Interviews with candidates for Unite's next General Secretary

Candidates for Unite the Union's next General Secretary speak to the Green Party Trade Union Group, and explain why Unite members should vote for them.

Unite General Secretary
Green World

These statements were coordinated and originally published by the Green Party Trade Union Group on 19 July 2021.

In the run-up to the Unite the Union's internal elections, candidates up for the position of General Secretary explain to the Green Party's Trade Union Group on why Unite members should vote for them. 

All members of Unite the Union can vote in this election, and votes must be posted and received by Civica Election Services by 12pm on 23 August 2021.

Members who have not received a ballot paper by 6th August 2021 should contact the ballot enquiry service by emailing or calling 0800 783 3856."

Sharon Graham

Sharon Graham

“Our obsession with the Labour Party needs to end.”

What is your main pitch – why should Unite members vote for you as the next General Secretary?

I have a very clear programme based on positive but fundamental change. The trade union movement is on life support, more of the same but worse is not an option. If we don’t stem the decline in both membership and collective bargaining coverage, then in 5-10 years it may be too late to turn the tide. It is time to grasp the nettle not fight yesterday’s Westminster battles.

We now need to do two things. First, we must return our attention to the workplace and fully focus on defending jobs, pay and conditions. This is the only way to build real power within trade unions. Influence within the Labour Party is no substitute for building strength within the working population. To earn the trust of working people and to grow the Union we must show that we can win the fights at the workplace on the issues that matter to them.

To this end, I am the only candidate who has fully committed to a serious programme to reform our industrial work. For too long we have been reliant on outdated structures that make no real sense when facing global employers. I will make sure that barriers to activity are reduced not increased and for the first time we will set about co-ordinating collective bargaining. A critical focus of mine will be to rebuild our Reps and Shop Stewards movement. They are critical to any trade union and it is only through a vibrant, radical activist base that we can push back on ‘fire and rehire’, threats to closure and resist cuts to pay and conditions.

Second, we need to finally organise the unorganised. As General Secretary I will make sure that there are no ‘no go’ areas for Unite. We will deliver the biggest organising drive in Europe, targeting ‘under-cutters’ such as Amazon and industries like hospitality. For too long our members agreements have been threatened by non-Union employers and we have shied away from tackling non-traditional sectors. This will change.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing workers in the UK today – and how will Unite fight them under your leadership?

Jobs are under threat, pay is being cut and conditions eroded. Bad bosses are using tactics like ‘fire and rehire’ and we are struggling to win inflation proof wage deals for our members. It is not a pretty picture.

That is why need fundamental change, not tinkering around the edges. Swapping one Labour faction for another is not a serious answer to the issues workers face.

Our obsession with the Labour Party needs to end. The Parliamentary Labour Party is not going to win a wage rise or an industrial dispute. Labour is out of power. The only way Unite members are going to be able to push back is through their Union at the workplace. That is the reality. Talking endlessly to politicians who are in opposition is not going to save one job and neither is sitting on zooms with civil servants . We of course need to engage but also be realistic about where we are.

As General Secretary I will use all of my experience of winning successive crisis campaigns to defend working people. I will deploy Leverage – a comprehensive campaign strategy – wherever it is needed and immediately begin the work of building in the workplaces. There will be co-ordinated bargaining plans for every workplace and our Reps and Shop Stewards will be brought together by employer and industry to agree common agendas.

Key to my programme, will be building Combines – networks of Reps – within every industry. I will plug the Unions resources into each network, so that our Reps whilst working to a co-ordinated plan, will have direct access to the support they need. Bargaining, organising, accounting, research, communications and political resource will all be made available so that we can really start to push up through a planned programme of change.

As Unite’s General Secretary, how will you ensure that Unite is growing support on the shop floor and in communities for a worker-centred just transition to a zero-carbon and ecologically just society? How will you use Unite’s industrial power to lead this transformation?

Climate change is a critical issue for working people. We have to do a lot more than make empty gestures and token commitments. For example, I have heard a lot of hot air in this campaign about candidates claiming the ability to create “millions of green jobs”. That is so obviously ridiculous. It is not in the gift of any trade union General Secretary to create green jobs. Of course we can make it a core part of our political agenda – and I will – but lobbying for someone else to do something is very different from making change yourself.

On a personal level the transition to a greener economy is very important to me and I will take clear, practical action at the workplace to deliver change. There are two things in particular that I will do.

