My interview with TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady

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?

Frances 1

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.

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Stop,Look,Listen…my weekly selection of favourite films, books and events to get you out of the house

london road
London Road (Home/AMC) I don’t usually like films about serial killers and particularly ones that are based on the murders of real women but this is an interesting and complex film about the murders of sex workers in Ipswich in 2006. London Road was an area that had become the red light area in the town and where the killer lived and one of the women was found. It is a cine-opera; a thriller set to music and interlaced with the script that includes interviews with the local people, the media and the sex workers. The stage show (on which the film is based) was a great success and no doubt the film will be just as popular.

song of the people
To a film screening of National Co-operative Film Archive’s Song of the People (check out trailer see ) which was made in 1945. Actor Bill Owen is a factory worker who sings about characters and events in British history from the 14th century to recent conflicts, showing how the lesson for the future lies in co-operation. A bit weird people singing at work, looks pretty dangerous given all the machinery whirring away around them!
Introduced by Gillian Lonergan from the National Co-operative Archive. Event starts at 2pm on 24 June 2015. You can also visit the new exhibition at the library; Spirit of 45; from warfare to welfare. Further info see

save stockport
Stockport against Mental Health Cuts on Saturday 27th June at 12pm. Open mic and stalls at Bears Pit, Stockport Town Centre. They are widening their campaign to include all cuts. for further info see

hotel florida
Hotel Forida Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill. I have read many books about the SCW and to be honest I was originally put off this book by the inclusion of celeb writers Martha Gelhorn and Ernest Hemingway. I was right, they come over as arrogant, superficial and thoroughly unpleasant people but I kept on reading because of the other two couples that feature in the book; Robert Capa and Gerda Taro and Arturo Barea and IIsa Kulcsar. They are the real heroes of the book as they put themselves on the line (physically and mentally) to defend the Spanish Republic and tell the truth about the war. Amada uses unpublished letters, diaries, reels of film and new archival discoveries to remind us of the significance of the SCW and hopefully encourage a new generation to understand why it was so important to the 30s and its lessons for us today.

pankhurst centre
Out about how the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester was saved in the 1970s. In this new exhibition “Squatting to be Saved” it tells the story of how it was saved by squatters and the Pankhurst Centre was established. The exhibition is open on Sunday 21 and 28 June 11-4pm. Further details see

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Building a Socialist Library (11): Notoriously Militant The Story of a Union Branch Sheila Cohen

Published by Merlin Press


Why would anyone join a trade union? Why would anyone want to be a trade union activist? It seems that every day we hear of trade union representatives being sacked for nothing more than representing their members.
In this very important book Sheila Cohen answers these questions. It is a history of one of the most anti-trade union companies, Fords, and the way in which trade unions, with all their imperfections, made a real difference to working class people’s lives, not just at work but also in giving them hope for a better future.
Central to the book is the David and Goliath struggle between the global empire of Ford’s and ordinary working class people: it reads like a modern day story about slavery and the attempts by people to escape the misery and servitude, not on a plantation but in a car plant.
Ford has a long history, founded by Henry Ford in 1903 in the USA, and was the pioneer of the modern motor car industry. The term “Fordism” summed up the nature of its method of production and “Taylorism” which as Sheila says; “was as dedicated as Ford to squeezing maximum labour out of the industrial workforce.” Fordism meant huge factories and a conveyor belt system which suited the design and production of cars and led to massive profits for the company.
Assembly line work was monotonous and, although workers were paid well,they were subject to a selective process based on Ford’s own bizarre views of morality whilst Ford employed spies within the workplace to ensure that workers did not talk about union organisation.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s it was the Communist Party and dedicated groups of activists who organised the workers at Fords. Faced with the depression workers became more militant and in 1932 took part in a “March on Hunger” mobilising thousands of workers who faced the full force of the state; “The police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the demonstrators, who nevertheless broke through and began to throw bricks at the plant.”

