workers are (still!) fighting for decent pay and conditions.
The surprise choice
Sharon Graham was considered an outside candidate in last year’s leadership election and unlikely to win. She put herself forward as the “back to the workplace candidate”, despite having been a fulltime union official for over 20 years. In fact her own “workplace” experience seems rather thin. She told a Financial Times interviewer how she had done a brief spell working as a silver service waitress when she was in her late teens. Thus, wrote the FT, “London-born Graham’s affinity for collective action started… when... she led a protest against agency workers being paid less than other staff. [She] said, ‘Right OK, we’ll serve the first course but we’re not going to clear. ’ Graham continued: ‘The biggest lesson I learnt from that, was I believed that the weight of argument - you being right - meant that you could change things. Then you learn, no it’s not... because that’s not how the world is’”.
Her victory in the leadership contest - she is also the first female to head the union - was apparently a big surprise to all those involved. Paradoxically, she may have been helped by a misogynistic campaign against her, which rallied supporters and allowed her to garner votes which might not otherwise even have been cast - given that these elections always have a notoriously low turnout.
She was, however, not backed by the outgoing leader, Len McCluskey, who had been general secretary for 10 years and was retiring early. Nicknamed “Red”, McCluskey, in his youth, had supported the Trotskyist Militant Tendency and has been one of the hapless Jeremy Corbyn’s most prominent and closest allies, defending him even after he had been tarred and feathered (metaphorically speaking) by the now dominant right-wing faction in his own Labour Party, led by his former deputy, (“Sir”) Keir Starmer. In fact McCluskey chose to back Steve Turner, the union’s assistant general secretary, who was regarded as his “continuity candidate” and for whom another left-Labour candidate had made way. The third candidate, Gerard Coyne stood as a moderate, apparently supporting Labour’s rightwing.
Graham, albeit labelled “left”, made it very clear right from the start, that she was not tying her colours to the mast of the Labour Party, nor any other political organisation. Despite this, left-wing members of the Labour faction Momentum, which had so enthusiastically supported Corbyn, as well as the far left Socialist Workers’ Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Trotskyist Socialist Party, campaigned for her. But this merely reflected their political approach vis-a-vis the working class., i.e., that the best way to win the class struggle is to have left-wing leaders everywhere.
There was little interest in the election among the union’s rank and file. Barely 10% of the membership cast a vote - an average turnout for such an election and a reflection of the absence today even of the minimal shop floor union life which still used to exist in the 1980s and 1990s.
Graham won with 46,696 (37.7%) votes, Steve Turner came second with 41,833 (33.8%) votes and Gerard Coyne third, with 35,334 (28.5%) - a total of 124,147 casting a ballot out of a membership of 1.24m at the time.
Workers’ power, applied to her machine?
Graham continues to insist that she has no intention of getting involved in the internal wrangles of the Labour Party and its leadership. She decries what she describes as the union’s former “obsession with Labour” and has repeatedly said that “the days of the political dog wagging the union’s industrial tail” are over.
In an article for Tribune, the left-Labour magazine, last December, entitled “We must build popular, working class power” she wrote: “Outside of the workplace, many comrades remain singularly enthralled to (sic) the restoration of a political project that has no realistic road map for revival. Speaking plainly, it is time to face facts. There is no Westminster hero coming to save us. We must do it ourselves, before it is too late. Specifically, we must build popular, working-class power. To that end, it is important that we remember that the progressive left is more than Parliament, and more than the leadership of one party. It can sometimes look as though we have forgotten that fact – forgotten that there was a time before Corbyn, and that the parliamentary road also has its limits…”.
Of course it is true that all along during the pre-Blair decades, Labour’s “socialist” wing promised socialism through parliamentary reform - the “parliamentary road to socialism” - and not only they, of course, but the old Moscow-linked, Stalinist Communist Party whose daily newspaper, the Morning Star, miraculously survives today, thanks to trade union funding. Corbyn revived this parliamentary road and was ridiculed for his pains, but mostly from Labour’s right wing.
