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4 October 2023updated 06 Oct 2023 7:57am

Sharon Graham: “Labour is too cautious. It has been immobilised”

The general secretary of Unite reflects on a new era for workers.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Sharon Graham may want to improve working life in Britain, but she is used to sacrificing her own weekends. “Normally on a Saturday, if I’m not on a picket line then I’m focusing on negotiations. But I have a 13-year-old son, who is also quite demanding and has learned how to use leverage!”

The general secretary of Unite – Britain’s second largest union and the Labour Party’s biggest financial backer – says that she has overseen 951 disputes, involving 180,000 workers and resulting in £400m of pay rises, since she was elected in 2021. In the past year, Unite has gained 23,900 members.

Graham, 54, spoke to me over Zoom from her kitchen in her flat in Hammersmith, west London; a black-and-white poster of flat-capped shipyard workers during the 1919 Seattle general strike hung on the wall behind her. It was the weekend before Labour’s annual conference – once a time of maximum mischief-making for her predecessor, Len McCluskey, an outspoken Scouser whom tabloids portrayed as Labour’s leftie puppet master. Graham, however, in a stiff-shouldered black blouse and pearl earrings, her blonde hair falling neatly at her shoulders, looked more like one of the CEOs she confronts than the “union boss” caricature.

“It’s a different era, and Len had different priorities to mine. You’re more likely to see me on a picket line than in a studio,” she said. “I came in to realign the union back to the jobs, pay and conditions agenda. I believed it had gone too far the other way: we’re not a branch of the Labour Party.” She has made the last point painfully clear. While Unite still pays Labour an annual £1.4m affiliation fee, Graham withdrew its “political fund” (money spent on promoting policy changes) from the party, instead choosing to channel it into the union’s own campaigning for investment in the UK steel industry and public ownership of energy.

Ahead of the 2019 election, Unite donated £3m to the Labour campaign. “We’re using our political fund to drive issues that our members want [addressed],” she said. “Funding nearer to the election is the subject of a conversation with our executive, but that’s… our thought process at the moment. Renationalisation of energy, steel investment, a just [green] transition and workers’ rights need to be committed to, because otherwise my members would quite rightly ask: ‘Shouldn’t we be getting more bang for our buck?’”

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[See also: Liz Truss shows she’s going nowhere]

Unite is the only union not to endorse Labour’s proposals to strengthen labour rights, which include banning zero-hour contracts and giving everyone the right to flexible working from their first day in a new job (at present, workers can only request this and there is no guarantee it will be granted). This summer, Labour reportedly weakened elements of this policy platform concerning collective bargaining and union access. “This is a row-back,” Graham said. “I will be calling for that row-back to be reversed.”

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When the biggest train strike in 30 years hit the UK last year, Keir Starmer told his front bench not to join the picket lines. “What annoyed me is it made picket lines seem like a naughty place to be. It was a comment that damaged him,” Graham said. “Labour needs to be the party for workers. If a Labour government just keeps to the same course… over years and years, people become worse off, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”

Labour has U-turned over the timing of its proposed £28bn a year green stimulus, the abolition of the charitable status of private schools, and the nationalisation of utilities. “It has almost been immobilised. Labour is being too cautious, because it thinks too much about focus groups and all that jazz. But this is not where the electorate is.”

The political moment calls for Labour leadership in the style of the 1945 government, which founded the NHS and welfare state, rather than 1997, Graham said. “I want Labour to get in, but I want it to count. There’s a difference between being in power and using your power for good. I want the Labour government to be bolder. The offer cannot be ‘a little bit better than where we are now’ – that just isn’t big enough for people. You’ve got to get them out to vote. Apathy will be the winner here if we’re not very careful.”

A “proud London girl”, Graham was brought up in Hammersmith by an Irish mother and a Geordie father, a waitress and head waiter, respectively. She still lives six roads away from her parents, and even closer to her sister, one of her three siblings. “We’re like the Brady Bunch, all on top of each other.” When she was growing up, she learned to eat and speak fast: “It was lots of diving in for the last roast potato, and you had to be a bit elbowy to get in on the conversation.”

Summers were spent in Abbeyfeale, a market town in Limerick, Ireland, which nowadays is a place she mostly visits “for weddings and funerals”. Graham still loves it, and said her “Celtic mix shaped a lot of who I am”. Hers wasn’t a party-political family, but workplace injustice was woven into their history. Her great-uncle James, a miner, broke his back in a Durham pit rockfall and died aged 33. “The stories I heard shaped what I believed.”

Her first pay negotiation, aged nine, was for equal pocket money with her brother; she persuaded her dad to increase her weekly 50p to £1. She led her first collective action at 17 in a banquet hall where she worked as a silver-service waitress. The management had hired additional agency labour at a lower rate than the staff, and Graham and her colleagues refused to serve the second course unless they were paid the same.

Since then she has pioneered an approach to industrial disputes for the age of globalisation. “Trade unions need to up their game. Most employers I deal with are multinationals – the decisionmakers are not in Derby, they’re in Detroit, so how do you move Detroit when you have striking workers in Derby?”

Her strategy is to use a team of forensic accountants and economists she hired to “follow the money”. For example, when British Airways (owned by a Spanish conglomerate) tried to “fire and rehire” staff on poorer terms and pay, Unite – under Graham as head of its organising and leverage department in 2020 – lobbied the UK government to strip the airline of its preferential landing slots. It won.

A new investigations unit has also opened under Graham’s leadership, working to change “the narrative” about how the economy works, for example, “busting the myth” of a wage-price spiral. It revealed that, since the pandemic, FTSE 350 company profit margins have risen 89 per cent – a sign of what Graham sees as “greedflation”.

“When the Bank of England or somebody else comes out and says ‘rein it in, don’t ask for pay rises’,” she said, referring to comments by the Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey and chief economist Huw Pill, “these are the same organisations that clapped like seals the financial markets, right before the financial crash, and never saw it coming. I don’t really take what they say as given.”

[See also: The Reeves doctrine: Labour’s plan for power]

Britain is in a new era of industrial action, with strikes proliferating and the public generally sympathetic towards strikers, according to YouGov polling. “There’s a new confidence among workers,” said Graham, who believes the contribution of key workers during the pandemic triggered “a mindset shift” over the treatment and worth of labour.

We spoke ahead of a week of train and doctors’ strikes. Would such action carry on under Labour? “If an employer wants to throw down the gauntlet and say, ‘We’re making these profits but workers don’t get a pay rise,’ then there will be more strikes. If that employer is the government – ie, a Labour government – and public sector workers are being told, ‘Take a pay cut, tighten your belts, we can’t afford it,’ then, of course, I would treat a Labour government the same way I’d treat any other government.”

Labour won’t commit to specific pay rises; some suspect it hopes the warm glow of a new party in power will appeal to workers’ goodwill. To Sharon Graham, this is “wishful thinking”.

“The excitement, the fuzzy glow, is because people believe surely it’s going to be better with Labour. But that will not continue if Labour are repeating the same lines as the Tories, just in a nicer way. If Labour go in and don’t reverse [real-terms pay cuts], then that will be difficult for them, and that’s why – I’ve said this to Keir Starmer – there are choices to be made. We’re a £2trn economy, and sometimes we forget that.”

[See also: Will Sadiq Khan lose the London mayoral election?]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power