was elected general secretary of the TUC in 2012 – unopposed, in a trade-union culture that had always seemed to be dominated by ‘barons’ and ‘big beasts’.
Roy McCloughry caught up with her at Congress House on 18 September 2013.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You grew up in an Irish household…
Well, my dad was born here but he’s, obviously, of Irish descent. He went over to Dublin immediately after the war and met my mum, and then they both came back.
Was your upbringing influenced by that background?
Yes, just a bit! It was heavily influenced, I’d say.
Your father and your grandfather were both part of the labour movement, is that right?
Well, most of my family, really.
My dad was a shop steward at [the huge British Leyland factory in] Cowley – he worked on the production line. My Dublin grandad and his father were founder members of the Irish Transport and General [Workers’ Union] – but every generation, really, has had its grass-roots activists, you know…
Were you aware of that culture from an early age?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, obviously you’re around the kitchen-table discussions when we’re on strike – when we are on strike, that says something! And there wasn’t much money when my dad was on strike.
As a teenager, I got very interested in Irish history and politics. And poetry and all of that, too. So…
So, you were really immersed in that culture –
Yeah, but [I wasn’t indoctrinated]. And I’ve always tried with my own kids, actually, not to push anything down their throats. Though I think they pick it up by osmosis, because they certainly have those values now.
Looking back, what do you see as the core values that were instilled in you back then?
I think, the belief that you’re not better than anybody else but you’re certainly no worse than anybody else. So – at the risk of being political – a bit of an antidote to the Eton sense of entitlement. I mean, it was a sense of – of collective entitlement. I didn’t have any doubts that we had brains in our heads, and I knew you should stand up for people, and stand by them.
Also, I was born and brought up in Oxford, where you had a very early education in class divisions, really. I think it’s different now, but it was very pronounced at the time – it was like two different worlds. There was working-class Oxford – ‘the town’ – the car factory, and the women who worked in shops and public services; but then there was posh Oxford, ‘the gown’.
I believe that you treat others as you want to be treated. You don’t ask of people what you’re not prepared to give yourself
But you also had institutions like Ruskin [College], which had a very strong presence in the city. Ruskin really was a kind of academy for working-class intellectuals. So, like I say, there wasn’t any doubt about the capacity of where I came from to make a contribution, too, and have the right to a point of view.
In my teenage years, it was a very exciting time in Oxford because, as well as everything that was going on at Cowley and Ruskin, we had the Randolph Hotel dispute1In 1976, 32 workers at the Randolph and Linton Lodge hotels in Oxford were dismissed for joining the Transport and General Workers’ Union. – you know, workers on strike at the poshest hotel in Oxford! And was it Blackwell’s [that] got organised? – again, at the time it was quite unusual for workers in a bookshop to join a union. So, Oxford was a very lively place to be, and there was a self-confidence to it…
Were you speaking at meetings in those days?
No, I was far too shy. But I did join the Labour Party very early.
One of the first discussions I remember in the local party was about a gypsy camp. Opinions were very divided – there were, obviously, issues about where camps are sited, and the fears and anxieties people have – but there was this wonderful Polish woman who spoke up really passionately on behalf of the gypsies and it made a very big impression on me. I suppose it’s because my parents’ generation was still very fresh from the war and those fundamental issues about groups in society who’ve been discriminated against and vilified – and worse. It was about standing up for an unpopular cause because it was the right thing to do.
Then they – you know, bless them! – put me on the party’s general management committee, even though I still found it hard to speak up in meetings; and that then let me listen to much bigger debates. There was a very lively mix of people and ideas, from the factories, the shops, the colleges, so I was lucky.
I also worked from quite a young age and so I had quite a lot of my own experience of how you’re treated at work. I did lots and lots of different jobs. I worked in a newsagent, which I loved because I got to read newspapers and magazines I wouldn’t have known existed, like New Statesman and New Society2A weekly magazine of social and cultural comment published from 1962 to 1988, when it was absorbed into New Statesman and the Listener.3A weekly magazine published by the BBC from 1929 to 1991 as ‘a medium for intelligent reception of broadcast programmes by way of amplification and explanation’ I worked in the colleges as a kitchen assistant, which was quite an education – you know, this was how the privileged lived and this was how we were treated.