Graham however, obviously wants to appear radical. So she speaks of building “popular, working class power”. But she certainly does not mean this in the sense of “we the workers ARE the union – and therefore can take power into our own hands”.
In fact it seems that she sees the main task of her “modern” trade unionism, not as a rank and file revival but getting the existing union bureaucracy into shape; turning it into a slick and efficient machine, which can out-perform the bosses’ slick and efficient machine... In fact one lawyer-led, clinical operation, against another.
She boasts that she has “set up a special disputes unit within the current union structures to make sure every step is taken to win disputes for our workers. This is a new, powerful response to what needs to be done to lead the union fightback across the UK and Ireland”.
In May, the Financial Times interview with her admiringly wrote how she had created a “pay claim generator”, a computer tool whereby union reps can plug in their employer information, and voila! A pay claim is generated by the software, without any involvement whatsoever of the workers who actually work there! She employs economists and forensic accountants to investigate companies and “their ability to pay”, with the pay claim generator adapting to whether the company has a “high” ability to pay (profit margin of 5%+) or not, based on the current and previous year’s data.
As she explains, her new Dispute Resolution Unit provides research, tech tools and “forensic” accounting support to those in dispute. Unite has an economist for the first time, working on the Unite Bargaining Index (based on the higher RPI measure of inflation) and a profiteering commission looking back at pandemic profits. Graham reckons her approach is “probably more worrying to bad employers than whether or not we support the Labour party”...
Graham had not only been a full-time official for Unite for 20 years but head of the so-called “organising and leverage department”. She says, “The department started really with me . . . and 17 years later we had 135 organisers and we were advising other unions in other countries how to run leverage”.
In fact the word “leverage” appeared frequently on her campaign leaflets. Members of far-left groups campaigning for her even told others, very gravely, that Graham’s ability to use “leverage” was the reason to back her!
What it actually meant was that she specialised in investigating and meeting with politicians, company directors, shareholders, investors and suppliers - anybody or bodies who might have a hold over, or influence upon, the employer involved in a dispute with the union’s members. The idea being to use this as “leverage” against the employer. She says that while running this department, she had “run probably 16 or 17 leverage campaigns and never lost one. None of them [the companies in dispute] stepped over the line because what leverage is about is you follow the money . . . making sure we are putting pressure points on things that are important to that organisation. And they haven’t really been able to deal with it”.
So there it is... This is about as far as a union official can get from organising workers to fight for their pay and conditions themselves, let alone from allowing them any control over the proceedings! In fact as far from the workplace as it is possible to get.
When British Airways tried to fire and then rehire cargo workers on worse contracts in 2020, Graham applied “leverage”: she got Members of Parliament to pledge to “review” BA’s access to privileged landing and take-off slots, if they didn’t back off. The blackmail worked, she said, and the threat of fire and rehire was withdrawn with those already dismissed offered their jobs back on their previous contracts.
She has used the same tactic since taking office: in February this year, she threatened to pull funding from the Labour party over the Coventry bin dispute, where lorry drivers in the Labour-run city were being refused a pay-rise by the council. She announced that since Unite is the Labour Party’s main donor (through £1m in annual affiliation fees and additional donations), Labour councils which behave this way towards their workers could be putting in jeopardy the union’s funding of the Party. Since she took office the Labour party has only received the affiliation fee and nothing else. No doubt this is Graham’s Unite deciding that the union tail will now wag the political dog…
Where the union didn’t go
Graham says that Unite recognises that there are great challenges facing the trade unions. Her underlying objective is certainly to tackle falling membership numbers. Good union bureaucrat that she is, she blames the lack of unionisation of the workforce and the loss of collective bargaining, for the falling share of wealth going to workers.
