Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Sharon Graham Wins UNITE General Secretary Election – What Happens Next?

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Here is an interesting initial analysis of Sharon Graham’s UNITE election victory – the union has a new General Secretary. This is the source :

Sharon Graham is the new General Secretary of UNITE, a British Trade Union that has a significant membership on both sides of the border in Ireland.

UNITE has a significant membership on both sides of the border in Ireland, where it operates with a large degree of independence from the British mothership. For example, UNITE in Dublin is a significant participant in the activities of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, and it has been an active supporter of campaigns for Abortion rights in Ireland.

For example, along with the Trade Union Campaign for Repeal of the Eighth Amendment, UNITE helped produce the world’s first ever survey of worker attitudes to abortion, Is Abortion a Workplace Issue? – proving definitively that it was.

Conducted by Ulster University under Dr Fiona Bloomer, the 2017 survey was a 32-county project involving Unite the Union, UNISON, Mandate the Union, Communications Workers Union, and the GMB along with Alliance for Choice and the TUCR8A.

“As soon as Sharon Graham declared she was standing, she was accused of splitting the ‘left vote’. This was despite her being the best candidate and doing much better in nominations than most expected. Graham provided a positive alternative to Gerard Coyne, the right wing candidate, for members who were dissatisfied with the status quo. Coyne’s vote fell to 35,334 (28.5%). The result demonstrates that the strategy of the United Left (UL) – the broad left organisation within Unite which backed Turner – of repeatedly trying to defend a failing status quo is a strategy for the left that brings diminishing returns. This, and the UL’s attachment to first past the post elections, were what created the danger of a Coyne victory.

Unite has been led by the UL since its inception 14 years ago, but it has overseen a decline in membership engagement and participation. McCluskey’s vote declined from 145,000 in 2013 and 101,000 in 2010 to 59,000 in 2017. Turner’s vote this time was even lower at 41,833 (33.8%). The UL is split and in disarray. Their approach to this election illustrates the problem. The Unite Executive had approved regional hustings to give members the opportunity to hear from each of the candidates and boost engagement. Instead of seizing this opportunity, the Regional Secretaries, all of whom backed Turner, ensured that none were organised. Turner failed to take part in the only public hustings, hosted on LBC.

The UL has been in decay for years, but this election triggered its disintegration, raising the question about how we build a new left within Unite. As Graham pointed out, there is really no organised left within Unite at the moment, which is a real problem, but we shouldn’t simply replicate it. The UL was critical to Unite backing Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader and helped secure positive policy changes in Unite, though it blocked others, such as on free movement, Trident, defence diversification, nuclear power and attempts to democratise the union. With the UL’s McCluskey at the top of the union it often acted as a lay member support network for the leadership and drew in many people with no real left credentials who were simply after positions as full time officers or senior lay reps.”

A forum for action and discussion is advertised :

“Everyone who wants change should get involved in whatever new grouping Sharon Graham launches. Unite Rank and File, the network set up in 2017 after the previous election, attempted to build solidarity and promote democratisation and radical policies, but it hasn’t so far achieved a critical mass. Members should get involved in it but seize the opportunity provided by Graham’s victory to create something with greater reach.

Unite Rank and File are encouraging activists to join in an online discussion at 4pm on Sunday 5 September to discuss the election result and the next steps for building solidarity and an independent network of activists within Unite.”

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