I still feel very strongly about it when I hear these debates about young people not being employable, not having the skills, being useless, as if young people were ever ready-made, you know, and isn’t it more about our obligation to look after them and mentor them and bring them on – and accept that they do make terrible mistakes, because that is part of being young?
Have you always been a leader in some sense?
I’ve always been active in campaigning, so I’ve been a rep. I suppose I’ve always played that kind of role.
What kind of leader are you?
Oh, I’m ever so good. I’m a wonderful leader!
What kind of leader am I? Not a perfect one, for sure, but I do believe that you treat others as you want to be treated, you don’t ask of people what you’re not prepared to give yourself, you recognise that people are human beings – you know, that we all have stresses and strains in our lives.
I believe, really believe, that there is incredible talent in the trade-union movement, and generally the trick is to find the best environment for that talent to be expressed. I’ve seen it time and time again, that people – including myself – who maybe don’t perform well in one environment can perform brilliantly in another. Often it’s about understanding people and encouraging and supporting them into that right environment.
And yet the popular image of union leadership is very combative, isn’t it – taking on the management, taking on the Government, fighting for justice?
Well, I guess I should put in a bit of a qualifier: I mean, fundamentally I want to see a shift in the distribution of wealth and power, though there are, for sure, different ways to achieve that.
The trade-union approach to conflict is that we always, always try to find a deal, and by its very nature a deal generally requires compromise; and we have some very, very able negotiators. But I’m also conscious that there are interests who will hold on until the very last minute, who will hold on to the very last drop of power and will not want to share it. There are times when you do find yourself in conflict – and there are also times, I think, when people see trade-union leaders being angry.
I mean, I get angry too, believe you me – you know, when you spend a lot of your time listening to workers who are not being treated fairly. You talk to cleaners on the [London] Underground who have to carry a little card to explain that they come into contact with excrement from vermin and yet they don’t have a proper mess room and a proper sink to wash in and a place to leave food, who are up very early in the morning, back very late at night and don’t get the living wage4See http://www.livingwage.org.uk. – these things can make me very, very angry.
You don’t come across as an angry person – you’ve got quite a soft voice.
That’s not what my kids say!
We’ve now got a deal [on the Underground], so it’s better now… But it also makes me angry that workers have been getting cuts in their wages year in, year out – £30 pay a week cut on average since the crash [of 2008], while in many, many cases the companies they work for have been increasing their profits very substantially and those at the top have seen massive increases in their pay. So, even if a worker is on the average wage – 25 grand a year, which a lot of people would see as not too bad – it makes me angry if they’re not getting their fair share. I think people are right to be indignant about that sort of inequity.
Does that anger make you more focused and effective? It’s not necessarily a destructive thing, anger, is it?
No, it can be a good thing – but the trick is to direct it. I mean, I’m ultimately an organiser, and anger – feeling indignant about the way people are treated – is actually a necessary stage in the classic organising cycle; but if you get stuck there, you’re no use to anyone. You need to move yourself and [other] people into having a clear sense of hope and then taking action to tackle the problem. Like I say, I think anger actually can be constructive as long as you are moving people through, and I think leaders have a responsibility to do that. You have a clear sense of vision, a clear sense of strategy, and you instil in people the hope and the confidence that if we act collectively we can change things for the better. That is the trick we have to pull, really.
Your career to date seems to me to have been quite transformative – everywhere you have worked, you have accomplished something substantial. Do you feel you have always achieved your goals?
For me, this is the very essence of trade unionism: that together we are stronger and better than we ever could be on our own
I know a lot of women say this, but it’s true that I have never had a plan. I mean, I always have to feel like I’m learning something, and achieving something; and I’ve always said that if I ever get cynical about anything I’m doing at work – and the O’Gradys have a bit of a gene that means they are known for… Oh God, that could sound terrible, couldn’t it? I’ve no intention of walking out of this job; I’ve only just started here! But I wouldn’t stay if I wasn’t happy, if I didn’t feel like I was making a difference and if I wasn’t the right person for the job – because sometimes you’re not.
You have a very strong sense of responsibility, which –
Keeps me going!
I suppose leadership is often talked about in very individual terms but what I really love about the trade-union movement is that it is about collective leadership – collective not just in terms of the leaders at the top but all the way through; and there is that strong attachment to a set of values that guide us and keep us together.
