Frances O’Grady at TUC: “Covid must be a catalyst for real change”

Frances O’Grady

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady today at TUC Congress 2021.

Massive thanks to Edel, Samson, Alan, Carol and Philippa for that sunny afternoon meet-up in Middleton. You know what, Congress? It was a joy to talk with such decent and dedicated people. And those same conversations are happening now in workplaces and around kitchen tables up and down the country. What we’ve learned from the pandemic. What needs to change. How working people can win a fair deal.

What struck me on the train home was something Carol said. She looks after adults with complex needs. You heard her say it: when she starts a 24-hour shift, the lives of the people she supports are in her hands. She’s right. But what’s Carol’s reward for a 24-hour shift? Less than the national minimum wage. That’s why the TUC is calling for a rise in capital gains tax to fund social care.

So the service gets the money it desperately needs: not in a few years, not maybe, but now. So that every social care worker’s pay rises to at least £10 per hour. And so that wealth is taxed at the same rate as people who work for a living. Because it can’t be right that a dedicated care worker pays a bigger share of her hard-earned income to fund the social care system than the private equity magnate who profits from buying up and selling on care homes.

So I say this to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak: go and work in Carol’s care home for a week. Put in the same shifts she does. And try living off her pay. Congress, instead of raiding low-paid workers wage packets, the government should think again. Tax wealth to fund social care. After all, the pandemic showed on whose shoulders society is built. The true value of labour. Who carries us. Who keeps us going and the balance of power can shift.

Union membership is growing and in key industries, staff shortages are beginning to bite. We’ve seen the headlines. Nandos running out of chicken. IKEA running out of mattresses. Wetherspoons running out of beer. Suddenly, supply chains matter. The people who keep essential supplies moving, should matter too. But after long hours, many HGV drivers are sleeping in their cabs on lay-bys. No payments for truck stops. No place to wash. No toilet facilities. Treated worse than animals.

Ministers may scratch their heads about how to protect supply chains and fill vacancies. Well, here’s a novel idea. Invite unions in with employers. Get us around the table, and let’s make that industry deliver decent conditions, direct employment and a proper pay rise. And let’s be clear – after decades of real wage cuts and falling living standards, no one can seriously say working people don’t deserve a pay rise.

So, I can tell you today just how much workers have lost out since the global financial crash. If pay had continued to grow at its pre-crash rates, the average worker would be £5,900 better off. No wonder household budgets are feeling the pinch. And economists agree. The biggest threat we face is low demand and the way to fix low demand is to pay higher wages. Because working people don’t hoard what they earn in offshore tax havens. They spend their wages in local high streets, and that’s what drives the real economy.

This is a moment of opportunity for working people. The task for us, as unions, is to bring it home. This movement is ready. Look at our wins from the past year. Not least, that momentous deal – after years of campaigning and fighting in the courts – our union, GMB, is now recognised by Uber. Total union membership is rising – especially among women. The face of our union movement is changing too. For every Dave and Len, there is now a Christina and Sharon. Britain’s two biggest unions – led by women. 21st century trade unionism.

In the pandemic, unions have shown the value we bring. When we are in the room and our voices are heard. But look at the price we ALL pay when unions are shut out and ignored. Who can doubt that we could have slowed down the virus, if everyone had had decent sick pay? Just like the TUC called for, from day one. Or if care workers had got proper PPE from the start? Or if bad bosses, who put staff safety at risk, had felt the full force of the law – prosecuted and fined?

We know that we are all better off when unions are listened to. Just look at furlough. An idea forged in the engine room of the trade union movement. Because we knew we had to prevent mass unemployment, stop firms going under and save livelihoods. When the business lobby wanted loans – we demanded cash in the pockets of working people. Look – furlough may not be perfect – but it saved nearly 12 million jobs and helped our economy bounce back faster. It was a great union idea. And it is a great union achievement.

Never again, in time of crisis, should the British people settle for unemployment on miserable subsistence. We have proved that there is an alternative. And we in this movement will never let any government forget. Those are two massive lessons of the pandemic: get unions in the room – your policy will be better if you listen to the voices of working people; and use the power of government to back working families.

The third lesson of the pandemic is this: we must start from equality. There are times over the last 18 months when ministers seemed to live on a different planet. They didn’t seem to understand about workplace overcrowding and how that made social distancing impossible. That not everyone has a garden, or a spare room, to work from home. That we’re not all waiting for an Amazon delivery. Some of us are making that Amazon delivery. That millions don’t get decent sick pay – and have no choice but to keep on working to feed their families.

