Date Released: 02 April 2013
This year Frances O’Grady became the first female General Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress. The daughter of an Irish-born mother and second-generation Irish father, she has fond memories of summers spent with relations in the Cabra area of Dublin. Scott Millar talked to Frances about her family background and the challenges and opportunities of her role.
You have a family history of working class political activity.
My grandad and his dad, on my mother’s side, were founder members of the ITGWU. The Lockout was part of the family history. My great grandfather had also worked in the Liverpool docks and was involved in the 1911 strike there. Apparently, he knew Larkin well. My father was born in England but went to Dublin, where he met my mother and they got married before coming back to England to live. I have always seen the Irish as natural organisers and it is where I see a genuine value being brought into the trade union movement by migrant workers because they bring these rich experiences and very often a bigger understanding of how the world works. I was always brought up knowing there were at least two different versions of history and I think that was very useful.
When did you first become active in the trade union movement?
I first joined as a shop worker as a teenager then later on in my twenties was employed in the voluntary sector and later became a Transport and General Workers Union representative, involved in organising campaigns beyond the workplace and with migrant workers and others in London.
What are the major challenges facing the movement?
I think the big challenge is in the private sector and we need to remember that we are only ever as strong as the weakest worker. We also need to rebuild citadels of bargaining strength because if you look at people’s living standards they’re stagnating or declining. Many economists now argue that this growing inequality was actually one of the causes of the crash. Because people’s living standards were falling and they were taking on more debt and mortgages that they couldn’t afford, that all fed the debt bubble. So it is a classic case of the system sowing the seeds of its own destruction because it wasn’t sustainable in the long term. What is also clear is that as trade unions become weaker, particularly in the private sector, the less able they are to improve living standards for everybody. I think we are now at a crossroads because the dominant model is under real pressure and ordinary people are questioning the kind of economy we live in and to what extent that economy should serve the interests of a rich elite and to what extent it should serve the interests and needs ofordinary working people. In a fundamental sense they are asking what is the economy there for? Just to get a few people at the top richer, or is it there to provide decent jobs, decent housing, a decent society that allows time to be spent with our families and people that we care about.
How should the trade unions change?
Trade unions worldwide need to remember our roots as a social movement and to build new alliances. We need to work on both fronts – we have a lot of work to do to build membership and organisation, and new active leaders at a workplace level. In the case of the multi-national corporations that are circling our public services, that requires international corporation and solidarity of the sort that Larkin and Connolly pioneered. At the same time we have to reach out to migrant worker groups, to women’s organisations, to campaign groups. We have to build very broad and deep alliances that show that we are rooted in the communities that gave rise to us in the first place.
In the UK the trade union movement is emphasising the need to protect the National Health Service.
I think people in Britain are very clear that the NHS is not safe inthis government’s hands despitethe promises. We did some polling work with the Fabian Society because we have been repeatedly told that people do not care who provides public services as long as they were good. In fact, what the research shows very clearly is that people care very deeply about who provides public services because the only way that private services can make a profit is either by worsening the conditions of workers or cutting the quality of the services they provide or, very often, both. This has touched a raw nerve inthe UK because people feel very strongly that there are certain parts of life where it is simply wrong for private companies to make a buck from, and pain and suffering is one of them.
What are your current priorities?
We need decent jobs, growth and reform of the banking system. We have got to do something about living standards and wages. I’m going to be leading a new initiative around the living wage but we go beyond that. We want fair wages and fair shares because we need to reverse the unfair distribution of the wealth that we all produce. Companies need reminding it is not boardrooms that produce wealth – it is their workforces. We need to defend public services and go beyond that. We’ve got to look ahead to what we need as communities from our public services, how public services can be improved to meet the need of an increasingly ageing population and increasingly diverse population. I also want to start a debate on what I’m calling economic democracy, because I think most people agree that the balance has swung too far in the favour of employers and big corporations. We have seen those who hold the reins of the banks and our businesses making some incredibly bad decisions for which everybodyelse is paying a high price. So wherever there are decisions being made that impact on job security, investment, innovation and skills I want workers to have a voice, to be there, and that includes up to and including the boardroom.
Is media ownership an issue?
The concentration of media ownership in the hands of a very few, largely right-wing, rich men is a major challenge; not just for unions but it is bad for the health of our democracies. But again we have huge opportunities. In the UK as well as the traditional trade union paper the Morning Star, we have Union News which is web based. This is a great, cheap and effective way to get out to mass audience, it’s the 20th century answer to the old penny newspapers that were so important for that first wave of new unionism that Larkin and Connolly were part of. We mustn’t just bemoan what we have lost but must roll up ourselves and start creating those new ways of getting our message across to a new generation.
Are younger workers listening?
All my experience is that they are very interested in collective action. You still get people talking about the ‘me generation’ and that they are hard to organise but I think that is to do with the sectors they are employed in. Generally, we have had massive support from young people who have really been on the front line of the cuts and have very little to lose. They have lost their education maintenance allowance, their university fees have been tripled, if they get a job it will most likely below paid and insecure or they get the glory of an unpaid internship. I think there is a big appetite among this young generation of workers for what will probably have to be a new style of trade unionism. We should be open to that and to changing our structures because the world of work has changed. But trade unions have to ensure that we are relevant, that we are championing the issues that the new generation cares about and we are showing that we can make a difference.