Automation And Closures Are Challenges – But Failure Does Not Have To Be Inevitable


Sharon Graham, Unite Executive Officer

By Sharon Graham,  Executive Officer of Unite the Union.

Morning Star, July 18th 2019

Sharon Graham explains how rebuilding the shop stewards’ movement will help develop meaningful industrial power in an age of growing  jobs uncertainty

Today as trade unionists our most significant, long-term challenges arguably have very little to do with the political circus surrounding Brexit.

The continued crisis in wages, the rise of contingent and outsourced work that so badly fragments our labour market, the job threat from the dawn of industry 4.0 and the corresponding decline of collective bargaining that has helped underpin this all. We face many serious problems but they are not insurmountable and managed decline does not have to be inevitable.

Among all of this, one thing is for certain. If we want to drive up living standards, we will face a fight for jobs and possibly for the future of work itself.

The evidence is mounting. Autonomous buses have been trialled in London, Las Vegas and Helsinki. A Chinese factory has replaced 90 per cent of its workforce with robots.

And it is clear that not only manual occupations are at risk. White-collar workers will share the brunt of technological change. From the introduction of digital therapeutics in health, to the development of algorithms in the legal sector, automation is likely to present an enormous challenge across the global economy.

Such challenges require a twin-track industrial strategy. It is important to remember that our ability to sustain political influence will ultimately be determined by the strength of our industrial positon.

We need an industrial strategy that allows us to effectively combat threats like automation. We need a credible approach to delivering practical results such as a shorter working week, with no loss of pay. We need a plan to both grow powerful collective bargaining and deliver comprehensive, credible campaigns to fight hostile employers.

Our union has deployed Unite Leverage sparingly but where it has been fully executed we have delivered. Whether against the violation of human rights that is blacklisting or securing justice for workers faced with illegal closures, Unite has shown that it is possible to win against the odds against global employers.

When confronted by crisis situations involving hard-nosed corporations it is often no longer enough to mount the picket line or publically shame, for example in the media.

Leverage can never replace collective organisation at the place of work but strategic planning and campaigns involving both domestic and global escalation are essential characteristics of the modern, progressive trade union.

It is absolutely legitimate for decision-makers, shareholders and customers to be made aware of the behaviour of those they are associated with and be tasked with taking action.

But you don’t move employers by just chucking bodies at a one-off protest — as much as that can help boost morale. The truly hostile employer must face a campaign of escalation that creates uncertainty in the minds of decision-makers.

This is delivered by research, planning and the execution of tactical activity within a strategic framework. Unite Leverage is not an emotional outburst, it is a plan designed to level the uneven playing field. This is why we now need to develop our Leverage as part of a wider industrial response and become proactive, not just defensive.

The failed models of business unionism and phony partnership have not grown our movement or delivered for ordinary working people. But to most shop stewards who advocate a far more assertive approach to industrial relations, it is also obvious that the fragmented, localised nature of our collective bargaining is holding us back.

It allows employers to divide us and weaken our negotiating power. To confront this reality we need a credible but ambitious plan rooted in the workplace. We need to develop meaningful industrial power.

In each sector of the British and Irish economies there are key employers, those that set standards and hold the most resources, together they occupy a central role as “pace-setters.”

If we are to develop real co-ordination of our collective bargaining so that we can start to negotiate agreements across our sectors once again, and if we are to really drive up living standards, then the top employers in each sector must be union. This is why we are now developing our “Top 10” strategy.

To build power throughout each sector we need to be strong at the top. We need to ensure that where we have existing agreements that have real organisation and where we don’t, that we deliver dedicated organising campaigns to make sure that no major employer is left to undercut our agreements.

As part of our series of reports into key industrial issues — Unite Investigates — we have already identified the top employers across each Unite sector and have begun to work with stewards and reps to develop specific programmes of work.

Key to all of this will be industrial co-ordination, whether that is within our own union or working with sister unions across Britain and Ireland and throughout the world.

If we don’t commit to joint working and remain fragmented in silos then frankly we can forget about driving up standards across sectors.

On issues like automation, to be effective there really will be very little choice other than to maximise our power through industrial co-ordination.

We must be prepared to work internationally. Many of our employers are global and we must renew attempts to deliver meaningful industrial solidarity.

To do this we must build combines of shop stewards. First, we will bring together activists within the “Top 10” of each sector but in the end we need to co-ordinate across all relevant employers — including “under-cutters.”

The development of layers of confident shop stewards with a global outlook will define our work going forward, it will be upon this rock that our politics will be shaped and where strike-ready workplaces will be prepared.

It is this proactive approach that will also see the development of Unite Leverage. If we commit to this and further build power, we can begin to really push back against hostile employers.

In the future we want our shop stewards to feel confident that they can fight for jobs, that they have options on the table when faced with a crisis.

More than that, we want an industrial strategy that delivers real solidarity. We need it to drive success and deliver an engine room of ideas that travels from the workplace up, not from the “experts” down.

We need more than warm words from politicians, we need an army of activists in the workplace that can drive their own destiny, on the poverty of ambition, on falling living standards, on joblessness, on undercutting and underemployment.

We need to develop thousands of leaders, not just one. We need our heroes to be collective. We need to rebuild our shop stewards’ movement.

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