Sharon Graham is building a team of analysts to identify areas where workers can gain leverage over firms that play hardball
In her sun-dappled central London office, Sharon Graham laughs at the suggestion that she is the face of new wave of trade union militancy. During her first 100 days in power as the boss of Britain’s biggest private sector union, Unite, she has spearheaded a shock-and-awe campaign against the corporate sector.
Her shop stewards have won 43 pay deals worth £25m for 12,000 workers, with many gaining inflation-busting wage hikes. In three-quarters of the cases, the disputes were won when Unite members either voted for strike action or strikes forced employers to offer improved pay deals.
Graham says her plans to transform the industrial landscape rely on “brains as well as brawn” to deter companies from using the pandemic as an excuse to cut workers’ pay.
The muscle, Graham says, is provided by Unite’s 1.4 million members and the fact that the union leads negotiations in six of the seven critical sectors of the economy, such as transport and food.
Graham says her aim is to bring together all her union reps in “combines” so that they can negotiate as a bloc, rather than different workforces being pitted against each other.
The Unite boss says if she had a blank sheet of paper, she wouldn’t start with the union’s “100-year-old structures to push up pay with industry standards”.
Graham aims to secure bespoke agreements modelled on the best ones for workers in their sector, and getting companies that represent 75% of market share to sign up to them. This will allow Unite, she says, to build collective bargaining agreements before tech-aware managements establish new norms of insecure work and low pay.
This may work in the bus industry, where Unite represents three-quarters of the workforce. But what happens when Unite is not recognised by the firm it wants to negotiate with?
Graham says she is taking on Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, which has a history of union-busting. Amazon is moving into three of Unite’s key areas: transport, warehousing and finance, where it is rolling out its invasive surveillance technology.
“It’s a no-brainer. When you look at the transport sector, we’re trying to push up pay and we’ve got Amazon pushing down pay, with all of its market share.”
To deal with companies that play hardball, Graham says she will use “leverage”. This, she says, is widely misunderstood to mean extreme industrial tactics such as demonstrations outside the homes of company directors involved in industrial disputes.
Graham says this is wrong. Having spent 20 years in the union’s organising department, she says this where “brains” come in. She is building a team of accountants, analysts and economists to produce an X-ray of her corporate opponents, and will then use these detailed analyses – which run to 1,000 pages – to reveal a company’s vulnerabilities.
Leverage allows for campaigns on issues that will hurt the parent company’s bottom line or cause it reputational damage by associating global headquarters with the toxic decisions made by UK-based executives. Graham has won all of the 14 leverage campaigns she has run.
This year British Airways served notice on 30,000 of its employees. Graham’s team worked out that BA would not have the staff to claim their most valuable assets – landing slots at Heathrow.
Once she had made the link, Graham found herself not dealing with London but negotiating with the airline’s Spanish bosses. A public outcry forced BA to rescind its proposals.
When Go-Ahead’s Manchester bus operation attempted to fire and rehire 500 drivers at the start of the pandemic, Unite’s leverage team found out it was simultaneously bidding for a £3.8bn rail contract in Norway.
Graham alerted Norwegian politicians to the bus company’s tactics. “Suddenly I was in the room with the CEO of the parent company and he signed a statement to say that they would not be using fire and rehire … That stopped it for the sector. Other companies knew they could not get away with it.”
With Amazon, Graham says she will be looking for a “neutrality agreement” which means that the firm will not attack workers for joining a union. She has held a series of meetings with German and US unions, because the three countries make up 80% of Amazon’s profit-making cloud computing arm – which takes big contracts from the governments of all of these nations. In the UK this Amazon division has been given access to NHS data.
She thinks Amazon will be susceptible to a campaign similar to the successful one run against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) five years ago. Then Tory MPs threatened to rebel over the controversial trade deal that did not explicitly protect the NHS, and left David Cameron facing the first government defeat on a Queen’s speech since 1924.
“We win by collectivising workers, but we also have a responsibility to understand the industry we’re in and to make sure that we can be one step ahead of the employers,” says Graham.
Having led a walkout as a teenage waitress, Graham is savvy enough to recognise that being strike-ready does not mean going on strike. She is plainly more interested in the industrial struggle than the political one. But that does not mean she is not political. It’s just, she says, that “no one in Westminster is going to ride in and save us. We are going to have to do it ourselves.”