Frances O’Grady speaks at a TUC budget-day rally. Photo: TUC
Well, the movement has changed radically, although maybe not always quickly enough in some ways. Everyone starts from 1979 and the fact that our membership base was – allegedly – 12 million and there’s been a really big shift. There are lots of different explanations for that.
Some people talk about the legal attacks, some people talk about the unions not going out there and organising sufficiently. I think the big, big issue was the brutal economic restructuring that Thatcher brought in, and in addition to that the ideological assault on the very essence of collective values that trade unionism stands for. It wasn’t just in Britain. Wherever neoliberalism spread, governments either actively championed the marginalisation of trade unions or stood on the sidelines while it happened.
So although I’m personally committed to unions devoting ever more resources to organising, to be willing to take risks about the new models of trade unionism we develop to reflect the real working lives of people today rather than a generation ago, I think there’s something more profound that we have to tackle. This is about rebuilding support for collective values, solidarity, people looking after each other, equality, compassion, dignity at work. These are very basic values but I don’t think we should take them for granted.
Yes, I think that it does. In terms of where young people work, it’s still true that a third of young workers are employed in areas like hotels/catering/hospitality, which is quite a ghettoisation, and these are precisely the areas where you have zero hours contracts, franchises. One of our unions, Community, ran a campaign organising in betting shops, where a lot of young people and older women work. You look at that industry and it’s balkanised, so it’s really hard to organise for bargaining rights when it’s shop by shop by shop. It’s a very difficult thing to do.
And so it’s very much part of our structures to encourage the development of local trades councils, bringing together representatives from different unions, and very often they are drawing in representatives of student organisations or community campaigning groups and other friends and allies too. And it’s not about top-down ‘telling’, it’s about making sure everyone gets to make their contribution, and feels ‘this is our campaign, we own it, collectively’.
The TUC is not Congress House, it’s the whole trade union movement. So we’ve got every union committing to campaigning and making it a reality. We’ve got a number of plans, we’ve got our key themes and answers.
Over the summer we’ve got a bus tour that will be visiting towns and cities. One objective, for sure, is to give a morale boost and profile to grassroots campaigns, whether that’s against the bedroom tax, to save the local hospital, or to keep a particular plant open. It will mean pulling those threads together with our common messages. We’ll be travelling around the country with film-makers taking testimony from people, building our own collective self-confidence and our own vision about what we want.
Another objective is bringing people together. For example, to defend the NHS we pull together our own unions with non-affiliated unions like the Royal College of Nurses, and we work with patients organisations and campaigning groups too.
But the really important bit from an organising point of view is to not just speak to the people who agree with us, and not just lecture those who don’t. It’s the people we need to persuade – that’s where our efforts need to go. And that’s the most exciting bit for me, from an organising perspective.
You know it would be easy to take the comfortable option – and I understand why it happens when we feel on the defensive and our backs are against the wall, so we feel it’s easier to talk to each other. But it’s much tougher to get out there and find out where other people are, because as the polls show, there’s still a big job to do. We can’t just assume that the whole country believes that there’s an alternative to austerity.
We know most people think the cuts aren’t fair. But not enough realise that they’re not necessary either, and that they’re happening not because it’s the medicine the economy needs, but because there’s a very nasty right-wing ideological attack on what generations have fought for ordinary working people to have.
There’s also an issue here in relation to the NHS. We need to expose to the wider public what private interests are doing to the NHS, in many ways the last jewel in the crown from 1945. The penny hasn’t necessarily dropped with the public at large yet just how serious the future is in terms of privatisation. We have planned some high profile research to show what this government is up to and the irreparable damage that could be done.
Well, there’s a huge contradiction there, isn’t there? If, as many do, we share an analysis that growing inequality in pay and falling real living standards were among the key drivers of the crash, it suggests that cutting people’s real pay is not part of the solution. Even the Christian Democratic German finance minister has talked about the need for wages to rise again, as part of injecting demand into the economy. We have got that job to do to persuade and we have to keep up that conversation.
There is huge frustration and anger, which many of us share, about what this government is doing. We have to be smart in our response to that. Motion 5 to Congress asked us to look at the practicalities of a general strike, not to ‘name the day’. Clearly, because we have one of the most draconian sets of labour laws in this country, the reality is that if we were to call a day of action as has been proposed, then under UK law our advice is that we could be vulnerable to funds being sequestrated, our members getting sacked, and the need to repudiate our own activists if they use the wrong terminology. So high stakes stuff.
But there are others who argue that, regardless of the law, there are also strategic questions, and it comes back to the question: what’s the best way to win people to our cause? What’s the best way to persuade people who don’t feel confident there is an alternative yet, who aren’t yet active in our nationwide campaigns, who still believe that austerity is a nasty but necessary medicine? How do we win them over? My own sense is that there is no short cut on the hard graft of community organisation, running our campaigns, putting pressure on the politicians.
There are no magic bullets. But we have to keep going if we’re going to win people over, which is what we’re trying to do. There is already industrial action in some areas – teachers, civil servants, post office, BBC – and they can count on our support and our solidarity 100 per cent. As long as I am GS, wherever unions and their members vote to take strike action then the TUC will back them all the way.
Things can change quickly but at the moment it’s mostly public services. But again what is happening in the private sector is a big question. What are people in the private sector thinking and feeling, what do people have the appetite to do? Because one thing we do know for sure is that fewer than one in five workers in the private sector holds a union card. Again, I don’t think there is any short cut on that. We’ve got a hard job to do to organise the private sector, not only into unions but also into the values that we stand for. We’re a democratic movement. Everything we do depends on what our unions and what individual members vote for. And I think that’s important – it can be pretty frustrating at times but it’s also our great strength.
I think we can win genuine public support for the idea that unions are part of the answer to the country’s problems. But let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve got work to do. That’s one of the reasons why it’s really important that, yes, we stick up for public services and fight the cuts, but that we also have something to say about private sector industries, that we talk about industrial policy, that we argue for workers having more of a say in the future strategies of their companies, that we highlight the thousands and thousands of companies where we have good industrial relations.
But just as important is that we have a vision for how those companies could contribute to a fairer, better economy. On the green agenda, there are some wonderful opportunities to produce what we used to describe as ‘socially useful goods’. When I go round workplaces, people care about what they do at work. They care about their pay, their terms and conditions, their health and safety, but they also want to feel a pride in what they do.
I think that’s a really exciting agenda that the trade union movement should be talking more about. We have these huge challenges – inequality in society, climate change, globalisation – so we should ask: what is this company for? What should we be doing differently? What do workers think should be our vision for this industry or this economy?
There are great traditions in the trade union movement of doing just that, so I don’t think it’s overly ambitious.
Frances O’Grady was speaking to Michael Calderbank and Jenny Nelson
Frances O’Grady has trade unionism in her blood. Her grandfather was a founder member of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, while her father was a TGWU shop steward at the Leyland car plant in Cowley, Oxford, where she grew up.
One of five children, she got a job as a researcher specialising in equality issues at the TGWU after doing a degree in politics and modern history at Manchester University. She also obtained a diploma in industrial relations and trade union studies at Middlesex Polytechnic.
She left the TGWU for the TUC in 1994, where her many responsibilities included setting up the TUC organising academy in 1997. She was elected as deputy general secretary in 2003 and took over as general secretary at the beginning of 2013.
O’Grady was ranked as the 11th most powerful woman in Britain on the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour ‘Power List 2013’, ahead of Harriet Harman at 14th but behind Elisabeth Murdoch (5th), Theresa May (2nd) and the queen (1st).
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History