Sharon Graham, the boss of Unite, is planning to skip Labour’s conference for a second year in a row to prioritise current industrial disputes, and said the party should correct the impression that it’s “wrong” to be on the picket line.
Graham, the general secretary for just over a year, has presided over 450 disputes over the last 12 months and counted the outcome on pay as a win in 80% of cases. She said strikes are “coming to a crescendo at the moment” because of the cost of living crisis, when every penny in people’s pay packets counts.
Graham warned it was a “miscalculation by anybody, whether it’s Keir Starmer or Liz Truss, quite frankly, in assuming that unions are a hated beast” as workers are voting in increasingly large numbers for strike action.
With ongoing strikes at Liverpool docks and elsewhere, Graham said she was needed in negotiations and in support of striking workers and so it was “very unlikely” she will be at Labour conference.
Graham, who met Starmer for “detailed discussions” last week, also called on Labour to be more “robust” in defence of workers in disputes for higher pay in Felixstowe, Liverpool and elsewhere.
Labour will come under pressure to support inflation-matching pay increases, joining picket lines, and renationalisation in a crucial annual conference for Keir Starmer.
On the issue of supporting striking workers, the Labour leadership initially banned frontbenchers from picket lines earlier this summer but this appears to have been loosened after several ignored the advice. Starmer has said he absolutely stands behind workers and understands why they strike without explicitly supporting those on the picket line in many disputes, such as striking rail staff.
Asked whether she would like to see Starmer join her on a picket line, Graham said: “Whether he does as the leader, I mean, I’m sure he’d say he’s got other things to do. Of course, I would be very happy very welcoming and I’m sure our members would be should he be there, but I think it’s the principle. When you say something like, don’t go on [the picket line], in people’s minds it conjures it up as though something is being done that is wrong. Whether that’s what he meant or not that’s a different story, but it’s just people’s minds: that actually is a wrong place to be. And I think that is wrong, I think needs to be corrected.”
On Labour’s approach to pay in the cost of living crisis, she added: “I do think I want a much more robust response. That when employers are making the types of profits that we’re talking about, whether it be in Liverpool docks, Felixstowe docks or other industries, that they should be paying their workers a proper rate of pay … I also would like it to be said that of course there’s nothing wrong with you supporting workers in your constituencies when they’re out on strike … But I think the main thing is consistency. If people can see that consistently Labour are on the side of workers, that message will start to get through and I think Labour need to do that more powerfully.”
Graham also expressed support for renationalisation of the energy sector – another policy that Starmer’s Labour has not backed.
However, she expressed optimism that the election of Truss as prime minister allows Labour to draw a much clearer dividing line with the government.
“I think, I really hope there will be a clear dividing line that begins to open up between Labour and Conservatives that people will really begin to see it … For the first time in long time actually we’re going to see what these two parties stand for and what their differences will be.”
On Truss herself, Graham said she had given a “wry smile” when she found out about the plans to tighten strike laws as she had predicted the new prime minister would go down that route. But she said Unite was ready for any move by the government to do so and had proved it was possible to reach higher thresholds for going out on strike.
She was also scathing about Truss’s “trickle-down economics on steroids” with such policies as removing the bankers’ bonus cap and planning tax cuts for the better off.
“Of course it doesn’t work,” she said. “If that is what happens, if there was a trickle down, then I wouldn’t be in 450 disputes with employers who’ve got a clear ability to pay. There is no trickle-down there.”
Graham said her approach over the last year had been to “bring the brains and brawn” to pay disputes by getting to know companies’ finances forensically and challenging those who say they cannot afford to pay workers more.
She won the job after saying she would bring Unite “back to the workplace” but said she still believes politics matters hugely and that trade unions need to have their voices heard in parliament.
Unite is Labour’s biggest donor, and Graham’s predecessor, Len McCluskey, regularly made pronouncements on politics and was deeply involved in the party, strongly backing Jeremy Corbyn in recent years.