Frances O’Grady is the first woman to be appointed to the job of General Secretary to the TUC. She faces a difficult task as trade union membership is in decline and trade union representatives are being victimised and sacked on a regular basis and the new Tory Government wants to bring in more anti-trade union legislation. Is there a future for trade unions in 2015?
In the late 70s trade union membership was at a height of 12 million but today it is down to 6 million. O’Grady believes though that however bad things are today, they would have been much worse without a trade union movement. She says, “Trade unions have been involved in a 30 year battle against a set of ideas called neo-liberalism that says the best way of running the country is to let the top elite do very well and eventually it will trickle down to the rest of us.”
She points to the growing inequality in society and the way in which it has affected peoples’ lives including the destruction of public services and the loss of 1 million jobs which has hit peoples’ standard of living, particularly women, because they depend on services such as the NHS and Surestart Centres.
O’Grady believes that people are now looking for a deeper change in society and the way in which the country runs. “I believe we are at a crossroads moment, are we going to buy this ideology any longer? Or are we going to say we need a new set of values for this country, ones about fairness, everyone sharing in the economic recovery and recognising that if you are going to redistribute wealth you need to redistribute power and that it won’t just happen by itself.”
O’Grady is proud of the role that trade unions have played in the hard times that this country has been living through. But she is realistic about the problems of organising workers in a “flexible” labour market. “The government are making claims about an economic revival but behind the headlines we can see that unemployment is now being distributed amongst a larger number of people. And for the first time in the UK there is the problem of the underemployment of millions of people stuck in part-time jobs or on zero hour contracts.”
She points to some of the wins that have been made by marginalised workers including the Curzon cinema workers in London, the campaign by the Bakers Union to organise fast food workers and the pressure put on large employers over the use and abuse of unpaid internships.
The TUC strategy is to tackle the unfairness at the heart of the labour market. “We believe we need to strengthen the rights for workers both collectively and individually and that will give us a better chance of organising them.”
It’s a back to basics role for the TUC. O’Grady is emphatic about that; “We have to tell young people the truth that, unless you get organised, as each generation has had to do, the odds are against you. You need to band together at work to win better pay and conditions and respect.”
But she is also very aware that trade unions themselves need to change.”We have done amazing things against the odds but we have got to do more.” She feels that change needs to come in the way trade unions organise. “Sometimes our structures and cultures end up looking too much like a club and not a movement.” That means that trade unions should be more representative of their members or the workers they want to get to join the unions. This includes women and people from the black and ethnic minorities.
Democracy is at the heart of O’Grady’s strategy for a fairer society with trade unions playing an important role. She understands the history of struggle for democracy in this society and the battles that have been fought in the past but she is not nostalgic about that history. “Its no good celebrating heroes or heroines of the past if we don’t respect them by using our vote and fighting for a deeper more equal democracy.” She is concerned that the growing cynicism about the political system will mean that people do not vote in elections. “It plays into hands of an elite who don’t care if we don’t vote and by doing so we will let them off the hook.”
O’Grady comes from an Irish background, her grandfather came over from Dublin to work in the building industry and was a trade unionist and socialist. Nowadays he would be stereotyped as a foreign worker but it was the Irish and other ethnic minorities who were at the bottom end of the labour market who were involved in some of the greatest political struggles. As she says; “Very often we talk about migrant workers as ‘victims’ but they are very often the ones who have the guts to take the first steps to organise themselves at work.” There is a lesson there.