The proportion of workers in unions has halved over the past 40 years. In fact today total union membership stands at just 6.5 million - 23.7 % out of an employed workforce of 37.5m million. In 1979, regarded as the heyday of the unions, unionisation peaked at 13.2 million - which represented 53% of the then 25 million-strong workforce.
Unite itself has lost around 700,000 members since its formation in 2007 as a result of the merger between engineering union Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. These were both old fashioned “industrial unions”. But of course industry continued to decline in the last 2-3 decades. Today, Unite takes second place to the public sector union, Unison, which, with 1.3m members, is not only the largest union in Britain, but also claims to be the largest in Europe - reflecting the relative increase in service and public sector permanent part-time jobs.
Unite’s loss of members reflects first and foremost the significant loss of both skilled and semi-skilled manual factory jobs. In the 2000s, there was a systematic replacement of permanent workers with temporary workers - particularly after the Labour governments of Blair and Brown gave their blessing to casualisation. Temporary workers, who are very likely to be on precarious, if not zero-hours contracts these days and paid a pittance, are highly unlikely to join a union - or even to realise they have such an option.
In other words, if unions are to blame for anything in the last 20 years, this must be, above all, their utter and abject failure, across the board, to oppose the destructive, devastating and demoralising effect of casualisation on the working class!
The example of BMW Oxford
Sharon Graham’s campaign to revive the union and gain members among “non-unionised employers” arrived outside the BMW MINI factory in Oxford, Cowley in September 2021 and in particular, outside its logistics sub-contractor Rudolph and Hellmann.
This plant provides a blatant example of the abuse, over the last 20 years, of casual workers, who have been employed through an ever-changing array of staff agencies since 2001. Over these years, the proportion of agency workers to permanent workers has been ever-increasing. Today, out of 3,500 workers in assembly, body-in-white and the paint shop, 1,500 temporary workers are employed by the temp agency Staffline. According to the contract under which they are employed, neither the agency nor BMW guarantees them work, so their employment can be cancelled without notice, at any time. Nonetheless, the majority of these workers work regular shifts at BMW, alongside permanent workers, even though they don’t get the same pay until after 2 years of service. There’s no obligation for the bosses to give them a permanent job. Some workers have remained “temporary” for up to 10 years!
Agency workers, just like permanent BMW workers, can join Unite, but the union has a separate recognition agreement with Staffline. So when BMW permanent workers vote on pay deals or shift changes, or anything else the union negotiates with BMW, agency workers, even though they share the same terms and conditions, are excluded from having a say. Needless to say, all these arrangements were agreed and are presided over by BMW union officials in Unite!
The biggest contractor in the plant, the logistics company Rudolph and Hellmann Automotive (R&H), employs about 800 workers, with over 500 “supplied” by agencies.
This means that overall, at least half of the 5,000 Cowley workers are temporary agency workers. It is remarkable that the union leaderships have not once initiated a dispute, let alone organised a strike, against the use of temps. Which just goes to show, that it’s not just the “gig” economy which has “changed the nature of the workforce”.
What happened at Rudolph & Hellman
In December 2020, the Rudolph and Hellmann (R&H) night shift workers refused to start work after a change in their contracts cut unsocial hours payments. Workers were also fed up with working 12-hour shifts running 4.30pm to 4.30am.
Shortly after this stoppage, full-time Unite union organisers appeared at the gates, handing out union sign-up forms. At that time, Sharon Graham was still head of the “Organising and Leverage Department”. Unite organisers told workers they could not win any dispute with the employer if they weren’t “organised”, i.e., if they weren’t members of the union. At this point, about 1/6 of the R&H work force was unionised - around 120 workers.
After this brief recruitment drive, nothing happened for about a year. In the meantime, Sharon Graham was elected leader of the union. In fact the same union organisers had been back beforehand, but only to hand out “vote for Sharon” flyers.
