Sharon Graham: New Unite leader distances herself from Labour and declares 'no politician is coming to save us'

Monday 13th September 2021 18:30 BST

Sharon Graham, the surprise winner of the election to succeed left-wing firebrand Len McCluskey last month, delivered her first major speech as head of her union at the TUC conference.

Vowing "no more political tail wagging the industrial dog", she declared during a conference debate on opposition to "fire and rehire" policies by employers: "No politician is coming to save us.

"No Westminster project is going to deliver pay rises for our members or defend them from bad bosses. That is our job. We need to do it ourselves."

And hinting at the kind of civil disobedience advocated by her predecessor, she said: "It is true, depending on the circumstances, that strike action might not be enough."

During the election for general secretary, in which she defeated Mr McCluskey's preferred candidate Steve Turner and right-wing challenger Gerard Coyne, Ms Graham insisted there would be no blank cheques for Labour under her leadership.

And in her conference speech, she told the TUC: "I was elected on a mandate for change. On an industrial mandate to refocus my union on jobs, pay and conditions.

"Not to step away from the political arena, but to make building power at work our number one priority so that we can then move the politics from the grassroots up.

"And with Labour in opposition and a government reluctant to act, our response must now be industrial.

"Our priority must be to coordinate a fightback at the workplace."

Her pledge marks a shift in approach from her predecessor, known as "Red Len", who was Jeremy Corbyn's chief union cheerleader and a major force in Labour Party politics - and has now become a fierce critic of Sir Keir Starmer.

Mr McCluskey is this week launching his controversial memoirs, "Always Red", in which he claims Labour could "go under" with Sir Keir at the helm, in a Westminster pub, with Mr Corbyn - currently suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party - as his guest of honour.

On the role of trade unions, Ms Graham told delegates it is time that the labour movement was reborn and said in her speech: "We know what you want from us.

"Trade unions that do what they say on the tin. Fight for our jobs, for our pay and our conditions."

Denouncing fire and rehire as "an abhorrence", she said: "A legal mechanism used by bad bosses to slash labour costs under cover of a global pandemic, it is one of the scandals of our age."

While urging support for a Private Members Bill by veteran Labour MP Barry Gardiner, Ms Graham added: "It's time for change. It's time to rebuild the movement at the workplace."

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