New Unite leader makes early start to her pledge to ‘refocus’ the union

The new leader of Unite started work ahead of her official appointment, pledging to “completely refocus” the union to concentrate on the jobs, pay and conditions of her members.

Sharon Graham beat her two male rivals to become the first female general secretary of the giant union and has already made changes.

She has moved the general secretary’s department at the union’s headquarters in Central London from the seventh to the first floor, to be more accessible, and is arranging for a hotline to be installed in her office for members to contact her.

In an interview with the PA newswire, she revealed she has asked for details of every industrial dispute Unite is running so she can become personally involved.

“I will be a general secretary for the workers, for my members,” she said.

In disputes such as the Government’s controversial 3% pay rise given to NHS staff, Ms Graham said she plans to bring together all the union’s local officials to make sure they have enough resources to win a campaign, and liaise with other health unions over how to respond.

She is also adamant that workers should not pay for the Covid crisis by having wages and conditions cut.

“I will be trying to use everything in my power to stop workers paying the price of the pandemic, just as they did after the 2008 financial crash.”

Ms Graham has been running Unite’s Organising Department, known as the union’s the industrial action wing, bringing a new approach to winning disputes.

Len McCluskey at the BBC
Len McCluskey, departing general secretary of Unite

She believes it was partly her work on the ground, alongside union members involved in disputes, which helped win her the election to succeed Len McCluskey, who has led Unite for a decade.

“My pledge to refocus the union on jobs, pay and conditions has resonated with members. We have to get back to what it says on the trade union tin.

“We win for our members, and then become a credible force to push for legislation to benefit wider society.”

The 51-year-old wants to stop the “obsession” with the Labour party, but insists there is nothing sinister in her message, and says she will talk to the Labour leader.

“Our power comes from the workplace. Of course, I will sit down with Kier Starmer, but the Parliamentary Labour Party will not win pay rises for my members.

“I am not interested in the internal wranglings of Labour, but I do expect the party to speak up for Unite members.”

Ms Graham said she knows exactly what she will be doing over the next year, and started a few hours after the result was declared on Wednesday, well before she was officially due to take over at noon on Thursday.

Her 8,000-word election manifesto included a pledge to have a hotline to her office, one of the first things she put in place.

“I want to get a feel for what is happening, be accessible, become personally involved in disputes, and refocus our work,” she told PA.