First, our education programme. As part of my pledge to bring education back in-house, I will make just transition a core part of my Reps and Shop Stewards training. But it won’t just be an information exercise. We will focus on how we bargain for a just transition. That is absolutely key for any trade union.

Second, and as part of my plan to deliver a far greater level of planning and co-ordination to our industrial work, just transition will form a core part of our workplace agenda. Every industry combine will have an agreed, shared action plan for bargaining through the transition. This will be supported by expert analysis.

For me, the single most important thing that any trade union can do on this issue, is to bring its members with them. We can’t afford to talk over or at them, because if we do, we will end up in a cycle of positive rhetoric but zero action. We need to do the work to build a convincing majority for change across our Reps and industries. This in itself will not be a simple task and will require hard work, not the dolling out of easily ignored soundbites.

Last year membership of UK trade unions increased by 118,000 overall, but private sector union membership fell by about 110,000. As the UK’s largest union in the private sector, how will Unite begin to reverse this trend under your leadership?

Growing the Union is absolutely critical and the only way we can do it is through a comprehensive, joined up organising programme.

Unfortunately, I am the only candidate standing in this election who is resisting the call for us to retreat into regional apparatus. I had hoped that the argument for organising across local boundaries had been won, but clearly not. How are we going to organise firms like Amazon with small teams directed randomly by various local Unite HQ’s. It offers no more than a retreat from our current state.

Deciding where to take our operational base is one of the biggest issues facing Unite. Do we double down on structures developed for a 19/20th century economy? Or, do we look out into the world and build operations that increase our power and enable us to better confront global corporations? I know what must be done .

In my day job I have proved that it is possible to organise workers in both non-traditional industries and also to win agreements against hostile employers. As General Secretary I will be using all of that experience to supercharge Unite and create a dynamic, growing Union fit for the economy we live in today.

When elected, I will immediately set about delivering the change we need. Whether that be building a team to take on the hospitality sector and other ‘no go’ areas, executing a wholesale campaign to Unionise the critical national infrastructure or tackling every major non-Union employer in our industries to stop the undercutting of our members terms and conditions. As General Secretary I will deliver the most far reaching, transformative plan for growth yet seen in Britain and Ireland.

How do you understand Unite’s relationship to party politics? How will you ensure that the interests of Unite members and the broader working class are best represented in the political sphere?

We need to move beyond the internal struggles of the Labour Party. Labour will likely be in opposition for most of the next decade and workers can’t afford to wait.

As General Secretary I make no bones about saying that I will not be giving out blank cheques to any politician or political party. Our members need to see action for their money and my political work will extend far beyond the confines of Westminster parlour games.

It is my genuine belief, that for trade unions the route to political influence lies primarily in the workplace. Build a growing, radical Union with industrial power and our political influence will increase at the same time as our ability to take action. That is not to say that I will ignore policy or abdicate from Parliamentary politics – if anything I think we can be more effective by ridding ourselves of the obsession with fighting yesterday’s wars within Labour.

If elected, I will use part of the political fund to develop a non-sectarian progressive platform to do the hard work of organising within communities. For too long we have sponsored good causes rather than taking the lead.

If the left is to earn credibility within the working class, it has to be seen to be alive to the issues they face. Policies are not enough. Shared experience is critical and we will develop our community programme so that we are able to build sustainable organisation within our communities, as well as our workplaces. We do this by identifying and working with leaders in our communities to find answers to the issues they face. My Union will do the hard miles of winning respect and earning credibility. The path to political power requires so much more than finding the next leader of a Party.

Steve Turner

Steve Turner

“I will be the greenest general secretary of our labour movement.”

What is your main pitch – why should Unite members vote for you as the next General Secretary?

I will be the greenest general secretary of our labour movement. 

The climate crisis is the biggest challenge our society faces. Dozens have died in Canada and the US as temperature records have been smashed, and there are devastating floods in Europe.

Shaping the future of work and greening our economy is the challenge of our generation. I’m determined that Unite will lead a green jobs revolution that will be the backbone of a zero-carbon economy. 

I will establish an Industrial Strategy and Green Transition Team to support our efforts to shape the future of work and leave no workplace or community behind as we transition to a greener, cleaner economy.

You can read my Workers’ Greenprint plan here  or watch my video about my plans to put working people and our communities centre-stage to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. 