5315650_orig march for hunger
Fords came to Britain in 1911 to a plant at Trafford Park in Manchester but faced serious unrest from the workers and several strikes. Their local manager Baron Perry commented; “Manchester.. the hot bed of trade unionism.” Eventually in 1931 the Manchester plant closed and the workers were transferred to Dagenham. The Ford Dagenham plant became a key part of the global empire where new methods of production and work organisation were tried out.
Central to this book is the story of ordinary people who organised themselves in the workplace and did not wait for the trade unions officials to do it for them. A crucial role was played by branch TGWU 1/1107 which was the largest union branch in one of the key industries in Britain. As Sheila comments; “This place is all the more deserved given the historic struggles carried out by 1107 against the anti-union and anti-worker culture of the company which gave its name to a whole industrial system-Fordism.”
What is fascinating in this book is the militancy of the workers in resisting Fords’ attempts to undermine them one eg in 1944 when stewards from the TGWU and AEU occupied the manager’s office and forced the TUC and Fords to reopen their talks on organising. As Sheila shows the grassroots shop stewards were not just fighting Fords but the reactionary forces within their own trade unions. And as a former shop steward I can testify that very often activists spend as much time fighting their fulltime Trade Union officers as the management.
The Irish in this country have played a major role in trade unions and the labour movement and Fords was not an exception. Sheila shows this Irish militancy in 1944 when two shop stewards, Sweetman and Lynch, are sacked. “They received great support not only from Sweetman’s fellow- Irishmen in the foundry, who had become “pillars of the union at Fords’”.
Sheila also shows how the increasing numbers of women being recruited at Fords during the Second World War to do men’s jobs refused to accept the poor working conditions: as one of the convenors commented; “During the war it was through the women, quite honestly, that we gained a lot of the advances-rest periods, washing facilities, all that sort of thing-because they wouldn’t put up with what the men used to put up with.”

women shop stewards at Ford's

women shop stewards at Ford’s

But it was in the early 1980s that new activists in 1107 reformed the branch “based on principles of workplace union democracy” and determined opposition to Ford’s collaborationist “Employee involvement policies”.
The new leadership of 1107 came in as Thatcher came to power. Over the last year there have been many commemorations of the Miners Strike 84-65 but there has been a lack of a wider analysis of the real reasons why the miners and other trade unionists were defeated. As Sheila shows it was the anti-trade union laws that really kicked the stuffing out of shopfloor militancy plus the lack of leadership from the trade unions.
She says; “Thatcherite anti-union laws limiting solidarity and undermining workplace trade union democracy were to have a devastating impact on even strongly-organised workplaces like Ford’s Dagenham plant.”

ford workers on strike
The new leadership of 1107 were not just fighting Thatcher but major changes taking place in the car industry including getting the workers to take on more tasks as well as contracting out jobs and imposing more flexible work practices. TGWU official Steve Turner summed it up; “Ford was at the forefront of many of the industrial changes that were coming about at the time, trying to drive home a new agenda of not working smarter but working a lot harder.”
But 1107 responded by building links with other Ford workers and political activists through the national Ford combine and connecting with workers across Europe and the USA.
In the workplace 1107 was at the forefront of challenging racism in the workplace, not just from individual workers but also racist recruitment practices. They also took an active role in the boycott campaign against South Africa; refusing to handle parts which led to Ford’s pulling out of the country.
Trade union solidarity was a key factor in their politics as Alan Deyna-Jones comments; “The banner of the 1107 was always there on marches and rallies all over Britain, supporting all other workers like the nurses, miners and bus drivers.”
“Notoriously Militant” is an important book for anyone who wants to find out what real trade unionism means. For me a major strength of the book is the way in which the story is told through the use of interviews with the grassroots activists and it reminds me of many people I have met throughout my life as a trade union member and shop steward, ordinary people who worked hard for their members and were often victimised for standing up for justice for their members in their workplace. It is one of the few books that are inspiring about the role of trade unions in the workplace and shows how together members can make a real difference to our lives at work and in the wider world.

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Stop,Look,Listen…my weekly selection of favourite films, books and events to get you out of the house

Hulme 2

Some films about Hulme at Hulme Film Night. I lived there in the early 80s when it was a weird mix of students, ex-students and locals. The flats were deemed as “hard to let” and rent for a flat in the notorious crescents was about £20 a week. Things happened, one morning I came out of my flat to go down the stairs and the police had cordoned it off because someone had been stabbed. Overall, though, it was a laid back community, until the riots, which saw everyone on the same side; against the police. Some of us took part in the Moss Side Defence Committee raising money for the kids who had been wrongfully arrested and sent down. Eventually I left and the flats were knocked down and “regenerated”. In other words they kicked out the poor people and sold off most of the new flats and houses to the better off. Hulme was then deemed a safe and desirable place to live as it was close to the Uni’s and the city centre. These films tell about a different world. It will be popular, get your tickets now. Organised by the Manchester Modernist Society it is on Thursday 25th June from 6.00pm and in association with the North West Film Archive and Manchester Metropolitan University. See

to Dreamers, a new musical about Oldham with original songs plus 90’s indie classics. “It’s the 90’s and every weekend a group of young girls shake off the weekly grind with a messy night on the town. They don’t care if Monday’s blue, Tuesday’s grey and Wednesday too. It’s Friday- they’re in love. They never know where the evening will take them or who they’ll wake up with the next morning, but one thing they do know is they’ll end up in the smallest night club in the world with the biggest tunes – Dreamers. These girls don’t care about the future, they have all they need right now, and it feels like it will go on forever.” Great to see local stories being told and written by local playwrights. Support Oldham they need your money!!!
Written by playwrights Cathy Crabb and Lindsay Williams. Read about Cathy’s views on being a northern writer in my book see
It is on from 19 June to 4 July get your tickets here

