FEATURE30 January 2020

The principled pragmatist

x Sponsored content on Research Live and in Impact magazine is editorially independent.
Find out more about advertising and sponsorship.

Brexit Features Impact People Trends UK

When Frances O’Grady became general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) she was the first woman ever to hold that role and under her leadership half its members are now women. She talks campaigning, membership, Brexit and democracy with Jane Bainbridge.


For anyone remotely interested in architecture, stepping into the Trades Union Congress headquarters in London, is a veritable treat. A Grade II listed building, Congress House is replete with 1950s period touches, from its wood panelled lifts to a huge central courtyard.

But it’s the art that really catches the eye – first the bronze Bernard Meadows sculpture by the entrance representing trade unionism with the strong helping the weak; then in the internal courtyard, Jacob Epstein’s beautiful carved stone statue of a woman holding her dead son in memory of trade unionists who died in the world wars.

Everything is symbolic – both the people and the place imbue a sense of shared experience and solidarity. And while the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, may sit in a big office, behind a big desk, she is the opposite of aloof, proving to be personable and approachable, often rare qualities in leaders.

Her welcoming and open manner means the conversation flows easily as questions are calmly answered and expanded on – but the focus and purpose never falter.
Perhaps it’s because trade unionism is in O’Grady’s blood. Her father was a shop steward at the then British Leyland car plant at Cowley, with other relatives members of their respective unions.

“It was always in the ether that it was the right thing to do – to stick your neck above the parapet and stand up for people at work,” she says.

Growing up in Oxford in the 1970s, several significant strikes formed the backdrop to her teenage years ­– including the sacking of workers at The Randolph Hotel for joining the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), affecting some of her friends working there.

Having worked multiple casual jobs before and during university, O’Grady says she always thought “it didn’t matter what job you did, you should be part of the union”.

The start of her union career was at the TGWU campaigning for, among other things, the national minimum wage and equal pay for women before moving to the TUC as campaigns officer in 1994.

While the minimum wage is now firmly embedded in the British working psyche, she remembers the huge opposition to it.

“It was going to ruin the economy. It was going to price people out of jobs. Now, it’s considered one of the most successful policies regardless of party and it has, I hope, some deep roots – people realise this is good not just for workers but bosses too, because they don’t have to fear being undercut constantly on wages,” she says.

Climbing up the ranks at the TUC, O’Grady was elected to the top job as general secretary in January 2013. So, was that always her ambition?

“No. I love to encourage ambition in younger women, but the truth is, motherhood was the making of me. That was when I got my self-confidence,” she says. “If you don’t know anybody else who has been to university, you don’t know what’s supposed to happen afterwards, you don’t know what these paths are.”

O’Grady may not have set out with a game plan to get to the top  of the TUC, but she recognised that she had the skills and ability to pursue higher positions. About applying for the deputy general secretary role, she says: “There was certainly a point where I remember thinking ‘if those blokes think they can go for it, I know I can’.”

Since then, O’Grady has worked hard to ensure membership is more representative. Often trade unions – in part because of their industrial manufacturing heritage – have been seen as male bastions. But, in this country, the type of work, and the make-up of the workforce, is changing rapidly.

“The trade union movement should look more like the people we aim to represent, and we have seen big changes on that front – not good enough, not fast enough, but nevertheless it is a much more diverse movement. We are 50/50 membership for the first time in our history.”

The way in which people, especially low-paid workers, are increasingly employed concerns O’Grady. “I was out recently with the McDonald’s workers – inspiring young people. Nobody’s pretending it is yet a mass movement, but there are lots of young people who are fed up with low pay, unpredictable shifts, harassment, and, critically, have that collective self-belief that we should have a voice at work and be listened to.”

While McDonald’s has failed to recognise the Bakers Food and Allied Workers’ Union that some of its workers have joined, O’Grady says they can still have an impact. “Pricking the conscience of the nation about the treatment of those young workers was strongly associated with them getting a pay rise,” she claims.


Updating communications

With a new generation of potential union members out there, there’s a need for new methods of membership, communication and campaigning. To that end, the TUC has set up a digital lab at Congress House.

“We’re experimenting with digital models of trade unionism, particularly as an efficient way to organise workers who don’t have a lot of money to pay on subs, are in precarious situations, in very fluid, often franchised organisations. How do we organise them? It’s not like organising factories in the 1970s,” she says.

“We have to switch more of our effort, resources and people power into digital, because we have to mirror and match the way that business models are changing. It was ever thus – we had crafts unionism, then we had that big splurge of general unionism and industrial unionism and we had white collar unionism. As business changes, we’ve always changed too.”

But what has stayed constant through the changing nature of unionism is its values. And O’Grady says this was just as evident  among the young McDonald’s workers.

“It may sound like old-fashioned language, but these young workers were using it freely – solidarity. In the end, trade unionism is about friendship between working people, who look after each other,” she adds.

With the rise of the gig economy, precarious hours, a lack of sick or holiday pay as well as more working families having to claim benefit because of low wages, one might expect union representation and membership to have surged. Why hasn’t that happened?

“Our membership did go up this year, by 100,000 net. It has gone up by very modest amounts in the previous couple of years, too,” she points out. However, O’Grady says they didn’t make a big thing of it because it only takes a major factory to close and the membership can shift again.

