27 August 2021

The election of a woman as general secretary at Unite: a significant move

Fran welcomes the election of Sharon Graham to be the first woman general secretary of Unite and the positives it brings to women's equality within unions; and also looks at how we can work with Unite going forward.

PCS congratulates Sharon Graham on her election as the first female general secretary of Unite the Union, the second biggest trade union in the UK. Mark Serwotka has written congratulating Sharon on behalf of your national executive committee.

Sharon's election is significant for several reasons. Women are taking up key positions in many trade unions, which is of course to be welcomed, not as a box-ticking exercise, or simple tokenism, but because it shows that there are many talented, competent women coming through the ranks, with the ability, and confidence, to take up leading roles across the movement. Sharon was elected on a bold, campaigning platform which obviously gained support from many quarters within Unite. She has a background in organising, campaigning, and building strong unions, all of which will be much-needed in the period ahead.

It was gratifying that in one of her first Tweets, thanking everyone for their good wishes, she paid tribute to our PCS strikers in DVLA, and made special mention of Sarah Evans, PCS DVLA branch secretary, calling her 'a sister who is leading the industrial action'.   

Over the time I have been an activist, things have really altered, for the good, but this didn't happen by accident. When I first started attending conference, the vast majority of delegates was men. PCS has worked hard to encourage, and develop, women activists, through mentoring and making sure that equality strategies really are at the heart of everything we do, and the conference floor is certainly much more diverse today as a result.

When I was first elected to my group executive committee in DWP, most GEC members, particularly officers, were male. This has really altered, and the gender make-up of that GEC is now much more evenly balanced, due to strong, sustained organising and equality agendas, which give women reps support and confidence to develop and participate.

I was lucky to receive lots of support and mentoring over the years, from both male and female reps, and I am certainly not advocating supporting women for key positions because they 'tick a box', but supporting newer activists, and giving them opportunities to step up, is something that needs careful consideration at every level of activity. Recognising that women bring particular skills and qualities to a role, even if different from those that have gone before, is important, and hopefully something we can all agree on, as we seek to ensure that our activist base more closely reflects our membership.

PCS works hard to join up our campaigns, wherever possible, with other unions facing similar issues. You will often hear key PCS speakers calling for joined-up, coordinated campaigning, recognising that uniting our struggles gives us the best hope of success.

PCS members have much in common with public sector workers within Unite, for example, we have a proud record of campaigning for decent social security and challenging so-called 'welfare reform'. We work closely with Unite Community, an initiative developed by Unite the Union to support those workers in receipt of benefits, alongside many other campaign groups made up of rank and file activists, to fight back against government attacks to the welfare state.

Unite represents many key workers. Members just like ours who are suffering the effects of the Tory pay freeze, whilst putting their health at risk during the pandemic to deliver quality public services. We have good relationships with Unite and are keen for those to continue in the period ahead, alongside other trade unions representing both public and private sector members.     

Joint working and coordinated campaigns will continue to be of great importance to defend workers' interests, and the more solidarity we can build, including alongside social movements like the People's Assembly, the stronger and more successful we will be in fighting off attacks from this government.

So, in welcoming Sharon's election to this key position, we recognise that the period ahead will be a tough one, and look forward to linking up with her and all Unite members, as part of a campaigning coalition,  to stand together against attacks from this government, in defence of all members. United, we really are stronger.