By September 2021, R&H workers had not had a pay rise for 3 years. They were on £10.30/hr for a 10-hr shift on days, and £11.15 for a 12-hr shift on nights. They wanted a pay increase and a cut in hours. Unite, despite its low membership, had somehow managed to be recognised by the company. It now launched “a pay claim consultation exercise” on behalf of the workforce, which it submitted to R&H, claiming it had been “democratically determined by our members”!
What this meant in practice, was that the union sent out an online survey but only to its (very few) members! It then generated a pay claim for £12.50/hr for day shift, and £13.50 for nights, despite the fact that this was not considered nearly enough by most workers, who had been discussing among themselves a rise to £15/hr or even £20/hr. The demand for shorter-shifts never made it into the union’s “democratically determined” claim.
There were discussions between the company and the union in October 2021. R&H said there was no money for a pay rise. In the meantime, a sudden and large exodus of workers, due to the low pay, long shifts and high intensity of work, meant that R&H in desperation, was offering a bonus of £45/week to anyone who turned up for their shifts! This led to even more pressure for a pay rise, with workers pointing out, “if they’ve got money for that, why not for a pay rise?”. In November 2021, R&H gave workers a 51p/hour increase on days (to £10.71/hr) and by 49p/hour on nights (to £11.60), which amounted to a 4% pay rise. With inflation already at 5.1% (CPI) at the time, this was a de facto cut of 1.1%.
Unite’s crude tactics
There was another unofficial stoppage in R&H, in December 2021, after workers were laid off due to parts shortages, without being paid. The chronic issues of low pay and lack of workers, meant that even more workers were leaving R&H at this point, so much so, that R&H was now offering to pay workers £500 to “refer a friend”!
That month, the union printed their first leaflet, to try to capitalise on workers’ rising anger, and sign up more members. The leaflet read: “If workers are not in the union THEY CANNOT STRIKE!”, “Don’t be a scab - join Unite and fight!”. This was of course untrue - non-unionised workers are allowed by law to strike. But it was also stupidly divisive by pointing a finger at non-unionised workers as “scabs”, a highly offensive word for “strike breaker”, when there was no strike going on, even - and when many of the workers involved in the two stoppages were not in the union!
In January 2022, there were more union/R&H negotiations, but no result. A strike ballot was discussed. But a Unite organiser told some of the workers, “We can’t strike without more members, if we lose, it’s bad for the union’s reputation”. The workers replied that they had a lot more to lose than a reputation! Meanwhile, R&H was bringing in agency workers on as much as £20/hour to cover for workers who left!
Of course, if a strike took place and only involved permanent R&H workers, it would be too few workers on strike, because, like BMW itself, R&H relies on agency temps. But all Unite’s “organising” so far, had not even mentioned the issue of agency workers. Without agency workers, the most Unite could expect on strike would be 200 workers out of 800; enough to slow production significantly, but not to stop it completely. However, a strike at this flagship plant, however small, would make good publicity for Unite, hence the resources they employed to organise even a tiny strike.
Meanwhile Unite was negotiating a pay deal for the BMW permanent workers. In February 2022, the union said it had “secured” a “bumper pay deal” for them. This deal, which affected 3,500 assembly, body in white and paint shop workers, was accepted with only 987 votes! This equates to 51% of the total possible votes (1,934), but that total excludes 1,500 Staffline agency workers who did not get a vote, even though they are Unite members.
The actual pay rise for 2022, was 5.5%, which Unite somehow claimed was 11.7% “when all its elements are factored in”!! Of course, Unite wanted to publicise this great pay rise which it had won, even if this was a lie. Sharon Graham said, “I hope this deal will help lead to further substantial pay increases throughout the automotive sector”, proving that, having spent so much time with the bosses, she had acquired their forked tongues.