You know, the biggest buzz I get is when a group of us is going to see some minister about something, for example, and we maybe haven’t done all the preparation we should have – because most trade-union officials are working 24/7 and juggling lots and lots of balls – and you’re thinking ‘Oh my God!’ and then we get into the meeting and we just fire away like that as if we were one, and it’s because we have these shared values: that we can have our differences behind closed doors but when you go out front, you link arms and you support each other. If somebody drops the ball, somebody else will sweep up after them.
It’s quite hard to describe but I think that for me is the very essence of trade unionism: that together we are stronger and better than we ever could be on our own.
Is that collective power necessarily adversarial – it has to be exercised against some kind of opposition? Or are you thinking of something broader, like the southern African concept of ubuntu, that we can only be human through other people?
It’s the latter. It’s the latter. It’s not an exclusive sense of solidarity; on the contrary, it’s about sharing our values and building strength through diversity. Individually we become bigger and better people, if you like, through the collective.
I mean, I think the trade-union movement is a real advocate of freedom, but it’s that sense that ultimately freedom, real freedom, comes through the collective. So, it’s a very different notion to how liberals would talk about freedom, where it’s very much about the individual and if that’s at the expense of everybody else, that’s kind of tough.
It also has quite a different feel from classic socialism, doesn’t it, with its emphasis on the big state?
Well, there are obviously lots of different strains of socialist thinking, and they’re not mutually exclusive in my book. How to provide an effective counterbalance to the tendency of private capital to create ever bigger monopolies and concentrate wealth and power is quite a challenge, I think, especially in an age of globalisation.
Do you think the pendulum has ever swung too far the other way? There was a famous Gallup poll in 1977 that suggested that 54 per cent of voters identified Jack Jones of the TGWU as the most powerful person in Britain –
And he’s been vilified ever since, even in his grave!
This is all about the Winter of Discontent [in 1978–79] and the breakdown of the Social Contract, and I think people have to understand that whenever it comes to industrial disputes there are always two sides to the story. It’s rarely completely black-and-white.
I wouldn’t ever claim that the union movement is perfect – you know, we always have to be self-critical – but I have no doubt whatsoever that unions were on the side of justice. Whatever you think of the way in which they did it, they were resisting cuts in real pay – which is exactly what workers are experiencing now.
Also, I think we need to remember that the Seventies were Britain’s most equal decade, certainly in terms of wages vis-à-vis profits, and of opportunities for people like me from working-class backgrounds. And also – perhaps not coincidentally – according to some studies it was Britain’s happiest decade.
How has everyone responded to a woman becoming general secretary of the TUC?
There was a point where I thought: If another journalist asks me how it feels to be a woman in a man’s world I think I’m going to go doolally!
It’s so out-of-date, that’s what’s frustrating. They’re still running pictures in their heads of blokes around braziers, but the trade-union movement has changed dramatically. Its membership is 50/50 men and women, three in 10 of our leaders are women, four in 10 of the people sat round the General Council table are women – not good enough, but a lot better than business, a lot better than public life. So, it feels very different, I think. You know, I’m not joining somebody else’s club; this is a movement, and it’s ours.
You were deputy general secretary for a decade, so I guess you already had a high profile –
I was known inside the movement, but I wouldn’t say I had a high profile outside of it. So, I think it said more about the commentariat that they thought [my appointment] was such a big deal. It obviously was a big deal, or we’d have had a [female general secretary] before; but, you know, they just got a little over-excited about it.
They were also very interested in me being a single mother…
What intrigued them? How you juggled home and work?
Well, there were questions like, Did my children have the same father? – which I thought was a bit rich!
One of the reasons, I think, a lot of women across public life can find it quite difficult is being exposed to more interest in – and feeling more vulnerable about… Well, I’m sure men feel this, too, I’m sure they do, but maybe they don’t face quite that line of enquiry into…
You know, I’m not going to talk about my children, other than [to say] I’m very proud of them.
I was astonished by that, because [the Conservative MP] Priti Patel was on the judging panel. She recently wrote in the Spectator that trade unions are a malign influence in society,6bit.ly/17qZMmQ which I thought was a bit strong!
