Frances O’Grady: Covid-19 changes, Brexit and the future of trade unionism

Sienna Rodgers

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has been one of the key figures in the news and behind the scenes of the political world since the coronavirus crisis hit the UK earlier this year. Thanks to reluctance on the part of Rishi Sunak, a traditionally Conservative Chancellor, to deliver the support necessary throughout the pandemic, the labour movement has had to push hard for government interventions that were inevitable yet strongly resisted. At the same time, workers have faced a range of new problems, from not having the right to switch off while working remotely to having their lives put directly in danger due to Covid-19.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in government, our job as the trade union movement is to present our case, to look for a fair hearing, and to secure jobs and livelihoods for working people. That’s what we do,” O’Grady tells me over Zoom. I’ve asked her about working with Sunak during Covid, and what she thinks of the Chancellor who has a high public approval rating. And I put to her that it was quite a moment when Sunak was flanked by her and the CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn before unveiling the original ‘winter economy plan’. “As trade unionists, we’re trained to look for good faith relationships. Where, even if you don’t like what the other person is saying, there’s mutual respect, you meet on equal terms, you get a chance to put your case. I would say that Rishi Sunak responded with good faith at the very beginning.”

O’Grady is particularly pleased that Sunak was “prepared to listen” and implement a wage subsidy scheme, something that trade unions have advocated “many, many times before”. She says: “It was an important breakthrough for us, because it means that whatever else happens, if the time comes in the future where we are making the case that workers should not pay the price, we will all know that there is now a precedent for a wage subsidy scheme. There is a precedent for channeling money into local economies through wage packets.” I think this is precisely what many Tories are afraid of: setting precedents. It’s why the TUC’s repeated demand for increased sick pay has still not been met – because if it were, the decision would be politically painful to reverse.

“What we’ve seen since is it feels like the Chancellor is having a bit of a struggle with himself,” O’Grady says. “He had a bit of a struggle with himself over furlough; this was not natural territory for a traditionally right-wing government. But I think the comprehensive spending review showed a reversion to orthodoxy, austerity-lite, objectively.” This was when Sunak confirmed last month that there would be a public sector pay freeze – ”in real terms, a cut”, as O’Grady points out – despite these same workers having just risked their lives to keep the country going and despite this being precisely the wrong time to undermine confidence. “There’s still time for the Chancellor to change his mind on that. This government is no stranger to U-turns… Hope springs eternal.”

The TUC general secretary strikes the same optimistic tone when we talk about how Covid will shape the future. There is first a point to be made about digital trade unionism, which she describes as “a big part of the future”, saying: “It’s never going to be a substitute for me meeting you face to face, or supporting a member in person. But it does allow us to organise and grow, potentially in ways that we’ve just not seen for a very long time.” The ability to hold mass online meetings attended by tens of thousands and organise training that sees 5,000 safety reps tune in has been “a huge revelation”, O’Grady reports. “What we’ve seen is this big expansion in the layers of activists we can reach and the ways in which we can communicate.” The urgency of the situation also made the general council, the TUC’s governing body, more efficient, she suggests. “It wasn’t a time to make speeches to each other, it was a time to put our heads together and figure out what we had to do to win for working people.”

More broadly, O’Grady believes that the public health crisis will lead to a shift in public opinion, and that the clapping of key workers will not be forgotten. “I am optimistic, I’m always optimistic,” she says. “That’s how I get up every morning! I think people were shocked to discover that so many of our key workers are on the minimum wage and on insecure contracts.” One of the “worst symbols” of Covid was seeing workers “paid peanuts” not being given proper personal protective equipment and “unwittingly spreading the virus” as a result, she tells me. “What does that say about us? I think it does humble us all.”

But is there a risk that the same people who clapped on their doorsteps in the early months of the pandemic will not reflect on who and what should be most valued? The TUC head does not share my worry that this will be the case. “As we saw with the Dominic Cummings episode, I think the great British public has got a very good nose for hypocrisy. It doesn’t like the idea that we saw ministers joining the rest of us on their doorsteps, clapping, and then treating key workers appallingly.” And on public sector wages, she predicts: “The government may think it’s got away with it on pay. I think a long fuse has been lit.”

Both the Labour Party and the labour movement have promoted the message that there should be ‘no going back to normal’, as UNISON in particular put it. O’Grady says: “What we’re seeing is Labour really thinking hard about its own core values. And I guess what I want to really press is that the traditional promise that hard work pays has been broken. We’ve seen that broken now for many years. That needs to be renewed.” She tells me the TUC has a “really good, constructive relationship” with the Labour leadership – and won’t be drawn on how the party should vote if a Brexit deal is struck and put before parliament in the next couple of weeks. “I think the leader has a tough call,” she concludes. “It’s not an easy judgement to take. He’s got to take it. I think we need to support the leader in doing that.”

It sounds like there will be no direct criticism of Labour by the TUC if Keir Starmer chooses to whip MPs in favour of a deal or its implementing legislation as expected. But O’Grady does approach the issue differently. “I have always been a little bit concerned about focusing, understandably, on the impact of no deal. We shouldn’t take our eye off the ball: what kind of deal are we going to get if we get one?” She basically worries that the bar has been set very low – at getting any kind of deal. Like Labour, though, she is bothered by the government approach to UK-EU talks even if some kind of deal is struck. “I’m not suggesting trade deals are the same as trade union negotiations. But good faith matters a lot. And that’s been squandered through that internal market bill and the threat to breach international law. It’s not just the EU who sees that – every other trading bloc around the world sees it.”

Our annus horribilis, 2020, has nonetheless given way to innovation in union organising and a rise in trade union membership, particularly among women. 2021 will give rise to further changes, as Unite, UNISON and GMB – the UK’s three biggest unions, all party-affiliated – are set to hold general secretary elections. Is O’Grady, the first woman to lead the TUC, looking forward to the prospect of more diversity at the top? “I don’t think anybody would accuse me of making a secret of the fact that I want to see a trade union movement that looks and feels more like the workers that we do represent,” she replies. “We women are the majority. We need to be a lot more diverse than we are, and we need a hard look at some of our organising strategies on that front. But nevertheless, this movement is changing because it’s a living, breathing, democratic movement.”

Leadership matters, but culture is also crucial. Everyone was “upset and angry” after reading the GMB sexism report, O’Grady tells me. “It’s really important that we have the right policies, the right procedures. But it doesn’t take a policy to tell you that behaviour was wrong… We need to see change. And I think the report was really clear about addressing the structural and systematic nature of sexism.” The TUC has also set up a new anti-racism task force, which met for the first time this month. It aims to highlight racism in the workplace and outside of it (“whether it’s stop and search rates, or health and maternity services, whatever it might be, that has an impact on our members”), but also to address the movement’s own problems (“we have to get our own house in order to be fit to lead that fight”).

O’Grady is full of optimism, but warns: “If this year wasn’t easy, next year isn’t going to be a picnic either.” She emphasises that workers need rest over the Christmas break if they can possibly get it: 2021 is “going to be really, really challenging” as furlough ends and the full economic impact of Covid is felt. “Mass unemployment, for me, will always be the biggest threat that we face.” Not only because it affects livelihoods and creates deep scarring, but because it creates a “breeding ground for far right, radical right ideas and organisation”, she stresses.

The TUC general secretary ends our conversation with this thought: “Things like furlough may sound very dry and uninspiring, but actually that is part of the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do, with holding working people together. Because our opponents want to see us divided, and we must never walk into that trap. Not just keeping people in work, but keeping people in good work, is critical to the kind of society that we want to see.”

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