We have to get the message out that trade unionism works

Trade unions face their biggest challenge in a generation. The cost-of-living crisis, with rampant inflation and tougher anti-union laws, is a gauntlet that has been picked up by growing numbers of trade unionists. Frances O’Grady, the Trade Union Congress’s retiring general secretary, has been in the job for nearly ten years. She has been the first woman in the post. How does she assess the successes and current challenges facing the movement? Mike Davis spoke to her

“Twelve years of a Tory government is a challenge in itself with four, maybe five, prime ministers, a Brexit referendum and Covid-19 being huge challenges. We face a more rapacious form of capitalism, and now we have big tech capitalism, surveillance capitalism, which is radically transforming working lives and relations between boss and worker. A key lesson is that all our talk about internationalism isn’t just sentimental talk but an urgent priority for working people across borders. How we deal with these gigantic corporations should not be beyond the wit of trade unions to organise against.

“We have some fantastic initiatives against Amazon and Starbucks. Getting deals with these corporations with high labour turnover is tough. Nevertheless, unions are making breakthroughs on this front. We’ve been inundated with governments and companies wanting to divide workers, whether it be across industries, between white and Black, men and women, so it’s important workers stick together. There are times in history when just sticking together is a big achievement.”

So what have been the major achievements? “The trade union movement proved its worth during the pandemic. Trade unions representing workers proved themselves critical to keeping the country running. Many of us were sceptical workers would get just rewards. But we have seen quite a number of strike ballots which would not have happened without trade unions. We secured the furlough scheme, which protected 12 million workers.”

Reflecting on being a child of the ’70s and ’80s, Frances O’Grady always carried the belief that mass unemployment is the biggest threat. “It is used to make workers weaker. Avoiding mass unemployment was my top priority. So, not only strategic organising on the shop floor, but ensuring that at least a slice of the grant went to workers, was a major achievement.”

Railway unions, postal workers, dockers and port workers – even barristers – have been taking strike action. Nurses are now balloting alongside teachers. What has been the TUC’s role in supporting this growing strike movement?

“We believe workers are stronger when they keep together. This is way to get a better deal. So our role is to coordinate. We exist to do this. It happens on many different levels: bringing together unions in particular industries, workers in outsourced companies, in privatised industries. We have the convening power to bring unions together to share tactics on what works best, the synchronisation of action. What we are witnessing is a wave of workers, many who have never been on strike before, balloting for action. We have set up an organising hub at the TUC developing digital tools to help unions get the best possible turnouts and ‘yes’ votes in ballots. I love the concept of how we do this. It’s a combination of using the best techniques of digital organising alongside face-to-face, voice-to-voice organising to turn people out.

“Tory governments may be introducing thresholds to stop workers taking action, but we are determined to support workers organising for action. We can beat them. We just have to be smarter. There is also a new mood in the country. Our role is to build public support, whether in media or local communities. This is a very different period where we are seeing union leaders achieving a higher profile, speaking for people who feel they have not had a voice for a long time, absolutely determined they are going to win a fair deal. For the most part, this is not about workers achieving pay increases; it is just about defending what we have already got. It’s back to the Tolpuddle Martyrs where it all started. It’s against pay cuts; that’s what people are organising around. We are making sure there is popular support around the country.”

Labour and the unions have been joined at the hip since the party’s formation 120 years ago. There is popular support for many of the recent strikes, so what  should the parliamentary opposition be doing? Should MPs be joining picket lines?

 “We want to see a Labour government, because if we don’t, we are going to have more kids going to school hungry, more people homeless, more pensioners freezing because they can’t afford heating. There is a social justice question here. Also, we want a Labour government because it is important that people understand this mob won’t be here for ever. We’ve seen the opportunism of many companies, as with fire and hire. In the immediate wake of the pandemic, we’ve seen fire and hire used against the very same workers who had been working to keep the lights on, to keep us safe. It’s disgusting. We also need a Labour government because the balance of power has swung mightily into the hands of bad employers. There are international rights and principles: collective bargaining, the right to organise, the right to withdraw your labour. This must be defended at all costs. And we need a positive approach to working people. Unions campaigned very hard for the New Deal for workers that would get shot of zero-hours contracts, fire and rehire, other forms of insecure employment, but also deliver a fair pay agreement, collective rights to have your pay negotiated by a trade union, starting of course with social care where a majority of women are on less than £10 an hour. What I want is a party that is self-confident about standing up for working people and their unions. It’s not so much about being seen on picket lines but a party that is proud of unions.

“We are less bothered about MPs having their picture taken on a picket line than tackling the root causes of the cost-of-living crisis. It is not just about getting a fair wage but about a fair share of the wealth created. The creation, also, of good green jobs where they are needed, investment, training and skills.