One of my sisters texted me: ‘You’re 10 behind the Queen!’ She obviously thought I should be higher.
Clearly this country is a democracy (thank goodness!) but the quality of that democracy is massively under threat, it seems to me
I think the people who compiled that list had a very difficult job to do, didn’t they? Because what is power? I mean, I don’t think it’s necessarily about name recognition, though celebrity (if you like) is one aspect of it. There are individual women [in the list] who have set up a business or whatever – or are rich. But my power is drawn from six million members and being the voice of working people – that’s what we set out to do.
Do you feel any more powerful than you did a year ago?
I’ve got a bloody nice office!
A person could do great things in this room.
I’d better make it clear: I don’t have thick carpet or a cocktail cabinet, I don’t have any trappings of power or wealth; but [my office does] overlook the Jacob Epstein [Pietà], which he made for the trade-union movement, which is a giant statue of a woman carrying a man. It’s a beautiful, compassionate sculpture7Epstein’s Pietà, in the central courtyard of Congress House, is a memorial to the trade unionists who died in the two world wars. See flic.kr/p/a5w4QS. and I get to see it every day.
But all of this place, specially designed as a workers’ centre – it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it, really?
What goals have you set yourself as general secretary?
I want to see a bigger, stronger movement. I want to see a fairer country. I want to see more economic democracy. I want to see more people having good jobs and decent pay – that’s the essence of what we’re about. We are in, clearly, a very interesting time: I think the next general election will be very important because it will set the direction for Britain and it’s high-stakes stuff, really.
We’ve just been campaigning on the Lobbying Bill,8The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill – see bit.ly/17vrJtw. which I genuinely believe is a very, very serious threat to civil liberties, to freedom of speech, to the nature of our democracy, in that it poses the fundamental question: Is our democracy something only professional politicians have a right to pronounce on or can ordinary working people have a political voice, too? And if it is something just for professional politicians and ever-dwindling parties – you know, trade-union membership has taken a hit, for sure, but political parties have gone right down… Clearly this country is a democracy (thank goodness!) but the quality of that democracy is massively under threat, it seems to me.
And we ought to be talking about why so few people vote, and why they are even less likely to vote if they’re women or low-paid or unemployed or young. These things really do matter. You know, it was working people who organised for the right to vote, and the Chartists who demonstrated and campaigned…
I want to see a society where unions are respected as vibrant civic-society organisations, where we’re seen as an essential corrective to what otherwise is a gross and obscene imbalance of wealth and power (which is currently getting worse).
And then, at a human level, every week you go out to meet people who are struggling – this summer, we sent a few [Austerity Uncovered] buses around Britain, just taking testimony from people but focusing particularly on the low-paid and the poor, because they often don’t get a voice. One of the things that really struck me was just how grey and stressed many people on very little money look, just trying to make sense of their lives and keep going when it’s incredibly tough. You hear awful stories about the bedroom tax, awful stories about benefit cuts – very decent people who have to hear politicians calling them ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’. It’s pretty humiliating.
We always have our job of [campaigning for better] pay and conditions, but I think we have this wider obligation as well.
I think organised religion has been a lot quieter on world-of-work issues than it used to be and that seems odd to me, given that’s where most of us spend most of our waking hours
You’ve referred more than once to ‘working people’? Is that another way of saying ‘working-class people’ (even though fewer and fewer people nowadays identify themselves as working-class)? Or, to put it another way, who are the ‘non-working people’?
Anybody who doesn’t have to work for a living, I guess!
If you look at public opinion, I think people look to the trade unions to speak up for all working people, in every walk of life – which is what we do, whether or not they’re in membership. Most of us, at some point in our lives, spend most of our waking hours working, or seeking work; and I think that’s what ultimately binds us together.
On class, clearly these things swing all over the place but in fact in the latest survey I’ve seen the majority did identify themselves as working-class. It’s a complicated issue: it’s not just about money or education, it’s also about how people feel about themselves – and again I think that’s part of this division opening up between the rich and the rest.
You alluded earlier to the Golden Rule: Do unto others… Do you have any kind of religious faith yourself?
I’m… I’m not… I don’t believe in a God. I do believe – especially as I get older, I suppose – that there is a lot of teaching in a range of faiths, really about decent human behaviour, that I think is still relevant to the way I look at the world. There’s also teaching in some faiths that I can’t agree with.