I’m the leading negotiator of my generation, with a track record of saving and creating jobs second to none. I am proud that is how our members judge me. 

When this coronavirus crisis hit, I worked night and day to drag ministers to the table, to nail down the furlough programme and keep a wage coming in for 11 million workers. 

I battered down doors and forced this government to get on board to bring the UK’s first Gigafactory creating 6,500 green in Sunderland and support thousands more with the UK’s first electric van plant in Merseyside. 

My demand for a Gigafactory at Coventry airport has been actioned by the West Midlands mayor, and I negotiated with Rolls Royce the creation of a ‘centre of excellence’ training school supporting the development and manufacture of zero-carbon technologies.

No other candidate can claim to have the ambition and the plan to build a greener, fairer economy built on full employment, better pay and conditions, employment rights, equality, education and skills alongside a better environment and future for our kids and planet.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing workers in the UK today – and how will Unite fight them under your leadership?

How we rebuild our economy and our communities out of the pandemic and address the climate crisis are undoubtedly the biggest issues facing workers in the UK today.

We know that the Tories will do what they always do: make our communities pay for their disastrous mishandling of the crisis, with the hardest economic hit and biggest loss of life in Europe. Shamelessly, they’re starting already.

The pay insult to our NHS and local government workers is a disgrace – little over £1 a day, not even enough to buy a loaf of bread – which is why I will lead Unite’s fight to win pay justice and drive the privateers from our public services.

Our sick and elderly will be landed with higher prescription charges, and their life-long retirement savings, their pensions – already the worst in Europe – will be drained by Rishi Sunak as he patches up the economy on the backs of our people.  

Snatching back £20 from Universal Credit destroys a lifeline for low paid workers and the unemployed, cash that put shoes on their kids’ feet, a coat on their back and pays for food and heating.

I am already leading the call to force the government to continue with mandatory masks and will continue to press for massively increased sick pay protection so that our members can afford to stay home.

I intend to get the fundamentals in our union right. My ‘One call that’s all’, freephone number will ensure members get expert support from their union when they need it. I will invest in new technology to improve the way the union delivers for our members, including a Unite Assist app giving members and reps the information they need 24/7.

I will empower our members to fight back against the attacks on their pay and conditions through a massive increase in our education and training programmes. 

As Unite’s General Secretary, how will you ensure that Unite is growing support on the shop floor and in communities for a worker-centred just transition to a zero-carbon and ecologically just society? How will you use Unite’s industrial power to lead this transformation?

No other union will be impacted by the need to tackle the climate crisis as Unite will. From oil and gas to energy generation, steel and automotive plants, construction sites, warehouses, food production, finance, transport and our public services, Unite members are at the core of our economy. They stand ready to deliver the infrastructure that the green economy needs, building everything from turbines to green homes.

My pledge to be the greenest general secretary is backed by my record. I’ve said above that I will establish an Industrial Strategy and Green Transition Team.

I look at the potential of a green manufacturing revolution and I see massive opportunities.  I see the hundreds of thousands of secure and decent jobs it could bring in the short-term, and the millions it will create from 2030 onwards.  I want those jobs for Unite members. I’m determined to deliver them.

My ‘Workers Greenprint’ for jobs sets out how intelligent investment by the government can stimulate green jobs growth, return huge sums to the economy and ensure that no sector or worker loses out.

In construction, Unite members will build the million new homes we need and fit-out existing housing stock so that they become decent homes again. 

Our North Sea assets will convert to capture cleaner energy, our auto sector will build the electric and hydrogen vehicles and our aerospace members will produce greener aircraft. Our NHS and local government workers will work in greener buildings, converted by Unite members – and our children will breathe clean air.

This is not some far-off utopia. I’m developing jobs plans with businesses across the country. Look what I’ve achieved already with Nissan and others. 

The fly in the ointment is the government which wants the plaudits but without the hard work or investment. But I’m banging on their doors and they know I won’t rest.

Last year membership of UK trade unions increased by 118,000 overall, but private sector union membership fell by about 110,000. As the UK’s largest union in the private sector, how will Unite begin to reverse this trend under your leadership?

I will grow our union through organising in expanding sectors of the economy, such as IT, social care, online sales and the gig economy, as well as membership growth in existing Unite workplaces. 

