Frances O’Grady: ‘I want change! We can’t afford to fall out. We’ve got to win’

Christmas is coming, but people across the country are anxious. We are waiting to hear whether our festive plans will be cancelled, or rather which ones and when. The government has consistently treated this pandemic as if it were a short-term phenomenon – with an ‘over by Christmas’ attitude – and maintains this approach almost two years later. Many Tory MPs are deeply reluctant to back more Covid restrictions, citing concerns over civil liberties, but the governing party is also wary of taking longer-term measures, such as increasing sick pay. These could make a real difference to compliance now and to the resilience of our economy generally. These are changes that the Trades Union Congress has been advocating for years.

“£96 a week presents people with impossible choices about whether to take the time off sick that they need or go into work. And of course, two million people still don’t even qualify for that,” general secretary Frances O’Grady tells me. “It’s all very well, the government talking about special hardship funds. But as we’ve shown time and time again through freedom of information requests, the majority are not getting that money. So we’ve got some of the people who are most vulnerable, and in some of the jobs that are most likely to spread the virus, unable to do the right thing and self-isolate when they should.” This is an argument everyone has heard by now, but still ministers have not listened and taken action. The same goes for enforcement of health and safety in workplaces. “Only one prosecution so far of an employer for breaking Covid rules – a construction contractor in Manchester. Only one? That I find pretty shocking,” O’Grady says.

The government could be learning from Covid, particularly the furlough scheme “widely recognised” as “one of the most successful economic interventions”, the TUC leader says. She wants a version of it to be made permanent. “We’re facing a lot of shocks in the economy, potentially, from Covid pandemics, but also climate change, big changes in automation and AI. It is common sense that just like so many other OECD countries, we should have that ready-made wage subsidy scheme in place, so that when firms go through those temporary difficulties but they’re perfectly viable, good firms, the support is in place.” O’Grady notes that “people need – desperately need – some security in very insecure times”.

Is it possible to persuade a Tory government to put something like that in place, or will we have to wait until Labour gains power? “We’ll see, won’t we?” she replies. “The government seems to be more preoccupied with its own internal battles at the moment, which is not great news for the country at a time when we need them focused on what’s best for the people of this country.” 

O’Grady was pictured alongside Rishi Sunak when he unveiled a key economic plan last year. How has that relationship changed? Is the Chancellor now engaging less than during the initial stages of Covid? “Access has never been a problem for the TUC and unions. Winning the changes we want to see is more of a challenge,” O’Grady says. “I do believe that any government of any colour should be interested in what an organisation representing six million workers has to say. Wisdom isn’t the prerogative of the boardroom. On the contrary, there is a lot of wisdom from the shop floor.”

She does believe lessons have been learnt from the pandemic, but mostly by the public, it seems. “I think people now understand the jobs that, for example, care workers do in a way they never understood them before, and are aghast that their reward is so short of the value of what they contribute.” This is where O’Grady’s frustration intensifies. “The contrast between how so many key workers went above and beyond their vocation to look after us, compared to the politicians who helped mates get rich quick, is so stark and so sickening.”

While Boris Johnson has been mired in scandal for months, arguably years, the controversy and pressure has been particularly acute over the last few weeks. “I know in the past people have talked about certain behaviours being ‘priced in’ to their assessment of particular politicians,” O’Grady tells me, implicitly referring to the Prime Minister in her characteristically careful way. “Well, I feel that shifting. I think a line has been crossed.” Observing that “when a government has lost trust, it’s like the true value of trust suddenly becomes very clear”, she feels “there’s been a real mood change”.

Is this the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson? “I think Keir Starmer was right to say that that’s gonna be decided by [Johnson’s] party,” she says. “It’s what his party think. As we all know, they are famously unsentimental – it will be about winning and losing, that will be their key test. But I guess what I feel is if this was a contest of character, there would only be one winner. And I think that’s what most of the public know, whichever way they vote.”

Asked whether she is disappointed, as some party activists are, when Starmer does not mention core demands such as sick pay in his Covid address to the nation and other appearances, O’Grady says “we shouldn’t get too distracted by who said what when”. More important for her is whether Labour is committed to the policies. “No doubt, we’ll all have our own views about improvements and new issues that will arise,” she adds, but “at the core of this for me, it’s about a commitment to seeing more power in the hands of working people”. She is happy with Labour’s new deal for working people, especially its pledge to introduce fair pay agreements at a sectoral level.

She does, however, take a different line from Labour on mandatory vaccines for NHS and care workers. The opposition party voted with the government on introducing a mandate, despite opposing the measure for care home staff earlier in the year. “It’s going to achieve the exact opposite of what we want to achieve. Whether or not they stay in the service, we still want to get them vaccinated,” O’Grady points out. She recognises this can be a difficult and profoundly personal debate.

“My mum was in a care home. I personally thought really carefully about how I would feel. She died before the pandemic. But how would I have felt if there were staff in there who hadn’t been vaccinated? We all have our personal worries about this. But I think there’s an obligation on government to think about the real world consequences of what they do and whether or not this will end up backfiring.” She doesn’t believe that targeted and active encouragement has been “exhausted as an approach”.

I remind O’Grady that she told me in our interview a year ago: “If this year wasn’t easy, next year isn’t going to be a picnic either.” 2022 looks pretty challenging too, I say. “Luckily, we’re a resilient lot!” she replies. The TUC will be focusing on pay rises, pushing the government on its promised employment bill and levelling up paper, plus looking at AI, automation and net zero. She also cites the TUC’s anti-racism task force as a priority, saying: “The first year was really about finding out what Black workers want, what agreements we’re getting, what we could be getting, the policy changes we need to see. This Congress year is all about delivery.”

O’Grady is pleased to see more women leading the biggest unions in the UK, though notes that “we’re still not at 50-50”. She is also keenly aware that “we’ve got eight in ten workers in the private sector yet to join”, while being cheerful about the way unions have recently shown they can work together. As for Labour’s electoral chances, her measured analysis is that “the opinion polls are looking much more optimistic for Labour” yet “it would absolutely be a mistake to be complacent” as “you’ve got to learn people’s trust” and “nobody quite knows when an election could get called”.

What drives her is clear, as ever. “I want change! I want change. We’ve got millions of people depending on us all. I think there has to be serious intent. We can’t afford to fall out. We’ve got to win, and win on a programme that provides better lives for people. Believe you me, we all have our own views on what that takes. But we can’t mess about here. We’ve got millions of people relying on us.”

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