Is the industrial landscape changing? What next from the leaders of the UK’s two biggest trade unions?
As you may be aware the UK’s second biggest trade union, Unite, has elected Sharon Graham as its first female leader. She replaced Len McCluskey as General Secretary on 26 August. Graham is the former head of Unite's Organising and Leverage Department and she led recent disputes at British Airways and Crossrail as well as campaigning to unionise Amazon. She says her focus will continue to be on workplace rights rather than internal Labour party politics or settling old scores at Westminster. As the BBC reports, as an organiser she has found new ways to exert pressure during disputes, and often gets involved when things turn hostile, so we could see more industrial action rather than political activity under her leadership. ITV News reported on Graham’s election victory and her focus on the workplace:
Report - ITV News
Meanwhile earlier this year the public service giant UNISON, the UK’s biggest union, also elected a new leader, also a woman. Christina McAnea from Glasgow succeeded Dave Prentis as its General Secretary in January. The Scot became the new General Secretary with 47% of vote, seeing off challengers from left of Labour movement. At UNISON she rose to become Assistant General Secretary responsible for collective bargaining and negotiation before winning the top job.
For employers in the private sector, however, the Sharon Graham story is the big one. She is known to favour leverage campaigns as a tactic against employers. This is what she said to LBC radio’s Iain Dale at a hustings during the election campaign:
Report - LBC radio: Iain Dale
So, with these two appointments at the UK’s two biggest unions is the landscape changing? It’s a question I put to Ed Goodwyn:
Ed Goodwyn: “Yes, I think it is. I think it's changing in in two respects. I think there's a natural change as a consequence of the pandemic and a large number of issues from an employment and HR perspective, the changing consequences that, but I also think it is changing because some of the political players have changed. In particular, the relatively newly elected General Secretary of Unison Christina McAnea, I think she's been in post since January, and more recently, Sharon Graham, new General Secretary of Unite. Different employers will be facing, of course, different unions and may not even be facing either of those two unions. Of course, Unison is the public sector union generally and Unite is much more in the private sector and in other in other markets. What is interesting, insofar as looking at the landscape, is some of the rhetoric we're hearing from both of them. We’ve heard from Christina McAnea at Unison, in support to the public sector employees, saying, for example, that they're not going to be reliant on their political affiliations and they are going to be looking to take more direct action to enforce their members’ rights in what has been a challenging period for many of their members, not least because of the pay rises that have been announced and things like that, as well as the additional tax through the increase in national insurance contributions. Similarly, Sharon Graham from Unite has been, arguably, even more pointed in in the way that they will be looking to prosecute workplace disputes. Both unions seem to recognise some of the legal difficulties in bringing lawful strike action and Sharon, in particular, has made reference in some of her articles and speeches to leverage campaigns where pressure is put on employers through different means other than strike action to prosecute their claims. They both seem to be saying, to some extent, that they will be focusing a bit more of their attention on workplace disputes and seeking to resolve them than perhaps relying on their political allies to prosecute their positions.”
Joe Glavina: “Sharon Graham won her election at the end of August and since then the media has talked about ‘heightened industrial agitation’ we can expect to see in the weeks and months ahead. A concern for employers.”
Ed Goodwyn: “Yes, I think employers need to be very live to this. Don't forget many employers will have a good relationship with these unions, and other unions, so maybe they just need to recognise the change and things can carry on in a relatively happy way but there are some employers where relationships are strained in certain sectors and it may be that they need to start thinking about how are they going to counter various tactics that they may encounter. So for example, in the financial services sector there's been talk about a Unite seeking to have a joint collective agreement across a number of employers and then approaching the chief executives of various banks with a collective agreement saying this is the one we want to apply across the sector. So again, interesting how those in the FS, particularly the large retail banks, should address this and to what extent they want to be talking to other banks about their approach to that and whether they want a common approach. Equally, as I mentioned, the leverage campaign needs to be considered. Now, in some sectors, historically, leverage campaigns have smacked of unlawful action and harassment etcetera. I think it's fair to say that Unite have said that that is not what they're referring to insofar as leverage campaigns are concerned, but they'll be looking to put pressure on the employers in the dispute outside of the industrial action strike mechanisms. That could be pressurising them through PR, pressurising them through going up the supply chains and just making life difficult and, again, for employers it will be interesting how they would react to such a leverage campaign when perhaps historically they've only really had to face the risk of industrial action.”
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.