SIMON WALTERS: Unite’s new firebrand boss and a cynical plot to target the rich and famous
On the face of it, it’s hard to see what Dire Straits singer Mark Knopfler, Sir Alex Ferguson and the ex-wife and rugby-playing son of Britain’s richest man have got to do with Sharon Graham taking over the Unite union.
The answer is that they were all reportedly lined up as targets for new-style militant industrial relations tactics that made Miss Graham’s reputation – and those tactics are likely to be used more now she’s in charge.
The link between Knopfler, Sir Alex and Miss Graham comes in the form of Unite’s innocent sounding ‘Organising and Leverage Department’ that she had headed.
The union’s foes claim that, as an alternative to traditional strike action, it uses ‘bully boy’ methods to put pressure on company bosses caught up in disputes by targeting their family and associates.
The ploy came to light in 2013 in a Unite clash with Ineos, the chemical giant owned by billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the wealthiest man in the country.
On the face of it, it’s hard to see what Dire Straits singer Mark Knopfler, Sir Alex Ferguson and the ex-wife and rugby-playing son of Britain’s richest man have got to do with Sharon Graham (pictured) taking over the Unite union
Intriguingly, the industrial dispute was sparked by vote-rigging allegations involving outgoing Unite boss Len McCluskey and Karie Murphy, who was chief of staff to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Miss Murphy, with whom Mr McCluskey recently admitted he has been in a relationship, was temporarily suspended by Labour after claims that party rules were broken in her failed bid to become parliamentary candidate for Falkirk.
Unite declared war on Sir Jim when Ineos suspended a Unite shop steward at his Grangemouth refinery near Falkirk for allegedly using work time to campaign for Miss Murphy.
Miss Graham’s team produced a secret 200-page file on how to make the tycoon back down.
According to a leaked copy of the report, it included references to the tycoon’s marital status, his children and outside interests. It stated he was separated from his wife but had a new partner and lived in Hampshire, close to rock star Knopfler.
It is said to have noted: ‘Ratcliffe is known to be a very private person. Any actions/demonstrations that could disrupt his personal equilibrium could be very useful.’
The link between Knopfler (pictured), Sir Alex and Miss Graham comes in the form of Unite’s innocent sounding ‘Organising and Leverage Department’ that she had headed.
It reportedly described proposed ‘actions’ such as including ‘opening dialogue’ with his then wife and a rugby club for which one of their sons played, in addition to contacting celebrity neighbours such as Knopfler.
Also proposed was a ‘lawful’ demonstration at Manchester United, with references made to Ferguson and David Moyes, who succeeded him as club manager in 2013, on the basis that Sir Jim was a fan of the team.
A spokesman for Miss Graham told the Mail she was not responsible for the Ineos ‘leverage’ plan – nor was she in charge of the union’s actions. However, she makes no apology for targeting bosses personally in some disputes, he said.
‘Employers don’t bother to think of families when they fire workers at will,’ added the spokesman.
‘Company owners’ families are included in a campaign only if they have major business links to the company. If employers object to that, it is rank hypocrisy.’
Miss Graham argues that unions must ‘take the bull by the horns’ instead of waiting for a Labour government to give them more power. Sir Keir has avoided the nightmare of a victory by Mr McCluskey’s chosen heir, Steve Turner, especially since Miss Graham claims to have no interest in Westminster power broking.
The leaked report proposed was a ‘lawful’ demonstration at Manchester United, with references made to Ferguson (pictured) and David Moyes, who succeeded him as club manager in 2013, on the basis that Sir Jim was a fan of the team
She has said she accepts the Corbyn era is over but she has also reportedly insisted that Unite’s future relationship with Labour will be based on ‘payment by results’ – and there will be ‘no blank cheque’.
Sir Keir is already floundering in the polls and has no hope of winning the next election unless Miss Graham pays Labour the same £3million that Mr McCluskey gave to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the run up to the 2019 election.
And any hopes Sir Keir may have had that Labour’s pro-Corbyn brigade have disappeared with the disappearance of Mr McCluskey was scotched hours after Miss Graham’s success became clear.
Ominously for Sir Keir, the hard-Left Momentum group set up to bolster the Corbyn leadership were among the first to congratulate her yesterday, pledging enthusiastic support for her provocative style of taking on ‘bad bosses’.
A Momentum spokesman said: ‘Unite members want a union that organises, that builds power in the workplace, and uses its leverage to take on bad bosses. Sharon campaigned on that promise and we fundamentally agree that any route to progressive change in Britain requires working class organisation to be stronger than ever before.’
Spelling out her hostile approach to employers in the private and public sector alike, Miss Graham has said: ‘The days of tinkering around the edges are over.
Intriguingly, the industrial dispute was sparked by vote-rigging allegations involving outgoing Unite boss Len McCluskey (right) and Karie Murphy, who was chief of staff to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (left)
‘You cannot keep winning in one worksite when you are dealing with a company controlled by a head office thousands of miles away. The site manager doesn’t decide the big issues. The chief executive does.’
Former waitress Miss Graham, 51, who has a ten-year-old son with partner Joe Clarke – he also works for Unite – led her first strike aged just 17. ‘How I got away with it I don’t know but I did,’ she once recalled. ‘You can’t persuade employers just by weight of argument. We walked out and won.’
But her ‘leverage’ tactics have come under fire from some of her Unite critics. One insider said: ‘It is totally unacceptable to target employers’ families.
The old fashioned way of organising and recruiting the workforce may be boring, but it is more effective in the long run.’
And the methods advocated by Miss Graham do not always appear to work.
When Unite took on Sir Jim, he threatened to close the Falkirk plant altogether. It would have inflicted a massive blow to Scotland’s economy and thrown hundreds of Unite workers on the dole.
The dispute ended – but only after the tycoon secured new curbs on union activities and pension payment cuts.