Who is Sharon Graham? First female leader of Unite the Union - and what is trade union?

The UK’s largest trade union has elected its first female general secretary in a result which has taken many by surprise

Sharon Graham will replace Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite the Union, after seeing off competition from Steve Turner and Gerard Coyne.

While her Corbyn-backing predecessor favoured Turner and Keir Starmer’s team were behind Coyne, Graham’s politics are somewhat less clear cut when it comes to Westminster.

Who is Sharon Graham?

Graham currently runs the union’s organising and leverage department, as is considered by many to be the most experienced trade union organiser within Unite.

Broadly on the left of labour politics, she is a veteran of many high profile industrial disputes.

Graham has been involved with 15 major victories during her time as head of the union’s organising unit, including a campaign against the use of fire and rehire by British Airways.

Born in London into a working class family, Graham got involved with industrial action from an early age, leading her first walkout as a waitress, aged 17.

She has been with what is now Unite the Union for 20 years and her role in training many organisers within the union is thought to have been a key factor in her election win by many.

Graham has said that she wants to focus on strengthening workers rights and introducing sector-wide bargaining.

She has also called for more worker organising within specific firms such as Amazon, and a change in the way the union works with the Labour party.

Why does a trade union election matter?

Unite is one of the UK’s largest and most powerful trade unions, representing millions of people in a variety of industries.

As large organisations, union leadership matters as different general secretaries have different ideas about how their trade union should be run, and its priorities.

During the campaign, Graham published a detailed manifesto on what she would do if elected, focussed on workplace organising.

She said: “I have built Unite through the organising department, at the workplace, across industries, fighting bad bosses.

"It’s time the whole union, the whole machine of the union, was dedicated to fighting for a better deal, better pay and conditions for all union members, at the workplace."

While the election of a new general secretary to a major trade union is important in and of itself, it has further significance because of the political nature of the trade union movement.

As Unite is one of the largest donors to the Labour party, relations between the two also have a significant impact on British politics.

Graham’s predecessor, Lenn McCluskey, was a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and has been critical of the new direction taken by the party under Keir Starmer.

The Unite general election was seen by many almost as a proxy war for the battle between Labour’s left and right factions, or at least an indicator of each faction’s strength.

Graham’s election came as a surprise as she was not the favoured candidate of either Labour’s left or right groupings, although her victory has largely been met with enthusiasm from the left, and the influential Momentum group in particular.

Whereas both her opponents were seen as more invested in the internal politics of the Labour party, Graham has said she will focus the union’s resources on organising workers outside of politics.

During the campaign, she said the union would no longer provide a “blank cheque” to Labour and that support for the party would be dependent on results.

Asked recently about Unite’s involvement in the internal wrangles of the Labour Party, Ms Graham said: "As far as I know the Parliamentary Labour Party has never won a wage rise for a group of workers, never got a sacked shop steward reinstated, never led a strike.

"My priority is to build the union as never before and to make sure the government has to listen to the voice of ordinary workers. Besides, the mathematics are clear. There are 363 Tory MPs in the government and 199 Labour MPs in opposition. Why are we obsessing about the Labour Party? It’s the government we need to shift."

What is a trade union?

Trade unions are organisations which represent their members, generally in specific industries or trades, and organise for better working conditions.

While relatively underpowered compared with a few decades ago, trade unions are still able to wield significant power on behalf of workers, both on an individual and collective level.

The day-to-day work of unions tends to involve representing workers in company disputes, negotiating for better pay or conditions and other workplace organising.

However, the trade union movement, often spearheaded through the Trade Union Congress (TUC) , plays a major role in lobbying government on behalf of workers.

Unions have been instrumental in campaigning for supportive measures throughout the pandemic, such as furlough.