“What I want is a party that is talking about the causes of the cost-of-living crisis and what needs to change so that people get a fair deal. Of course, I want politicians of any party to see that it is wrong to remove the cap on bankers’ bonuses while keeping the lid on nurses’ pay. How hard is it to see the injustice of this? I’ve spoken to people who have never been on strike before who are more courageous, in a way, than our activists. They are walking through their fear to take action to do what they feel is right, not just for their families but also for their workmates. That takes enormous courage, and you have to be pushed to the absolute limits to do that, especially when we’re talking about key workers. They are dedicated to what they are doing. They are not just in it for the money, unlike the bankers and boardrooms. They are in it because they care. They find themselves in a real quandary. People need an arm put around their shoulders – we all do. So I’d like to see politicians doing more of that.”

Women played a huge role in getting people through the pandemic. Yet they are still paid less than men in many fields of work. There are more women at work than ever. Trade union membership has increased amongst women while male membership declines. As someone who Woman’s Hour rated the 11th most powerful woman in Britain, what does O’Grady believe has and can be done?

“I’m delighted our two biggest unions are led by women. One of those is overwhelmingly made up of women members. You may ask why has it taken so long. We now have a situation that demonstrates that women can represent men as well as women. Clearly, having more women in positions of power does not itself change the culture. We have been very vocal on sexual harassment and why it needs to stop. We’ve done a lot of training, especially at leader level. Sexual harassment is about power. Our big survey shows over half of women have experienced it and so many walk off the job rather than report it, because they believe nobody will do anything about it. It’s terrible that women don’t feel anything or enough will be done about it. Certainly, things have changed, but not enough. Nobody should have to put up with that indignity in their working life, whether it’s in a factory, a shop or a trade union.

“It’s not just about the individual. There are structures of power that hold women and Black people back, that undervalue their work. The whole issue of childcare and the cost rising faster than people’s wages means it hits women hardest.”

And what of the problem of old domestic relations reasserting themselves? Who does what in the home and the sharing of responsibilities? O’Grady again becomes animated.

 “I have been very worried that there is a return to the 1950s, with secrecy around pay and an expectation that women will take on the home schooling during Covid and all the picking up and dropping off, that double shift. We seem to be going backwards, not forwards.

“What I’m pleased about is we have secured core status in the Covid enquiry. We have an amazing [KC]. We want that enquiry to address some of these structural issues. We’ve worked closely with the Bereaved Families campaign. We have to address the structural inequalities that saw care workers wrapping themselves in black plastic bags because they were not considered worthy to be provided with adequate PPE. We saw Tories giving their mates contracts for millions while care workers, shop workers, transport workers were left defenceless. What does that say about who and what we value? We’re determined to shine a light on these issues in the enquiry, and we are now part of that inner circle that gives us access to papers.

“I was worried memories would fade, but I don’t think they will. Talking to people, many feel rightly angry about how workers were treated at the time and since. It shows a real contempt for these workers, teachers, the children and people they were supporting. Many companies awarded contracts should be in the dock not on the panel of enquiry.

“This is the mother of all truth and justice campaigns.”

Despite 12 years of austerity, overall trade union membership continues to decline. Why did she think this was still happening, and is the situation changing?

“There are telephone directories written on this. The framework of law making it harder for workers to organise is a factor; a mushrooming of small workplaces, which makes the economics of organising harder; plus the massive growth in insecure contracts. We see a 400% turnover of staff every year. This helps discipline the workforce. Would you put your head above the parapet if you’re on a zero-hours contract and you’ve got to feed your family? It has this disciplinary effect on people. But as someone who loves labour history, we have to remember that our forefathers and mothers went through this. In the last four or five years, we have had modest growth of union membership. It’s modest. We saw lots of people turn to unions during the Covid crisis, not just on pay but for health and safety. It really mattered, and unions are the best defenders on that front.

“We have seen a number of union leaders who have reached parts that have not been reached for some time. There was a sense of confidence in ourselves, a renewal of faith in what we are here to do. It does feel as if there is a massive opportunity here that something has happened, something has clicked. There is hope that you can push back if you act together collectively. Solidarity works. We don’t always hear this. There have been a number of disputes – Unison, Unite, Usdaw – where unions have got incredibly good deals. We need to get the message out that trade unionism works.

“One of the things I enjoyed most was setting up the organising academy. It’s bringing excitement into the job of organising. It is still the best job in the world. We can be brilliant negotiators, but unless you have got the workforce organised, it does not matter how good your arguments are, you need the power of organisation behind you. The OA has developed into training for reps and leadership work, but the time is ripe for another big push, because we have a more receptive public than we have had for some time. We have a younger generation of organisers who have nothing to lose. And what great leaders they will make.”

