Profiteering bumps, not workers, are pushing up inflation. Here’s how to fight back | Aditya Chakrabortty

Some days it seems the entire country has slipped back half a century, to the 1970s. Abba are once again playing arenas, the Sex Pistols are gobbing all over our screens, and every chunk of masonry tumbling off Parliament gifts the headline writers another crack at their favorite decade. Government in chaos? It’s the 70s all over again! Record inflation? Seventies, obvs. And the strikes breaking out across the UK? Why, they’re about as 70s as Red Robbo, Reliant Robins and Reg Varney.

In all honesty, I’m not so horrified about time-traveling to the decade that saw the economy regularly growing two or three times faster than today, while keeping a far smaller gap between rich and poor. If that’s meant to be dystopia, I’ve read worse from scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – and they’re talking about what lies around the corner.

But to abide by the current laws of physics, the whole story is, as that perceptive analyst of British affairs Johnny Rotten might say, bollocks. Trade unions are a fraction of the size and strength they were in 1979 and, from sick pay to strikes, British workers get among the roughest treatment in western Europe. One result is that average wages are falling at their fastest rate in two decades, and many workers rely on benefits or even food banks to get by. Whatever the caricaturists may say, that is the backdrop to tomorrow’s march through London by union members.

The biggest threat to what remains of our tattered social contract isn’t 1970s-style unions but 2020s-era capitalism. From privatized trains to high-street chemists and care homes, industry after industry is today owned by multinational investors with tentacles around the world who treat our basic needs as tiny income streams to suck up and siphon off into palm-treed tax havens.

Among the many questions this raises, one of the most fundamental is: how do workers win against such overmighty opponents? Some of the best answers come from a woman whose name you may know only vaguely. Sharon Graham was last year elected head of the UK’s second-largest trade union, Unite. She wasn’t meant to win: her predecessor Len McCluskey had picked his own man, while Keir Starmer backed another. But members had their own ideas, and Graham stormed it. Rather than take a victory lap at last September’s Labor conference and sink a few bevvies with the brothers, she went off to a picket line. She does a lot of that.

Since taking over eight months ago, Graham has led 52,000 members into more than 300 disputes. Of those that have been resolved, Unite has won three out of four. In the past few months alone, workers at Gatwick have scored a 21% pay rise, those at Devonport dockyard in Plymouth have won 13%, and employees at the BMW Mini plant in Oxford have accepted a 21% rise over the next three years. She has pioneered a strategy called leverage. When battling multinationals, she will call in forensic accountants (Unite has just hired its own) and other advisers to go through every detail of the company, its owners and shareholders and their various advisers.

Documents are produced over many weeks that stretch to many hundreds of pages. Then a “dirt dossier” is put together, and Graham and her team start pushing on contractors, clients and foreign governments considering giving business to her corporate opponents. It has proved to be a devastatingly successful strategy. She has warned City analysts that Unite’s response to British Airways’ fire and rehire policy will damage its business, and has lobbied the Norwegian government against awarding a contract to a bus company. And time and again, she has won.

Many academics and commentators look on modern financialised businesses and produce a literature of despair. I have made my own contributions to that particular bookshelf. But Graham is the first person I have met who has looked at how the modern corporation is globalised, outsourced and often dependent on states, and turned those very factors against it.

When we met this week, her office still looked more squatted than occupied: a couple of boxes of files in a corner, some thank-you cards on a window sill and, by her monitor, photos of her 13-year-old son. Notable by their absence were big prints of her gripping and grinning with politicians. That’s one core principle of Graham’s politics: she isn’t fussed about Labour. Despite the rumours, Unite will remain affiliated to the party, but outside election time Graham wants the majority of its £20m political fund to be spent on community organising. The hole this could blow in Starmer’s campaigning budgets is potentially huge: one Labor veteran estimates it adds somewhere in the region of £6-10m over an election cycle.

In his recent memoir, McCluskey devoted hundreds of pages to Ed and Jeremy and Keir, with one solitary chapter on the outlook for trade unionism. Graham, on the other hand describes her members as “disappointed” with Starmer, and has privately told the Labor leader that he acts as if he is “embarrassed of the trade union movement”. This isn’t the usual left-right factionalism; when I broach ideas that are fashionable among the Labor left, such as a four-day week or universal basic income, she mutters under her breath, “God help me.” Instead of ventriloquising its demands through Labour, Graham wants Unite to speak in its own voice.

Her officials are already mapping out key constituencies where Unite will put up its own billboards with its own demands on pension schemes at work, the triple lock and good quality social care. “Whoever picks up the baton is going to get our vote.” She is also forming her own in-house thinktank to generate analysis and policy that reflects union members’ demands and experiences. Until a few weeks ago, the entire trade union movement had only one formally designated economist, Geoff Tily at the TUC (who works with some very able policy officers). Graham has hired two economists and has just this week advertised for another to do a Unite-funded PhD.

The first fruit of this strategy is a report shared exclusively with the Guardian. It shows that whatever Johnson and the Bank of England’s head, Andrew Bailey, warn about a wage-price spiral, there is no evidence of one. While global forces pushed up the cost of essentials such as oil and gas, a careful study of the accounts of the big FTSE-350 companies shows executives are now using this as cover to push up their profit margins – by 73%. Take out energy firms, and the numbers are still huge: over 50%. While the Bank of England is jacking up the rates on your mortgage and credit cards, and hastening a recession, policymakers are fighting a war that is half a century old. It’s not workers who are pushing up inflation; it’s often their employers.

Threadneedle Street knows this is happening. Its chief economist, Huw Pill, talked last month of companies pushing up prices to “pass on” costs, and of a “further strengthening of margins”. The obvious answer would be for Westminster to crack down. But while Bernie Sanders and others in the US are threatening a profiteering tax, Starmer’s team is paralyzed by the fear it may be seen as too much in hock to the very labor movement that founded it.

As workers across the country push for higher wages, Graham is about to get a lot more prominent and attract much more bile from the right. She has her own issues at Unite, a bureaucracy that after a decade of McCluskey has still plenty of Len-inists. But for my money, she is asking the right questions about capitalism and correctly focusing her energies outside an increasingly tepid Westminster. “My experience of politicians is they follow – they don’t lead,” she says. “So let’s get leading.”

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