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Interview by Joana Ramiro
FRANCES LORRAINE O’GRADY stands up from her desk and comes to greet me. She tells me she remembers me from the last time we met, at last year’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) “Britain needs a pay rise” demonstration. Last time we met we took a picture together. I said she was “amazeballs.” I hope she doesn’t remember that.
O’Grady is the first female leader of the TUC. The first thing you notice about her is that she fully in control of her environment. After 10 years as the organisation’s deputy general secretary and now two at the helm, she knows her unions in and out.
She knows her members, their issues, their worries and their joys. She is dressed, perhaps significantly, all in red. Her assistant and press manager address her very respectfully. This is a woman to be reckoned with.
And yet Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to launch a head-on attack on O’Grady and all that she stands for, when the government launched its flagship Trade Union Bill. If it passes this afternoon a series of tight controls would be implemented on any union action. Strikes would be strictly supervised and unions fined if newly required “letters of authorisation” are not in order at the picket.
Agency workers would be allowed (if not forced by employers) to cross picket lines and replace striking workers — something which has been illegal in this country since 1973.
“Even Margaret Thatcher didn’t lift that ban,” she says. “And we have voluntary agreements with agencies internationally as well as domestically. I think most people agree that it is completely unfair and unreasonable for unions who already have to jump through lots of hoops and meet tests to launch a democratic strike action, that even if they get through all those hoops the rug can be pulled from beneath them by an employer bussing in agency workers to bust that strike. Agency workers who may not even know what they are turning up to do.”
But beyond fines and draconian restrictions, the new law would force unions to get 50 per cent turnouts at strike ballots before workers are allowed to walk out. Not only that, but 40 per cent of the eligible union membership would have to say yes to strike action before it could take place. These rules, brandished by the Tories and right-wing pundits as mere common sense, have come across as a hypocrisy to many, particularly as the current government took power with a mere 37 per cent of the votes.
Yet, O’Grady is confident. If anything she seems ready for the fight. “We are a resilient lot,” she tells me with a wry smile. “I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.
“I feel confident that if there is any common sense in the world, the government will have to, at the very least, rethink aspects of this Bill,” she says, becoming serious.
“It’s not just trade unionists, not just the public, but actually a strong majority of Conservative voters think that this bill is illiberal, unfair and unnecessary.
“There’s no evidence to justify this Bill and that it’s being rammed through at the rate of knots — and that kind of haste makes for bad law.”
The proposed legislation, which she believes will “poison” industrial relations in Britain, was “introduced in a cavalier fashion,” something quite at odds with her own very measured and collected mode of operation.
“You have to ask what is the problem that the government are trying to solve. You also have to ask why they are pushing it through so fast. I would suggest that they don’t want a public debate about this. And just to be very clear, my job is to represent the trade union movement across the board.
“I speak to employers every day. There are a lot of employers who are deeply worried that from their perspective, the unintended consequence of this Bill is that it will poison industrial relations. In the vast majority of cases we have very constructive, mature industrial relations, trade unions do good in the work place. Many employers recognise that fact. But they are also pragmatic enough to recognise that when there is a dispute, if you introduce legislation like this you will harden feeling, you will embitter that dispute, and it will be much tougher to settle. That’s the reality.”
The Trade Union Bill and its outcome will be the first confrontation between a Conservative majority and the British working class in almost 20 years. If it passes, it would throw O’Grady, her members and thousands of other workers into a fighting pit, where she will have to show her mettle and lead the troops. As bad as that outcome would be, she seems ready for such a battle.
I ask her about the precedents the Bill is setting — attacks on civil liberties, an increase in police brutality, mass surveillance.
“As we know, in Britain the risk is that people don’t worry about civil liberties until we lose them,” she warns. “But I think that already we’ve seen from the statements from the likes of Amnesty International and Liberty that people agree this is a very very serious attack on civil liberties in this country.
“It’s particularly worrying, given everything we know now about surveillance, that this could be done on a very large scale and critically, from a trade union perspective, we are still campaigning for a full and independent inquiry into blacklisting.
O’Grady speaks with obvious affection for the working people she represents, frequently mentioning people, professions and individual struggles. She was a shop steward once: so was her father. She knows how to walk the walk, and perhaps for that reason she is also cautious and protective of the bridges she built and the alliances she made.
She is evasive when asked about the Labour leadership race, which was still ongoing when we met. She neither confirms nor denies the possibility of breaking the law and leading wildcat strikes were the Bill to pass. She is clear, however, on who is to blame.
“I think [the Conservatives] are behaving as a vested interest rather than a government of the whole country.
“The government is ultimately the employer for public-sector workers, and it has what I would call a “short-termist” interest in removing any opposition to some of the most severe cuts to public services that we have seen in this country.”
Time with Frances is short. She has other reporters to talk to and I’m told I have only a few more minutes. There was still so much to ask about — precarious work in Britain, the EU referendum, further consequences of austerity on women, on minorities, on everyone she represents.
I leave still wanting to know more about the woman who, after telling me her feminist icons were the Ford Sewing Machinists (because “there was an earthy grit to that campaign and so many laughs”) and Mary Macarthur (“a bit of a model for women in terms of how we get things done”), added that she doesn’t like the whole heroine malarky.
“I think that’s been one of the barriers for women — it’s the mystique around leadership,” O’Grady remarks, returning to joviality.
“We all have families, we all have crap days as well as good days. We are all doing our best.
“Actually if we took away some of the mystery of leadership then more people would feel free to come forward rather than turning it into some kind of superhero, charismatic leader rubbish.”
But the woman in front of me, about to lead a war on inequality and battle it out with the government, is as heroine of the movement.
She doesn’t start her day with a jog and meditation — she gets up to date on the news and eats breakfast. She ensures she makes time for friends and family. She paints, even though she’s “not very good” (her words, not mine), because, that is not the point.
And what is the point? The point is to have “a good laugh, and look after each other.” That’s a lesson we can all get behind.
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