Union leader urges Keir Starmer to make clear he is on side of workers

Unite’s Sharon Graham says Labour leader must not ‘stand on the sidelines’ as workers go on strike

The general secretary of Unite has called on Keir Starmer and Labour to make clear they stand with workers in strikes this autumn, asking him: “Whose side are you on?”

Sharon Graham, the leader of Labour’s biggest union financial backer, told the TUC conference in Brighton that she was asking that Labour “do not stand on the sidelines and play this safe”.

Starmer is due to give a speech to the conference on Thursday, and is expected to face questions from union leaders about whether Labour will commit to raising public sector pay in line with inflation and allow shadow ministers to show solidarity on picket lines.

Graham said that while there was clear water between Labour and the Conservatives, she was calling on Starmer’s party to “be bold, be on the side of workers” and “stop apologising for sticking up for workers on strike”.

She said there was already a party to represent the interests of business – the Tories – and she issued a challenge to Labour: “Whose side are you on?”

Graham spoke as Unite joined with the CWU, the communication workers’ union, in proposing a motion to conference in favour of more coordinated strike action this winter. The motion, also backed by the PCS union for civil servants, the RMT union for transport workers, and the NEU, the education union, was passed by the conference.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS union, echoed Graham’s message to the Labour leader. “Keir Starmer’s coming tomorrow, he’s going to get questions, so my question to him is: we’re balloting, does he agree with us that public sector workers should have an inflation-matching pay rise, and there shouldn’t be job cuts?” he said, adding: “He’ll have to answer.”

Unlike Unite, the PCS is not affiliated to the Labour party; but Serwotka said his members, and other TUC delegates, were keen to hear a clear expression of support from Starmer.

“What would be incredibly popular would be if the signal given tomorrow is that Labour absolutely understand that women and men, whether they’re on benefits, or in work, they shouldn’t pay the price of a problem they haven’t created – and that they’re with them.”

He has called for coordinated strike action, suggesting that civil servants involved in the road network could go out on the same day as the RMT’s rail workers to cause maximum disruption and political pressure.

Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, whose members have staged a succession of train strikes in recent months, supported the motion, saying more industrial action was to come from his union.

“We need to win our dispute. We need to bring it to a head,” he told the conference, saying he hoped for a “wave of industrial action” and “people on the streets in support of industrial action”.

There are now a huge number of workplaces being balloted for strike action this winter across multiple unions, including 400,000 Unison health workers, teacher members of the NASUWT and NEU, as well as members of the GMB, including 15,000 ambulance workers. Unite is currently involved in 400 workplace disputes.

The RMT has had a succession of train strikes and is planning to renew its mandate for another six months by balloting workers shortly.

Some unions are keener than others on coordinating industrial action but a degree of synchronisation of strikes now appears likely in the new year, with the potential for this to happen on a sector-by-sector basis on a joint national day of action.


Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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