And what of the gig economy, the modern precariat? Often unions not affiliated to the TUC have been involved in organising these workers and taking strike action to raise pay and secure conditions of employment.

“I want to pay tribute to our affiliates who don’t get the same publicity as the insurgent unions. If you look at the membership numbers and the recognition deals done – Deliveroo, Hermes and others – these were big breakthroughs. Soon, we will have the Coventry Amazon strike ballot result [which narrowly missed the threshold for strike action]. None of us know for sure if our existing unions can take that jump. Mick McGahey [Scottish miner’s leader] said we are a movement, not a monument. We have to be constantly changing because our democracy is made up of workers, and it their working lives that we should be made up of, not the bureaucracy.

“Can unions adapt or change? Nobody knows for sure what will work. But it is a great strength of Britain that we have one centre. Look at other countries. It makes us stronger. We must not forget that numbers matter, but so does bargaining strength. Remember Jack Jones – you’d think not only about numbers but who has got power in this workplace. So, I’m as interested in organising the software engineers as the shop floor. I’d  like to organise Google, because you know you have power there that could not only improve their standards but that of other workers as well. We need to think about centres of bargaining strength.

“We have to be open to new models of union organisation. The TUC have done some good research on democracy in the workplace  and empowering workers to have a critical say in how their company or service operates.”

How confident are you that a progressive government will embrace these ideas or at least reopen the question of democratic control of the corporations and public services?

“I know it’s ambitious in the current environment, but it’s important we keep that vision that workers can be architects not just bees. We have to train ourselves. Sharon Graham has talked very eloquently about understanding how the company works, how much money they are making, getting every detail. We are the experts on our own companies, our own industries. I’m a believer in strategic public ownership and alternative models of ownership, not just nationalisation. It can be golden shares, local ownership – there are all sort of ways to do this, so we must keep that debate alive. It’s important for us and our own sense of importance that we have a seat at the table. I make no apologies for that. We should have seats at every table where decisions are taken that affect our lives. We have intelligence and wisdom to bring. So yes, we’ll continue to press that case for governance reform, not just workers on the board but real reform of the way companies work, who they are accountable to and what their priorities are, as opposed to the current situation of shareholders first, second and last.

“Also, why our fight against restrictive anti-union legislation is so important is because unless we have the right for workers to organise and withdraw their labour, then the rest sounds like a pipe dream. I’ve always believed that workers believe not only in what they are paid and how they are treated but in the work they do. In my experience, people want to feel proud of the work that they do and the organisation that they work for, and that’s why trade unionism can’t stop at terms and conditions. We have a much bigger role to play. This will become more important as these ugly models of capitalism evolve where contests will move into new claims where we will have to have a much deeper understanding of what’s going on in order to exert any power.

“It shouldn’t be controversial. It seems obvious to me that we were sold privatisation on the basis there would be more investment, lower prices and better pay. We were ripped off on every front. We were sold a lie. All we needed was better regulation; but as we saw in the finance sector, people did not know what they were regulating and more. The tricks they were playing were far beyond the understanding of the regulators because they didn’t do it themselves. On procurement, we see obscene ripping off of local authorities, where private equities are promising to run the estate, the care service. These companies don’t give a fig about the care service – they want to profit from the estate. We need to think through the best forms of public ownership. We would save ourselves bucket-loads if we bring energy companies, for example, into public ownership. Energy is a strategic area, particularly with the climate change challenge, where hopefully a progressive government needs its hands on levers in order to be able to steer the economy to a greener, safer future. It’s no good leaving it to the market because all the market cares about is making a shedload of money for a few private individuals. It’s going to have to change. This isn’t even radical. In other countries, they have been doing it for years. That’s one reason why energy prices are so much lower in France for, example, or why rail is so much cheaper in Germany. It’s not rocket science.”

The day after we spoke, O’Grady was named as a new Labour peer. It is clear she won’t be retiring from the fight any time soon. As for her legacy, she made a resounding call.

 “At a personal level, I want anyone who has been shut out of power to know we can do it. Whether it’s young women, experienced Black representatives or anybody who has felt a bit on the outside, come on in: you can do it. That’s my message.

“We are collectivists. We know none of this is possible just by individuals. It’s the collective effort that wins through. So, any legacy passing on is: are you up for the fight and ready to win? You’re a steward for the spirit of the movement. That’s ultimately what I am passing on. There is no individual achievement in the trade union movement.

“I’ll say this as a firm atheist: it’s a bit like the Church – as my mum used to say, you can never really leave. I will continue the fight, particularly in the face of these anti-trade union laws the Government want to bring in, but do it in a way that doesn’t get in the way of my successor. I’ll do my bit, I’ll find a way.”

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