The R&H strike fiasco
Now it was R&H workers turn to be scammed by the union. A second Unite bulletin was handed out by union organisers, announcing a consultative strike ballot, after R&H offered a 2.5% “rise” for 2022. The leaflet specifically denounced R&H’s claim that this was a “6.6%” pay rise, by adding the 4% given the previous November. The union refused to acknowledge this, as it had been imposed without union agreement. Its leaflet said, “This is an absolute joke and takes workers for fools!”. And again, they told workers, “To get your ballot paper, join Unite” with a membership form printed on the back of the bulletin. This bulletin also mentioned that R&H workers would get £70 strike pay each day, if they joined the union! A direct bribe to get workers to join the union.
Ballot papers for a consultative strike ballot in R&H were sent out on 11 February. The Unite regional officer in an accompanying letter, concluded by saying “Please speak to any non-member colleagues and impress on them the importance of being in the union – we need all R&H workers to join in the fight for decent pay”.
During February and March, there were many shutdowns caused by parts-shortages due to the Ukraine war, and R&H workers were not paid during these lay-offs. After a last minute announcement that the plant would be closed for a third week, R&H workers in one section of the plant walked off the job. Managers immediately rushed after them offering all sort of promises that they would get paid, but in the end, nothing happened.
In fact now, even more workers left. The remaining workers were pressured to work their rest days, to make up for lack of workers, meaning that on days, they worked 5 days and 50 hour weeks, while on nights it was a 60 hour week. A consultative ballot approved industrial action and the ballot for strike showed 120 for and 60 against. Of course most workers, being agency employees, had no vote.
A new offer
Eight strike days were called over 4 weeks and were meant to start 26 April. But just beforehand, on 21 April, the first 4 days were cancelled. R&H had made a new pay offer of 8% (although they claimed it was 12%), but any rise would depend on years of service: after 1 year the rate would be £11/hr on days, a pathetic 70p rise, and £12 on nights, an 85p rise; year 2, £11.20/£12.20; thereafter, £11.53 on days and £12.48 on nights.
Unite officials claimed they had to put this new offer to the workforce (not true!). There was anger over the cancelled strike, and for what? And no cut in shift lengths was offered, either. Nevertheless, for a few of the workers who had been there the longest, this looked like progress after years without any pay rise at all. But still, 91% (on a 98% turnout) rejected the offer. So now Unite called 4 days of strike over the next 2 weeks.
In the meantime, Unite wrote on its website: quoting Sharon Graham, “Our Rudolph and Hellmann members are loud and clear in their rejection of this pay offer, and they have Unite’s full backing in resuming industrial action”. The article also boasted how “Unite membership at R&H has increased since the dispute began”. In fact it had reached just 200 members out of around 800.
But still excluded, were the agency workers. In the days before the strike, Union communications (via leaflet and WhatsApp message) were that agency workers SHOULDN’T strike, because the union could not protect them from being sacked! They were not at all interested in proposing that agency and permanent workers could strike together and defend each other. They warned non-unionised workers that “If you are not a member, you will not receive strike pay and will be putting yourself at risk!”.
The first day of the strike on 10 May, saw a turnout of more than 150 workers on the picket line, signing in with the regional officer in order to get their £70 strike pay. A de facto bribe to get workers to turn up. The union brought down its social media department, and posted a video on Facebook, complete with a rock-music sound track, featuring footage of the strike. Nonetheless, the strikers were in high spirits because they were at last getting a chance to fight the company.
But then the Unite machinery struck! At 8pm on the 11 May, the day before the second strike, one of the union’s young full-time organisers posted a video (recorded in his car!) to the R&H Unite WhatsApp group, saying that they had just had another offer from R&H, and were “duty bound” to present it to the members for another vote, and therefore the strike for the next day (in 10 hours time!) was cancelled. He criticised the tactics of R&H, blaming them for leaking conversations about the deal before the deal was “formally” made, and claimed that because of this and in order to be “transparent” they “had to reballot” workers! Which is total nonsense, of course!
