Sharon Graham will return Unite union to its true purpose
The election of Sharon Graham to the head of Unite the union - the largest trade union in the UK - has come as a surprise to many in the established labour movement.
Her direct competitor, Steve Turner, had the support of the union's former general secretary, Len McCluskey, and much of the Labour Party machine within it. He was widely seen as the candidate to beat and appeared - given his bullet point manifesto - to be expecting a coronation rather than a contested campaign.
The right-wing candidate, Gerard Coyne, who had come close to unseating McCluskey in the previous election, was considered among many commentators as Turner's only competition. In the end, Coyne came last with 28.5 percent of the vote, followed by Turner at 33.8 percent, while Graham strode ahead with 37.7 percent.
Graham - the first woman to head the union - was formerly the head of its Organising and Leverage Department and is therefore not an outsider. She is a longstanding union official and is well respected among some of the more militant sections. Many of the key construction worker activists, for example, who led two crucial (and victorious) rounds of industrial action in the last decade supported her. The same is true for leading union representatives in other recent disputes. Yet, her candidacy was considered surprising and her victory an upset to the normal order of business.
No More “Blank Check” for the Labour Party? Paul Prescod discusses how the recent election of Sharon Graham to the leadership of the union Unite represents a new opportunity to rebuild Britain's labor movement.https://t.co/LK6bI1s6hx— Jacobin Audio & Video (@jacobin_av) September 3, 2021
At issue is whether the election was primarily about the ongoing power struggle inside the Labour Party, where Keir Starmer appears to have routed the left once and for all, or whether it was about internal union organisation and the tasks ahead if Unite is to successfully improve workers' pay and conditions.
While this debate may seem astonishing - it was an election for the general secretary of a trade union after all - it continues to divide opinion on the left, which is rather telling about the direction of travel of the organisation in recent years.
Unite is the single largest donor to the Labour Party. The more than £1 million in annual donations comes not only with political influence at the top of the party, but also assures it of a number of seats on its national executive committee and a large contingent at its conference. McCluskey, Unite's previous general secretary, was an outspoken supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and highly critical of Labour's right-wing turn under Starmer's leadership. Moreover, as the leader of the UK's largest union, Unite's general secretary also wields considerable political clout when speaking out on a variety of political and social issues.
"While Graham is herself a left-wing candidate, she rejected the terms of the equation as posed by her opponents"
In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that the election appeared, at first, to be defined primarily by the political orientation of the union, particularly in relation to Labour. Coyne for example was aligned with the right of the party and highly critical of McCluskey's (and Turner's) support for Corbyn.
But while Graham is herself a left-wing candidate, she rejected the terms of the equation as posed by her opponents. The vote, she argued, was not about the internal politics of the Labour Party, nor even about the political world view of the union's leader, but about the industrial strategy the union needed to be able to take the fight effectively to the bosses.
It is time, Graham argued, to break with the "obsession" over Labour and focus instead on organising workers and building up striking capacity. After all, between the recession and the pandemic, workers have been faced with a veritable assault on their rights: fire and rehire, job losses, worsening conditions are increasingly at the order of the day, to say nothing of the crisis in health and safety that the response to Covid-19 exposed and worsened.
This focus on doing what a union should actually do; organising workers and building up their collective industrial power, allowed Graham to cut through the fight at the top and pull voters from both camps. She was neither a continuity candidate - she is critical of McCluskey's excessive focus on Labour to the detriment of the union's members - nor an opponent of Corbyn or the left.
After her election, she rightly pointed out that given the Parliamentary Labour Party has repeatedly failed to fight for higher wages or better conditions, it does raise important questions about why trade unions should continue to sign blank checks over to it.
"Building up a vibrant, well organised, and confident labour movement is the best guarantee there is to be able to challenge bosses and politicians"
Her critique is already taking concrete shape. In Scotland, she has announced that she will allow Unite members to democratically determine the union's policy on independence, which is very likely to result in support for self-determination and present a serious blow to Starmer's already weak operation north of the border.
It is also worth pointing out that while supporters of the Labour left have been vocal about their disappointment at Graham's election and her 'apolitical' stance, it is not clear what they would want her to support. Since his election as party leader, Starmer has excluded Jeremy Corbyn from being a labour MP, waged a relentless war on the left causing tens of thousands to leave the party, and rendered support for Palestinian liberation taboo within the organisation.
More recently, he has taken the fight to Labour's youth by putting considerable limitations on their ability to organise their conference and effectively banned the Palestine Solidarity Campaign from participating. All this has taken place without a sign of sustained or organised resistance by the left of the party.
If it is dubious, in the best of times, to ask trade union members to elect their general secretary on the basis of their relationship to the Labour Party, it is surely outrageous to do so in the absence of a credible alternative to the current direction of travel.
In addition, building up a vibrant, well organised, and confident labour movement is the best guarantee there is to be able to challenge bosses and politicians, from whichever party, who continue to destroy our planet and wage war on workers, the poor, migrants, people of colour, women, or the welfare state.
A union general secretary cannot achieve these changes on her own, but the fact that Graham at least acknowledges that real power lies in workplace organising is a good sign for all those prepared to fight back.
Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.
Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.