tameside meeting
No to austerity! Of course you would! But the general election was dominated by parties of the austerity; Tories and austerity lite; Labour. On 2 July at 7pm at the Nazarene Church in Ashton Unite the Community branch have organised a meeting about the austerity and to raise awareness of what is happening in Tameside. Locally we have Tameside against the Cuts who support the unemployed but there is little else going on to challenge the massive cuts in local services and jobs. CharIotte from TAC is speaking alongside a Labour councillor and a Communist Party representative who stood in the local elections. Organised by Unite the Community. Further details contact Charlotte at and donate to a film about austerity see
Maybe Mark will come to the northwest!

rainy city roller derby

out about roller derby at this interesting exhibition at the community gallery at Oldham. Rainy City Roller Girls: Hit Like A Girl! Rainy City Roller Girls are from Oldham and are one of the top roller derby teams in the UK and Europe. Roller derby is one of the biggest female sports activities in Europe and you can see why when you watch the film of their matches. It harnesses all the aggression that women, in this case young, have. But unlike running it is a communal activity and I think that combined with the obvious health benefits makes it a fun and supportive sport to get involved with. It is also the answer to sexism; get fit and hit back!
The exhibition is only small but I think is one of the strengths of Gallery Oldham that it can allow local groups to get publicity for their activities. Further info see

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Stop,Look,Listen…my weekly selection of favourite films, books and events to get you out of the house


My favourite comedians Laurel and Hardy and support a local independent cinema. Stockport Plaza is a glorious art deco building. It was opened in 1932 as a super cinema and variety theatre with fabulous surroundings and a superior cafe restaurant dining experience. This weekend they are celebrating the golden age of Art Deco in their ‘Anything Goes – Putting on the 30s at The Plaza’. Further info see

french infifada

The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs by Andrew Hussey. A fascinating account of the history of colonisation by France in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and the way in which this has affected modern day France. Some of the most interesting films produced in France recently have merely scratched at the surface of this turgid history. These films include 35 Shots, Hidden and recently Girlhood showing the pain and suffering experienced by the excluded Arab populations living in France. Andrew’s book gives us an indepth history of France’s adventures in the Arab world.It is a horrendous book to read, particularly the torture meted out by the French colonisers on the Arab communities, and the cycle of violence that has sprung from the occupation of these countries. It is extremely well written and readable my only concern is that as a journalist should be he attending British embassy social occasions and why would someone who seems to be left wing accept an OBE? Buy it from


marx in soho
To a play…Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn. “Karl Marx is back! Karl Marx has agitated with the authorities of the afterlife for a chance to clear his name. Through a bureaucratic error, though, Marx is sent to Soho in New York, rather than his old stomping ground in Soho, London, to make his case. The play introduces us to Marx’s wife, Jenny, his children, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and a host of other characters. It is a brilliant introduction to Marx’s life, his analysis of society, and his passion for radical change. And in an era of savage austerity cuts and an ever-growing disparity between rich and poor this play is more relevant than ever”. Looks fascinating and its on at the Kings Arms  in Salford on 18 June see
And the Casa in Liverpool on the 20 further details see


Yet another victimised trade unionist. NUJ activist, Phil Turner, of the Rotherham Advertiser has been targeted by the management for compulsory redundancy. Phil has worked for the company for 30 years and is a long-serving trade union representative. He is the only person who has been dismissed from the editorial staff and was told on Wednesday 27 May. The union is appealing this decision and demanding the company withdraw the threat of redundancy immediately. The company have claimed the union has agreed to a selection skills matrix for redundancies but the NUJ has strongly refuted this assertion.
The union is urging NUJ members and supporters to contact the company in protest:
Please send respectful messages of protest to Rotherham Advertiser chief executive Nick Alexander and copy in the editor Andrew Mosley and HR officer Debbie Commander.

Send messages of support and solidarity to Phil Turner:
Email the chapel and copy in the NUJ campaigns and communications department:

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Stop,Look,Listen…my weekly selection of favourite films, books and events to get you out of the house

Watchgirlhood Girlhood(Home)…set in unfashionable Paris,about the children of French African families, it follows in the footsteps of films such La Haine and 35 Shots. And once again shows how French filmmakers are leading the world in expressing the alienation and discrimination of the poorest classes in their country. Marieme is 16 and wants to go to high school but like many of her peers she is offered little in the French education system but a lower status vocational training course or following in her mother’s footsteps as a room assistant. Her mother works long hours and the care of her two sisters falls to Marieme. Her brother is a frightening prescence in the family home, (a flat in a tower block) and is involved in the drug trade and policing Marieme and her sisters’ behaviour. There is a mixture of joy and harshness as she finds a new set of friends, but the friendship is riven with new demands involving physically fighting other girls and the shortlived acquisition of stolen money and clothes. It is a claustaphobic film reflecting the harsh lives and limited options for girls such as Marieme but there is a gradual awareness by her that she can change her life for the better. Best film of the year!