A short statement from the union later said, “to stop any allegations that the union is holding back any info - we now have no choice but to bring this offer back to ballot and suspend tomorrow’s strike. Please note that the union has been forced into a position to disclose information and now conditioned to ask for your decision on this offer”. This is more total nonsense. And what does “conditioned” mean?
The irony of it is that they, the union officials, should have been giving workers a blow-by-blow account - in the name of transparency - themselves!
The argument for cancelling the strike, which the organiser made again to R&H workers, was that if the union didn’t put the offer to the membership, the compan ywould leak the offer and say that the “union has made a decision on your behalf”. He said that the company had “stitched us all over” and played “dirty tricks”. If this was the real reason to give up the strike, then the union simply fell victim to its own undemocratic practice.
The pay offer was eventually accepted by a very narrow margin, 111 to 102. This increased pay to just £12/hr for days, and just £13 for nights, and a tiny amount more - £12.30/£13.33 - from January 2023 and of course the 3 tiers of service applied, so very few workers actually got the maximum. The deal also didn’t address length of shifts, sick pay and overtime rates.
The union boasted, of course, about this “win”. Unite officials probably did regard their little campaign as worthwhile. They recruited around 50 new members, got their strike video, their headlines, newspaper articles and notched up one more “successful dispute” to the running total of successes. It begs the question as to the reality behind the other (so far) 449.
Because R&H workers didn’t feel they had won. What they learnt from this experience is how the union officials operate behind their backs. And how they use workers as picket fodder. And how they lie. This deal they engineered passed with 111 votes, which, out of the total R&H workforce, is only 14%!
On the 27 September the bosses of the main BMW Mini plant announced that they were cutting a whole shift of 500 workers and changing remaining shift lengths. This would mean a £28 per week cut in pay on average for the workers who remained. The job cuts were to be made among those workers employed by the in-house agency, Staffline. And it should be said that though they are officially “temps” many of them have worked up to ten years in this plant.
It now transpires that the Unite union officials (who have for 20 years collaborated to allow temp workers on the assembly lines) actually agreed to the job cuts and the pay cut! On the grounds that they “understood” the company’s position given the “current volatility of the market”... This is the level to which “union” organisation at factory level has sunk. Who ever heard of workers doing ten years in a job while remaining “temporary”? But for these union officials it seems nothing is “abnormal”!
Disarming the workers
When Graham presented herself for election she spoke about being “determined to win for workers” and the union doing what’s written on the tin: fighting for pay and conditions…
But the union members - the workers themselves - have no role except to be marched out and marched back in, whenever the union machinery, i.e., the organising department and the forensic leveraging officials, led by Graham herself, press the button.
The many strikes organised with a lot of razzmatazz (depending on whether there will be a lot of press coverage or not) have nothing to do with strikers taking their own decisions of course.
The reins of control remain firmly in the hands of the full-time union officials - and Graham herself – if the dispute is big enough and getting a lot of public attention, as with the Felixstowe and Liverpool dockers who had the “leverage” of closing down two of Britain’s largest container ports. But this is super-on-behalf-ist; the workers on the ground remain mere strike fodder!
Actually this is indeed a “radical” change, because in the past the union bureaucrats would advocate taking the union back to the members meaning a “democratisation” on the ground which would give workers more say, in order to regain workers’ confidence! In fact it seems that the idea of workers taking back the unions has been turned on its head. Now it’s the union leaders taking back the unions to turn them into bureaucratic instruments which match those of the bosses! So it is all the more surprising that Graham was so enthusiastically endorsed in the leadership election last year by most of the “revolutionary” far-left as the “left wing candidate”.
Anyway, advocating a vote at all in such an election, only reinforces the idea that a “good” leader will help workers get what they need - and they can therefore just sit on their hands and wait for her to perform! But there is no way round it: workers have to “go for it” themselves, regardless. Unless they do, they will be unable to develop their capacity to lead and control their own fights - with the ultimate aim of controlling the whole of society and contesting the power of the capitalist class.
4 October 2022