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Q&A with TUC leader Frances O’Grady

THIS year marks the 150th anniversary of the TUC. How do you think the trade union movement has changed Britain?

I don’t want to underplay serious problems workers have today. But we’ve come a very long way. We should be proud on this anniversary to talk about ourselves as a movement that has not only improved lives but saved lives. 

Many factories and mills were death traps in the 19th century.

Today’s workers are not just safer, they have paid holidays, paid maternity leave, limits on the working week and so much more. And they have them not out of generosity, but because trade unions fought for them as basic rights protected by law.

Trade union membership has shrunk for decades now and we are seeing the consequences in terms of the expansion of insecure work and poverty pay. What must unions do to reverse this trend and engage with unorganised workers?

One of our big projects this year has been focused on the next generation of trade union members. Tech firms are using digital technology to exploit workers, and we are using digital to fight back. 

It’s a natural tool for young workers who have grown up with the internet. We have taken a lead from them, building a digital organising app around what they told us their needs are and how they want to communicate.

The Labour Party has called for a revival of British manufacturing and infrastructure — announcing projects like a Crossrail for the North and the Build it In Britain campaign. What’s the TUC’s view of Labour’s industrial policy?

The Labour Party has an excellent set of policies to revive manufacturing and infrastructure. The Conservatives may be talking about industrial strategy, but one of the big differences is the way that Labour would put major investment behind it.

And they will give workers a voice. That’s the only way to make an industrial strategy take off, and to give Britain’s infrastructure the upgrade it badly needs. It is also how good quality, skilled jobs are created.

You recently said: “It’s time for a once-in-a-generation rethink of our approach to the economy. Working people have had enough of stagnating living standards and massive inequality, and no-one’s buying the idea that there’s no alternative.” Could you expand on what that alternative is? Is any alternative possible under the current government? 

I don’t think change is possible under the current government. Theresa May made many promises on the steps of Downing Street. But it is clear now they were hollow. 

She backed out of workers on boards. She commissioned the Taylor report to recommend stronger rights, especially for people in insecure work. But there’s be no real action in response. 

The first steps for the alternative are very simple — put the minimum wage up to £10 an hour, extend collective bargaining rights, ban zero-hours contracts and give insecure workers new rights. But longer term more is needed, and we will have more to say on that at congress as we publish a report on the future of work.

The IPPR think tank has said that the shareholder-driven model of capitalism isn’t working and is partly to blame for Britain’s decline in investment and productivity. What’s the TUC’s view on that?

The model we have clearly isn’t working. It is too focused on the short term, and it measures success too much by the size of dividends and not the living standards of the workers who make a firm successful.

We’ve seen that even with weak productivity growth, companies can still keep pushing shareholder payments up — and they reached a new record high in the last year. 

So it’s clear the model has failed if what we care about is the long-term success of everyone in the UK.

What is the TUC’s position on banning asset-stripping companies and allowing workers the chance to buy their companies instead?

We need to modernise our corporate governance laws so that when a company is taken over, the new owners are committed to its long-term success and to the community where the company is based.

Worker buyouts have been successful in some cases, but we need broader reforms to give workers a voice and a fair deal in all firms, including public firms and privately owned companies.

What is the TUC's position on a national investment bank? How would such an institution improve working people’s lives?

A national investment bank could make a big difference to people’s lives. It would be a new source of finance with long-term goals based on reviving communities and making sure that more people have the chance not just to work, but to have a secure, skilled and well-paid job. 

We have been calling for a national investment bank, and saying it must have a remit to target investment towards communities where new industries and better quality work are most needed.

The Institute of Employment Rights is calling for a new government department to represent workers. How do you envisage this happening? Is this likely to happen under the current government?

It’s a good proposal, but I can’t see it happening under the current government. Workers’ voices do seem to be have been marginalised in our politics. This could help make workers concerns a higher priority in government, and could lead to more effective efforts enforcing workers’ rights.

The TUC has recently been calling for workers to gain seats on their company boards. Why is this important and how will it ensure workers’ interests? Would companies be obliged to listen to them?

Countries with strong rights for workers having a say in decisions perform better across a whole range of measures. They invest more in R&D, they have strong employment rates and they have lower rates of poverty and inequality. We see it as a win-win for workers and employers, because we think it will make companies more successful in the long term. 

And I think that is why it is so popular across Europe, with the majority of EU states having some provision for workers’ representation on company boards.

Frances O’Grady is TUC general secretary.

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