Will Unite embark on a series of leverage campaigns in the months ahead? What tactics will its new leader, Sharon Graham, employ?
These are questions being asked after The Telegraph reported that Graham had drawn up a dossier on 200 of Britain’s leading employers in case its members ever want to take action against them. The article was published on the day she became the union’s first ever female leader and speculation has grown ever since. She was previously head of Unite’s “Organising and Leverage” department so she knows all about leverage campaigns.
A reminder. Leverage is essentially an umbrella term for any action by a trade union, other than traditional forms of industrial action, which aims to put pressure on an employer to settle a trade dispute or otherwise meet the union’s demands. The tactic may be used in addition to or instead of traditional industrial action and is often used before a trade dispute is officially declared. They operate outside the law governing 'normal' industrial action such as strikes and overtime bans and so can be launched without a ballot, and without the need to give the employer notice of the action to be taken. The idea is pressurise and commercially embarrass employers through targeted campaigns aimed at shareholders, customers and business partners, suppliers and the general public. They also can include action directed at individual directors or managers.
The Telegraph’s article reports that in 2019 she instructed her staff to draw up contingency plans for hostile campaigns against the top 10 employers in each of Unite’s 20 sectors of representation. The plans are widely believed to part of a policy of leverage campaigns under her leadership at Unite. It’s a tactic she knows very well and she has had a lot of success with it. Here she is talking to LBC radio’s Iain Dale at a hustings during her election campaign:
Report - LBC radio: Iain Dale
Reacting to The Telegraph’s headline Amanda Milling who was co-chairman of the Tory party at the time of the article, said ‘it’s clear Unite’s new boss is the key architect of these sinister ‘leverage’ tactics that have included targeting people’s family homes and family members. Her admission that she has been drawing up ‘leverage’ plans for each of the UK’s biggest employers is chilling.’
Chilling perhaps, but not necessarily unlawful. Back in 2014 you might remember the Conservative government under David Cameron commissioned a review into the law governing industrial disputes, including so-called leverage tactics, headed by employment lawyer Bruce Car QC. The concern was that whether by accident or design leverage campaigns were often crossing over into illegal activity, such as unlawful harassment and intimidation. However, after a thorough review Carr made no recommendations for changes to the law and leverage campaigns continue to be very effective.
Time will tell what direction Unite takes under Sharon Graham’s leadership but employers are watching and wondering. So, let’s get some reaction to this. Ed Goodwyn knows this landscape very well and he joined me by video-link from the London office to discuss it. I started by asking Ed about those headlines:
Ed Goodwyn: “It goes hand in glove with her general election platform, what she has been saying since, she doesn't want to tie yourself too closely with the Labour Party. She's very much about trying to advocate for the workers and take forward disputes. Reading between the lines, she clearly realises the limitations of strike action. Strike action to be lawful, and therefore to be protected, the trade union have to go through a proper ballot, that takes time and it’s it is a complicated process and sometimes the strike doesn't achieve the desired results even when this strike has been properly formulated and we have seen, historically, leverage campaigns work very effectively. The interesting thing from my perspective is where she is going to be on the spectrum insofar as leverage campaigns are concerned because, historically, we did see leverage campaigns being used where effectively they were straying into unlawful action, or that was the allegation, and that triggered the Carr Report where Bruce Carr, QC was asked by the government to look into the issues around leverage campaigns to see whether there needs to be specific legislation to make sure they stayed on the right side of the lawful line. Bruce Carr took the view that there was insufficient evidence to come to a view on that one way or the other and so the leverage campaigns that Unite seem to be advocating are ones where pressure, effectively, is going to be put on those who are directly or indirectly connected to the employer who's at the centre of the dispute. So that can be the bank financing the business, it can be supply chain companies, it could be customers, and putting pressure through a sustained PR campaign, but also some affirmative action to put pressure on the employer at the central business is what is meant by the leverage campaign. We've seen it before and, again, it'll be interesting to see how much of this is used and how aggressive this is prosecuted.”
Joe Glavina: “It’s interesting. Sharon Graham says she definitely wouldn’t use leverage tactics for pay rises. What do you make of that?”
Ed Goodwyn: “I think she's a pugilist and realist. She appreciates, in her view, that you're not going to get anywhere in increasing pay rates unless you can put pressure on the employer and it seems to me that the pressure is going to be applied effectively the back pocket or the balance sheet of the business either through sustained adverse publicity or affecting supply chains, or in other ways of making the employer feel it in its pocket, and effectively come to a commercial view that it's better to pay the employees more and resolve the dispute than to take them on.”
Joe Glavina: “She says in one of her interviews that she’s not seeking bad press for the employers she goes after, although that would be welcome if it comes along. Rather, she wants to hit the company’s profits, targeting what she describes as ‘bad employers’.
Ed Goodwyn: “Most employers want to have a decent relationship with their workers and the union, they don't want to be in dispute. They are used to sitting around the table and negotiating and do so in good faith. The difficulty is what happens when you can't reach agreement? What happens when you have a dispute, perhaps driven by rather excitable trade unions who wants a bit more than what is perceived to be reasonable from the employer’s perspective and you get to a point where those collective bargaining arrangements grind to a halt? Do you then move to strike action in the orthodox method or are you going to go into leverage campaign? It's all very well to say we're going to go against the bad employer, but whose definition of a bad employer are they're taking? It’s clearly going to be Unite’s and it’s a question of how many disputes they back and how aggressively they go for it and whether they're going to use this as a route to attract more members into their union. It's all very much part of a wider view.”
If you want to know more about Sharon Graham and what she might bring as the new leader of Unite then you may be interested in the BBC Radio 4’s Profile programme which featured her on 4 September shortly after she was elected. It’s a very good 15 minute potted history of her life and her involvement with trade unions over the years. We have put a link to that programme in the transcript of this programme.
- Link to BBC Radio 4’s Profile on Sharon Graham