“I am interested that so many people still talk about unions declining when we’re actually growing. Many business models involve atomisation of workers – not just working alone but in the average supermarket, people are on hundreds of different shift patterns. Whereas we used to live and work together through standardisation – people may now not even know each other at work,” she says.

One of the great benefits of a membership organisation is being able to access information and the opinions of said members to understand their most pressing concern.

“We’ve adopted modern methods for finding out what our members think and, critically, what non-members think. That’s injected some challenge into how we need to change if we are going to grow and be relevant to swathes of the workforce, particularly in the private sector where we don’t necessarily have bases currently. There’s a real risk that if we didn’t do polling, focus groups, message testing, all of that stuff, that we could lose sight of what it means to be a 25-year-old driver on a bogus self-employment contract, what life is like and what matters to you,” says O’Grady.

The TUC has carried out several large pieces of research on employees and work experiences – in 2016 it focused on sexual harassment, finding that half of all women had experienced harassment. More recently, it’s looked at sexual harassment of LGBT members and workers. The decision to research this came after conversations with LGBT members revealed that the issue was “big but made invisible”, says O’Grady.

The organisation had to understand how to frame the questions to allow people to talk about their own life experiences and to recognise the difference between collective and one-to-one conversations – especially for sensitive topics that include questions about people’s sexuality.

“You have to be listening to know the right questions to ask to get the meaningful answers,” says O’Grady. “We have a wonderful source of intelligence in members and potential members. What you can’t substitute for is our democracy and in creating safe enough spaces for people to be able to say, ‘this is what happened to me’. It’s a workplace issue, it’s a union issue.”

When I interview O’Grady, the nation is gearing up for a December General Election – the one in which Boris Johnson was promising to ‘get Brexit done’. O’Grady has been particularly worried about a no-deal Brexit, to the point that in March last year, she co-wrote a letter with the CBI director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, calling on the then prime minister, Theresa May, to change her approach to Brexit to protect jobs and businesses.

The CBI and TUC are not normally comfortable bedfellows and it’s telling of how damaging both organisations saw Brexit, that they joined forces in this manner. O’Grady says there’s always been a constructive relationship between the two organisations, that predates her and Fairbairn being the leaders.

“Neither of us would pretend that our interests and who we represent are identical, but there’s always been a pragmatic understanding that what we do have in common is that we’re both rooted in the real world of work, and sometimes politics forgets that.

“We have differences, but we have a strong enough good-faith relationship to have open and honest conversations. When we did that joint intervention, we were pleased that the CBI recognised the importance of rights – do we want to compete on treating people badly or do we accept that workers’ rights should be an important part of any trading relationship?”

Several months on from sending the letter, O’Grady is disheartened with the current state of affairs and the extent to which the “goalposts have shifted”. “There are plenty of people in the leave camp who were talking about Norway plus a customs union, a sensible model for leaving the EU. Now, it seems to have become that the only acceptable form would be a bog-standard free trade agreement that will magically fall into place after 31 January or by the end of the year, when we all know that agreements take perhaps five years, if you’re lucky.

So, the idea that [we] get out and uncertainty would be over, forget it. That would be just the beginning.”

Of course, one thing unions do know about is negotiation, which O’Grady says no longer appears fashionable. “Someone described trade unionists as principled pragmatists. We do have a strong belief in a fairer society and for workplace justice, but we are also pragmatic people. So, we do deals, and we know how deals are done. We negotiate. We compromise, which is hard and apparently deeply unfashionable, but this is how real life works.”


Publicity glare

The spotlight is rarely a comfortable place for women in these frenzied social media days. Several female MPs standing down at the December election cited the toxic atmosphere as contributing to their decisions to leave politics – how does O’Grady cope?

“We get our fair share; without a doubt there’s a huge gender dimension. I feel like women are being bullied out of the public square. Well, I’m not shifting, and I know plenty of other women in the trade union movement who are not for shifting either. We tend to come from a stock that is not bullied easily, and we also have the support of each other,” she says.

O’Grady worries about the ugly side of politics that has “been given permission to express itself” and the rise of hate crime. Within this context, the TUC has been doing more, less high-profile, work on treating people fairly, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality.

“Everybody should get the rate for the job, because that was one big reason why xenophobia took off – workers being undercut and blaming migrant workers rather than the bosses who were exploiting them.

“We mustn’t forget the golden threads that pull us together – what unites us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a cleaner or a college lecturer, everybody is feeling under more pressure.

“Money does matter – whether you can put food on the table for your kids and shoes on their feet, but also it’s a quality of work issue, like unpaid internships. The sheer lack of humanity in the way people are notified about shifts. Part of our mission, as much as getting people fair shares, is to humanise work.”

For all the wider social ills and specific problems in working Britain, O’Grady remains remarkably upbeat and positive.

“I’m not a little sunbeam 100% of the time. But when we had our 150th anniversary, I read more about our history. We have been through some tough times as a movement and been written off several times. When I became deputy, Digby Jones [businessman and former director general of the CBI] said we were irrelevant and going to disappear. Yet, here we are, nearly six million strong, growing, hopefully becoming more diverse and still winning for working people.”


This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of Impact.