“Unite will be the vanguard for changing what happens to workers’ lives.”

Speaking today (Tuesday 19 October) in her first Unite policy conference as general secretary Sharon Graham, set out her programme of change to transform the way the union operates.

Sharon Graham said: “Unite is going to be in the vanguard that can change what is happening to workers. Their voice must be heard. We have to concentrate on defending jobs pay and conditions. We will not accept further attacks on workers’ living standards. It’s time we put a stake in the ground on that.”

The Unite leader warned that workers should not “pay the price for the pandemic” and compared the current economic situation to the 2008 economic collapse adding: “The post Covid crisis is 2008 on steroids. The politicians have failed us during the Covid crisis; they were nowhere to be seen. There is no political saviour on a white horse coming over the hill to save us. We have to organise and fight for ourselves. That’s what the trade unions are for.”

She focused on the many unscrupulous employers who have used the cover of the pandemic to ‘fire and rehire’ workers to force wage cuts and attacks on their conditions. She said: “Employer after employer has used fire and rehire to make workers pay for Covid. One in ten workers has suffered this fate to date.”

Sharon Graham singled out one particular employer to point the finger of accusation at – British Airways. She said: “BA’s actions on fire and rehire set a chain reaction which emboldened other employers to fire and rehire their workers. They became pacesetters for a drive to the bottom on wages and conditions.”

She said that it was time to build Unite’s power to change things by ushering in a new era of 'Combine' organisation, “deepening the union’s industrial focus”.  She pledged to use the creation of ‘combines’ – “where we bring all our reps together by industry or sector to create collective bargaining at the level of whole industries or sectors”. The new combines would be fit for the 21st century to tackle multinational employers.

The Unite leader highlighted Unite’s creation of a home working agreement for bank workers as an example. This meant that instead of the agreement being put piecemeal to the big four banks it should be put forward to all the bank chief executive officers (CEOs) for an industry collective agreement. She said: “The reality is if we don’t strike good agreements we will pay the price of bad agreements taking hold.”

Finally she spoke about what she termed “worker politics”. Her position on Unite and the Labour Party had been misconstrued by the media during her election campaign. She said her commitment to “getting back to the workplace” did not mean that Unite was abandoning politics. 

“Time to slay this particular dragon”she said. “The idea that Unite is standing down from the political arena is totally wrong. Rather, we want to build a different politics, not top down but from the shop floor and the fabric of local communities up, in order to drive through the political process in an entirely different way.”

Unite’s policy conference is taking place all week at the ACC conference centre in Liverpool.