I’ll get gig employers around a table to force them to see the sense in working with us to do the decent thing by employees or face our storm – I’m already in discussions with Just Eat about how we do just that.

I am determined to bring young workers into Unite membership because they need union protection most. 

For too long, Unite’s organising approach has dismissed the importance of organising in the gig economy. So many of these workers are young people and students. If they don’t have contact with a trade union at that stage of their working life then they won’t understand the importance of union membership when they go on to work outside of the gig sector. 

I will also bring union organisation to homeworkers, the falsely self-employed and workers on insecure contracts – giving a voice to millions of working people.

I’ll also freeze subs for two years and invest in ‘one call, that’s all’ access – a single freephone number to a new, well trained, ‘Unite Assist’ team –

easing the financial pressures on our members while ensuring their union is by their side 24/7.

Ultimately, working people prosper when trade unions are strong, and under my leadership, Unite will be that strong, confident union.

How do you understand Unite’s relationship to party politics? How will you ensure that the interests of Unite members and the broader working class are best represented in the political sphere?

I was proud to develop Unite’s political strategy. Its stated aims are simple: elect people to office who understand and will advance working people.

It’s led to some real talent emerging in our nation’s governments and rising stars in local authorities.

If we didn’t do this there’s no chance that someone on an average wage could ever stand for election. A warehouse worker won’t have the ability to simply take 12 weeks off to campaign without Unite’s support.

Voters already look at Westminster, the devolved parliaments and councils and feel disconnected. Too few politicians look or sound like them or understand what their daily lives entail. So, if we want our democracy to stay healthy, we have to do something about that. I want our members to feel their issues are recognised and experiences respected.

What chance do we have of arresting the climate catastrophe unless green activists work alongside organised labour? Anyone who holds social justice dear should work with my vision of a green-led Unite to ensure our kids can breathe.

Our political strategy gives our communities a chance to be heard and to deliver the laws and change that our people need, such as Barry Gardiner’s bill to ban fire and rehire.  

It means that Unite doesn’t hesitate to speak out on attacks on our liberties, like the police and crime bill that will suppress our ability to protest, and the voter ID bill which will make it harder for BAEM and low-income people to vote. 

It also means we deliver top quality political education to thousands of members each year, eager to understand the nature of power in this country.  

I am determined Unite’s political strategy not only continues but goes from strength to strength. Unite members need a strong, experienced leader at the helm for the challenging times ahead, because the Nasty Party never went away.  

Gerard Coyne

Gerard Coyne

“I want to protect Unite members in tough times.”

What is your main pitch – why should Unite members vote for you as the next General Secretary?

I am standing to be Unite General Secretary because I want to put the focus back on members, and make jobs, pay and conditions Unite’s number one priority. 

I joined our Union over 35 years ago. I worked 28 years for Unite, including 16 years as Regional Secretary. I won union recognition agreements, pay deals and disputes for members across every sector. 

My trade unionism has always been about making a practical difference to jobs, pay and conditions.  If I am elected General Secretary of Unite, this will be my focus.  

Unite has spent years trying to run the Labour Party. But I do not want to be Labour’s back seat driver. If I am elected as the next leader of Unite, I’ll focus on the day job.

My two rivals in this election are full time, senior, serving officers of this Union, Steve Turner, backed by the Communist Party, and Sharon Graham, backed by the Socialist Worker Party. They were at the top of Unite through all the waste and decline, and they never spoke up. I was the one who stood up and challenged Len McCluskey for the leadership in 2017 – and very nearly won. I am the only one who will really change Unite.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing workers in the UK today – and how will Unite fight them under your leadership?

We are facing huge challenges across our economy, as a result of Brexit, the pandemic and the need to reduce global carbon emissions. These will drive significant changes in our labour markets and impact workers across the whole economy. There are many issues but in particular we will see:

  • Fundamental changes for our members in energy and utilities, in automotive and manufacturing, as we look to shift away from fossil fuels to renewables and meet our net zero targets.
  • More home working, and the loss of office-based jobs as a consequence of a more mobile flexible workforce able to work from anywhere – including abroad. 
  • Increased monitoring and surveillance tools with worrying implications for staff working remotely. A new Always On culture will require new workplace agreements and a new employment rights over privacy, data and the right to disconnect.
  • Attempts to level down in response to new markets and global competition including the use of Fire and rehire. We must fight to make this not just immoral but illegal too. 
  • Increased use of AI and automation to drive productivity and competitiveness, particularly in manufacturing businesses. 