And, frankly, they didn’t seem to care when schools and childcare closed that it was working women who picked up the slack. And they chose not to see that structural racism in the jobs market means for many Black workers it’s still a case of ‘last in, first out’. And that, as our anti-racist task force showed, Black and ethnic minority workers are concentrated in key worker jobs; more at risk of the virus, more likely to get it, more likely to die. Or that six in ten – six in ten! – of all Covid deaths were of disabled people.

And now ministers tell us they’re going to level up Britain. But levelling up means nothing if they freeze key workers’ pay; slash Universal Credit; and the number of kids in poverty soars. So, I have a challenge for the Prime Minister: if levelling up means anything, it must mean levelling up at work and levelling up living standards.

Looking ahead over the next five, ten, 20 years, it’s clear that economic shocks will grow and intensify in the UK, and around the world. Covid is not going to be a one-off. Years of austerity took their toll. And meant we fought this pandemic with one hand tied behind our backs. The UK must be better prepared for crises in the future. And they’re coming. Climate chaos is here already. The longer we put off getting to net zero, the more disruptive it will be.

New tech offers new opportunities – but also poses old threats to jobs. And the market will not save us. In an age of anxiety, working people are crying out for security. We must build an economy that can withstand the shocks – and help working families face the future with confidence, rather than reeling from every fresh crisis that unleashes rampant insecurity and inequality anew.

If the PM is serious about levelling up this is what he should do: first, just as other countries do, we need a ready-made short-time working scheme. To keep people in good jobs – and to make sure we bounce back fast. As the world changes, the skills we need change too. And people need income security to have the confidence to up-skill and switch careers. Climate chaos this summer has writ large the urgency of getting to net zero. But we must do it with justice. No-one deserves to lose their livelihood. Britain could lead the world with a real industrial strategy to make every job a good, skilled, green job.

We need that justice for the change that comes with new tech too. AI, robotics, automation. The gains from increased productivity must be shared with working people. Through higher pay or shorter working hours. And we can’t let tech make working life worse. Managed by algorithm, fired by artificial intelligence. That’s why we need new rights over our own data and the right to switch off.

Secondly, we need to invest for the nation’s long-term infrastructure. And that includes rebuilding our public services – battered first by austerity, and then by Covid. The government must take that opportunity at the spending review invest in public services, fix social care, mend the NHS and our education system. And give our key workers the pay rise they have earned.

And, thirdly, we need a new deal for working people. A strong set of rights from day one. Peace of mind that you can do a good job and be a good parent too. Including the right to guaranteed hours. The flexibility to swap shifts. And proper compensation when they are cancelled at short notice. Let’s ban zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment. And, Congress, it can’t be right that a boss can threaten to sack loyal workers, often after years of service, unless they accept worse pay and conditions. It’s high time we outlawed that evil practice of fire and rehire.

Covid must be a catalyst for real change. We need an economy that treats everyone with dignity. That rewards hard work. That helps working families and communities thrive. An economy where everyone can get on in life, regardless of our race, religion or background. This is the true test of levelling up.

Let’s be clear – that new deal must be global too. Government has now agreed to invite unions onto advisory groups on trade deals. Better late than never. And, alongside our union friends in America and around the world, we will be clear about what we want written into those deals: protecting public services from privatisation; defending good jobs; and cracking down on companies that abuse labour standards. Trade deals that do nothing to stop abuse of workers’ rights don’t do workers in Britain any favours. No worker wins in a race to the bottom. No worker wins when migrants and refugees are scapegoated. No worker can win on their own.

That’s why unions exist. Working people sticking together. So, together, everyone gets a fair deal. President Biden gets it. He’s already started building a new deal for working America. He knows – and we know – that the foundation of a fair economy is decent work, paying the union rate for the job. That’s the way to build back a fairer Britain too. So, to level up working people must have the freedom to organise, to bargain, to protest – and yes, to strike when we need to.

For too long, big corporations like Amazon have had far too much power. It’s time to level the playing field. We know that rights at work aren’t handed down – we must campaign and organise to win. I am constantly inspired by the power and resilience of working people. And by what we can achieve by working together. In this country, and across borders. Strong unions perform a great public service. Exposing exploitation. Giving working people a voice and a chance to get on in life. And winning a fair deal. Brothers and sisters, we’ve got work to do. Let’s get to it.

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