Conference highlights

‘Unite’s focus is firmly on the workplace’

New GS Sharon Graham shows how workers are winning – at Unite Policy Conference 2021. uniteEXTRA brings you some of the highlights

As Unite’s sixth policy conference opened on October 18, in Liverpool, delegates from every sector attended – both in person and on line – to discuss the union’s crucial issues. The conference ran from October 18 to October 22.

New general secretary Sharon Graham, reported a number of inflation-busting pay victories for Unite members – which shows the union is heading in a new worker-led direction. Since Sharon Graham was elected to office in August, 10 pay disputes involving around 2,600 workers in the manufacturing, refuse, logistics, passenger transport and defence sectors have been settled – which she duly reported to the delegates.

“Unite’s focus is now firmly on the workplace and the fight for jobs, pay and conditions,” Sharon said. “Unite is a worker-led union driven entirely by the interests of our members and we will be relentless in organising to make sure that workers do not pay the price for the pandemic,” she added.

The highest pay increase for Unite members was for more than 90 HGV drivers employed by Wincanton on the North West England Argos contract, who received a 31 per cent pay rise.

Other lorry drivers have seen inflation-busing pay increases, including 200 Sainsbury’s DHL drivers (6.2 per cent) and 1,000 GXO drayman (4 per cent).

Workers in other sectors have also won significant pay rises as well. These include 150 Bexley refuse workers secured a pay increase of 11 per cent, 100 Kaefer naval base workers 5.5 per cent and 250 Lancashire bus drivers 4.4 per cent.

“These wage rises in companies the length and breadth of the economy show quite simply that where workers are organised in the union and fight for decent wages and conditions they can win. And that is exactly what we intend to keep doing,” she added.

Climate change, green industry and sustainability

With all eyes on COP26 Unite reps discussed climate change and issues around it. On a call to arms against climate change, delegate Stephanie Kasprowski (pictured left) quoted a Native American proverb, saying, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors we borrow it from our children.” Composites and motions also called for a green industrial revolution and the importance of a balanced energy policy. Unite delegates confirmed their commitment to this in a motion moved by Unite delegate Paul Rounding (pictured right), who called it a ‘crisis of capitalism’ and highlighted the importance of an energy policy that puts low carbon energy at its heart. Likewise the union’s commitment to sustainability was affirmed by continuing to lead by example in the fight against climate change by ensuring the union itself becomes more sustainable. Rural delegate Ivan Monckton (said it was vital Unite ensures it sources food from companies whose workers receive the real living wage. Ivan highlighted how the ‘fair trade’ label can be misleading, and in a powerful speech added that “good intentions are not enough” and said it was vital that all members ensure that Unite carries out its commitments to sustainability in all its operations.


Mental health dominated the discussion on health and safety. In moving a motion on mental health in the workplace, Taj Salam (pictured) highlighted the acute lack of access to mental health services and facilities provided by employers. He noted that Unite “cannot stand by and allow members to suffer, often in silence, when these facilities and services are not available or accessible in the workplace” and called on the union to offer and resource mental health support for members in need.

‘A radical post-Covid recovery needed’

The impact of the Covid crisis on working people dominated the debate on the second day of the conference. Views were heard on a range of issues related to the pandemic, including home working, a Covid-19 public inquiry, a post-Covid recovery and the impact of the virus on BAEM and disabled workers, among other concerns. Taxi driver Jim Kelly (pictured) moved a motion on a radical post-Covid recovery, where he highlighted how employers are attempting to take advantage of the crisis – just as they did in 2008 during the financial crisis – to attack their workers. The growing use of fire and rehire contracts during the pandemic was is a prime example of this, he said. Jim paid tribute to all the ‘ordinary workers’ whose courage, he said, helped save lives. He told of the struggles faced by many workers who lost their jobs and incomes. Speaking on the experience of taxi workers, he said, “Within three weeks we went form earning good money to literally earning nothing.”

PR vote: ‘It is time to change democracy’

In a historic vote Unite delegates agreed to back proportional representation for Westminster elections. The motion carried noted that “the UK is one of only three major developed countries to use a ‘First Past the Post’ voting system for general elections. “There is a consensus among experts that First Past the Post has a strong right wing bias wherever it is used, leading to parliaments and governments that are on average much more right wing that the voters. The motion backed that up by showing that, “Most votes went to parties to the left of the Conservatives in 18 of the last 19 general elections, yet the Tories have been in power for 63 per cent of this time.” Commenting on the vote, Sharon Graham said, “Today, Unite Policy Conference voted to support Proportional Representation in Westminster elections for the first time in our history. Our political class has failed working people and our system is broken. It is time to change our democracy.”

Sisters united

TUC GS Frances O’Grady, Unite GS Sharon Graham and Unite EC member Susan Matthews

Special speakers

Among the guest speakers were international visitors, TUC GS Frances O’Grady, Labour’s Andy Macdonald MP and former Unite GS, Len McCluskey

Len McCluskey – ‘journey’s end’

In his final address to Unite policy conference, ex-Unite GS Len McCluskey thanked many colleagues, and none more so than Tony Woodhouse, Unite EC chair and his successor, general secretary Sharon Graham (all three are pictured).

“This is the end of a journey for me,” he said. “Fifty-two years ago on these very Liverpool docks, I was first elected as a shop steward to represent the people I worked with.

“Indeed, the whole point of our union, our movement, is that you never walk alone. All of you are a thread in a tapestry woven by hundreds of thousands of working men and women.”

McCluskey wished his successor Sharon Graham all the best, as she leads Unite to future success. He said, “And what about Sharon Graham – an integral part of my senior team for over a decade. A force of nature who’s energy defies logic. And I wish her all the luck in the world as she carries all of us forward. She deserves your support and I know you will give it to her.”

A host of vital debates

In her closing remarks to the conference Sharon Graham heralded the huge success of the week’s debates and discussions and issued a call to action for all union members.

She told conference, “I think we have had a very successful week. We have had a host of vital debates and reached landmark decisions but perhaps the most significant element of the entire week is the fact that we have been able, at last, to meet together. Meeting together to allow us to feel the power that is in our union”.

She said that her pride in being elected as the general secretary of the union had been deepened by the events of the week.

“Our debates and discussions have made me all the more proud of the strength, power and organisation of the union. We go forward together, united to defend our members, as never before, because we face challenging times, as never before.”

Sharon thanked all those who had made the conference such a success, including the staff at the ACC conference centre who had made things run so smoothly.

The general secretary finished with a rallying call, declaring that perhaps the most important declaration of the week was made in our own presentation which explained that “Action not Words” would be the defining motto of her time as general secretary.

She said, “There is no political saviour riding over the hill to save us. We are the answer to all the problems that face us, all our pressures and difficulties – the union defending workers and fighting for a better deal. Unite – fighting for jobs pay and conditions!”

Sharon – ‘A very successful week’

By uniteEXTRA team

Pics by Mark Thomas