Get inspired IMG_3753 .. and come to my book launch on 6 June at 2pm at the WCML in Salford. What we need is hope for the future and I believe my book can help people to believe they can change society. In Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women I explore what it means to be an activist with nine other women. At my launch you can meet these women and maybe discover that you too can follow in their footsteps. Further info see

Support mh cuts social. the campaign against mental health cuts which is one of the most vibrant in the region. On 21 May they have organised a gig to raise the profile of the campaign and to get some fund. Promoted by MIND and Grassroots Initiatives with the support of service user and carer groups. Further info see Tickets can be purchased using this link see

Go freedom theatre some political theatre The Siege by The Freedom Theatre from Jenin Refugee Camp in occupied Palestine begins its first-ever tour of Britain. The play is an artistic reflection on a crucial event in recent Palestinian history, the Israeli army’s 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during the height of the second Intifada. While the dramatic scenes of the 2002 siege made headlines worldwide, those trapped inside the church were not heard. With The Siege, The Freedom Theatre tells the story from the perspective of fighters, clergy and civilians who lived through those fateful 39 days. Performances of The Siege will be accompanied by post-show discussions as well as workshop programmes, screenings and live events, with the aim of encouraging cross-cultural dialogue around notions of freedom, justice and equality. “I hope it will be a two-way experience”, says Nabeel Al-Raee, co-creator of The Siege. “The greatest thing for us is to meet people face to face and discuss our artistic project, as well as our lives.” More info on their UK tour see

Discover fjack press more about local poets and their poetry at flapjack press. Based in the northwest they promote some of our best poets.  Check out Cathy Crabb’s new book of poetry or go to one of their events where you can find out more about their books. See

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Stop,Look,Listen…my weekly selection of favourite films, books and events to get you out of the house

Rosewater. a film based on the real life experiences of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist, and his experiences of his imprisonment by the Iranian government in 2009. Maziar’s father and sister were communists and had been imprisoned by different regimes in Iran.Maziar had left Iran to become a journalist and was married to a British woman and living over here. He went back to Iran to cover the contentious elections of 2009 when the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced major opposition from Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In fact the more “liberal” Mousavi was on the way to winning the election when Ahmadinejad announced his victory hours before the polls closed. Bahari filmed the riots by angry Mosavi’s supporters and sent it to the BBC. Rosewater was made by Jon Stewart of famous US talkshow The Daily Show and he may have felt guilty at Bahari’s imprisonment because the Iranian authorities used his spoof interview with Bahari as evidence that he was a US spy. The film is interesting because it gives a historical viewpoint to the struggle in Iran for a more democratic society through Bahari’s family but I think it will suit the western world because although, quite rightly it criticises oppressive regimes such as that of Iran, Stalin and Mossad, it doesn’t touch on the role of the USA and other western democracies and their torture regimes particularly Guantanamo Bay. And much as I love the Spanish actor Gael García Bernal who plays Bahari I think they should have used Iranian actors. Highly recommended.


to a play “Fighter” about Len Johnson who was a Communist and boxer. He was born in Clayton, Manchester in 1902 of African and Irish parents. His father was a seaman who went into boxing and Len followed in his footsteps and became well known as a successful professional fighter from 1922-1933. But he was banned from fighting for official British titles because the British Board of Boxing operated a colour ban. During the Second World War he joined the Communist Party, and was an active member, standing 6 times in the Moss Side ward but attracting only a small vote. He attended the Pan African Congress in Manchester in October 1945 and later set up the New International Society in Moss Side which was both a social club and campaigning organisation. He had retired from active politics by the 1960s and died in Oldham in 1974. Michael Herbert has written an insightful book about Len, to buy it see. A play based on Len’s life is on at the Kings Arms Salford next week see

save our public
Against the Tory government. Its started. So, get there at the beginning, at an emergency meeting at 6pm, on Monday in the Council Chambers of University of Manchester Students Union.
All welcome, student or non-student. (It’s on the second floor of the building, and is accessible by lift). Organiser Karen Reissmann says We’re calling an emergency Save Our NHS meeting and would like to invite activists from across Manchester. We need as many fresh ideas as possible about how we move forward, organise further and ramp up the urgency of this campaign!

….the latest issue of Now Then magazine…a fascinating mix of articles about culture in the northwest. Love the article about challenging fascism. See

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