It has never been more important to be a member of a trade union, never more important for Unite to focus on supporting members, and never more important to reform Unite so we protect jobs, pay and conditions and fight for investment in skills and new workplace rights for the future economy.

As Unite’s General Secretary, how will you ensure that Unite is growing support on the shop floor and in communities for a worker-centred just transition to a zero-carbon and ecologically just society? How will you use Unite’s industrial power to lead this transformation?

There is increasing awareness across society of the challenges that meeting our sustainability obligations will require. The UK must show international leadership in how to transition to a zero carbon just society, and the Trade Union movement must play its part. Ensuring a just transition is the challenge of our lives.

The ‘free market’ simply will not achieve a just transition. The need for zero carbon is not being driven by the market, but by the ecological imperatives we face. So, we have to tackle it with a deliberate and pro-active response from government and civil society including Unite the Union.

We have a responsibility to be honest with members working in sectors that will feel the brunt of the transition away from fossil fuels, where jobs will be affected. We have to make sure those people and industries are protected and supported through the transition. I will embrace change, but I will also fight for the individuals to be fairly treated.

I will campaign for the introduction of a Green Skills Dividend to be placed on all production companies seeking to close and relocate – of 9 months full pay per employee coupled with a training surcharge – this would generate significant funds and the time needed to retrain for the green economy. I have pledged to establish a £10m Unite Skills Fund to make sure that we are supporting individuals and their families to develop the skills they need to prosper through the transition to a net zero economy. 

Last year membership of UK trade unions increased by 118,000 overall, but private sector union membership fell by about 110,000. As the UK’s largest union in the private sector, how will Unite begin to reverse this trend under your leadership?

I want Unite the Union to grow after years of decline. For that to happen we must make Unite membership more attractive and better value. It’s no good exhorting people to join if they don’t see the value of spending their hard-earned money on subs. We must give them a good, highly responsive service that helps them when they need it.

I want to protect Unite members in tough times. I want them to be better paid and better treated. I want Unite to grow, after years of losing members.  The challenges of growing a union are twofold, we must attract new members, and we must retain the ones we already have.  

After many months of listening to our members I know there is real frustration: they don’t believe that they are getting the support they deserve from their union. Many feel unheard and unsupported. They want a new approach.

I’ll start with a 24/7 support service for members and reps, including more training and better legal support. I will recruit more reps to provide better day to day support to our members.   

I know that members want to see value for money, which is why I have pledged to freeze member subs for the next two years to give us time to clean up our Union’s finances – and avoiding more hotel-style waste like the ridiculous plans for Unite TV.

I want to encourage more members to be involved to make our Union more inclusive and representative. I will conduct full member-led democracy review, and overhaul of our digital presence and to the way we communicate internally.

We must modernise the way we recruit members and organise in new sectors. Doubling down on an outdated approach to organising and recruiting that has been lagging behind for some time will simply not do enough for our members in the future.

How do you understand Unite’s relationship to party politics? How will you ensure that the interests of Unite members and the broader working class are best represented in the political sphere?

My first priority will be listening and delivering for members. Our role and extraordinary reach across so many sectors should give us a unique understanding of the challenges in the workplace. We have eyes and ears across companies small and large – but we need to do far more to listen and involve our members.

Unite is affiliated to the Labour Party and has an important role in developing the policies of the Party and next Labour Government. I will ensure that Unite members views are represented to all parties and to Governments. Unlike the other candidates in this election, I’m not going to play student politics and threaten the historic link with the Labour Party. That does not help our members one bit. But I will not be the backseat driver of the Labour Party, seeking influence on every aspect of its inner workings. 

Unite under my leadership will focus its industrial muscle in leading the charge for the development of fairer working practices and a new corporate culture, one in which all staff are valued and treated with respect.

Where businesses get it right we will recognise this, but where a business doesn’t value their staff, embrace equality and diversity at all levels and invest in developing good industrial relations, we will expose them and hold them to account. I am determined that our political strategy will directly improve the lives of our members. 

In summary, I want to change Unite. I want to modernise the organisation and focus it back on its members. Turnout in union elections is usually low – it was just 12 per cent in Unite’s last General Secretary election in 2017. So if you are a member of Unite, the power really is in your hands now. If you want real change in your union, not more of the same, then please cast your vote for me.