Unite general secretary Sharon Graham comments on the issues of the moment

Talking is fine – but listening to workers is key

As I write this Comment piece for this new issue of uniteEXTRA, talk of the COP26 discussions has been everywhere. In the week of its opening the British government announced that UK firms will be forced to show how they will hit zero carbon targets by 2050. A good idea? Maybe. But for all the talking, not one word was mentioned about those UK firms’ workers. In fact the workers’ voice has scarcely been heard at COP26. Yet our demand for a just transition is so important. Because defeating the climate change crisis requires a good deal more than the engagement of big business and government institutions. A lot of the practical work will be done around negotiating tables with major employers – and the unions. So Unite will be closely watching what follows – and we will be making sure that corporate profits are not the winners here – either at the expense of real climate change or decent jobs for workers. We are now seeing many employers – such as banks and insurance firms – moving rapidly towards making their pandemic homeworking arrangements permanent. I believe there can be real advantages to workers if this is done properly – and if it’s what workers want. But there are also some serious potential downsides if you are not in a union, like Unite, that has got your back. For example, how do you make sure that homeworkers get equal treatment with colleagues in the office? What can be done to limit the digital surveillance tools that may now be used in your home? How do you deal with health and safety issues for homeworkers, including mental health issues that can be made worse from isolation? We need to get straight answers to these and many more of our concerns for workers. Unite is negotiating with a growing number of employers to get our model home working agreement adopted. This is one more reason why workers need unions more than ever. ‘Optimism’? When the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, stood up in the House of Commons in October he told us his Budget would usher in a New Age of Optimism. He added to public spending and promised to support working people faced with a cost of living crisis. But when the think tank, the Resolution Foundation, crunched the numbers they found that the Chancellor’s multi-billion tax increases and rising prices would mean that this time next year ordinary families would be £3,000 worse off. In my book that has to be a new definition for optimism. And as for offering public sector workers a real terms pay cut while pretending that he is “rewarding” our NHS staff – seriously? Give me a break – and better still give our heroes a pay rise. But it's not just the government who needs to step up to the plate is it. We are going to need a lot more from Labour too before workers turn to them. There can be no illusions now. There is no political saviour riding over the hill to save workers from the brutalities of fire and rehire or from job cuts. As I have long said, it is we ourselves, trade union members who have to organise and fight back. No-one is going to do it for us. That fight back has already started. And please if you do have a problem or a concern about what’s happening in your workplace, do call our helpline – Unite has got your back. General Secretary members' hotline number 0808 501 5098

Sharon Graham

Unite General Secretary