Again, I have become increasingly conscious of how Catholic social teaching has influenced me. When I was a girl, we had some very good priests who were clearly left-wingers, on reflection, and I also went to a convent where the nuns went out into the community, and that was the first place I ever learnt anything about apartheid South Africa (so, again, I suspect they were quite left-wing, too). So, some of that language I think I have kept within me. Material factors are incredibly important, but it is also about people’s spirit in the broadest sense, about respecting each other’s humanity.
Do you think the church should naturally be a fellow traveller with the trade-union movement?
I wouldn’t pretend we’re all the same – you know, this is a secular movement, we represent people of all faiths and none; but for me it’s always been [that] you don’t have to agree on everything but where you have common causes and shared values, it makes sense to join together.
There are a number of areas where we have worked together on issues – sometimes more quietly – often on causes that are not currently very popular, like welfare and poverty. We’ve worked with faith groups on campaigns like the living wage – about the dignity of workers, really.
I suppose, if I’m being honest, I think organised religion has been a lot quieter on world-of-work issues than it used to be and that seems odd to me, given that’s where most of us spend most of our waking hours. (I saw [Archbishop] Vincent Nichols recently and we were saying to him: We were taught it was a Catholic duty to join a union, but you don’t hear that said very often nowadays. Maybe we should hear it a bit more!) I’m very conscious there are individuals within every institution and group who do incredible work, but it’s perhaps not as evident as it used to be.
I was very conscious that in the Lords the bishops took on the unpopular cause (but the right cause) to try to [amend] some of the worst of the welfare reforms.
Do you think in general the church has succumbed to the same consumerist vision as the rest of society, or is there some other explanation?
I think all of us were bedazzled, and in some cases – probably in our case – hammered, by this 30-to-40-year domination by neo-liberal values and beliefs. You know, we were all told that collectivism is dead, all you need are individual rights and if you let the market rip, and let the rich do what they want, wealth would generate more wealth and eventually it would trickle down to us and it’ll all be fine.
And of course that proved not to be the case. We’ve had lower rates of investment, lower rates of productivity, inequality just took off – huge amounts of wealth were sucked up to the top and everyone else got debt. We now have the second-highest percentage of workers on low pay in the OECD.9bit.ly/16dWGHE I mean, these are pretty shocking changes in Britain! And then we ended up with a huge financial crash on the back of that debt.
It’s not sustainable. These things go in cycles and I think – although it may take some time – the veil will lift from people’s eyes and they’ll see that the neoliberal model is bust. I hope so. I think a lot of people basically bought into [the idea that it was], well, ‘the end of history’.
But it isn’t quite.
There’s one more chapter!
This edit was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||In 1976, 32 workers at the Randolph and Linton Lodge hotels in Oxford were dismissed for joining the Transport and General Workers’ Union.|
|⇑2||A weekly magazine of social and cultural comment published from 1962 to 1988, when it was absorbed into New Statesman|
|⇑3||A weekly magazine published by the BBC from 1929 to 1991 as ‘a medium for intelligent reception of broadcast programmes by way of amplification and explanation’|
|⇑7||Epstein’s Pietà, in the central courtyard of Congress House, is a memorial to the trade unionists who died in the two world wars. See flic.kr/p/a5w4QS.|
|⇑8||The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill – see bit.ly/17vrJtw.|
Frances O’Grady was born in Oxford in 1959 and was educated at Milham Ford School, a girls’ grammar school which turned comprehensive in 1974.
She studied politics and modern history at Manchester University, graduating in 1980. She then took a diploma in industrial relations and trade-union studies at Middlesex Polytechnic (now University).
She worked as an employment rights officer from 1982 to ’87, and then in quick succession as a health-and-safety officer and a campaigns officer for health rights.
In 1989, she was appointed senior researcher at the Transport and General Workers’ Union (which she had joined in 1982).
In 1994, she moved to the Trades Union Congress as a campaigns officer. In ’97, she was put in charge of the TUC’s ‘New Unionism’ campaign and also launched its Organising Academy. She became head of its organisation department in 1999.
She was elected deputy general secretary of the TUC in 2003.
In 2012, 32 of its 54 affiliated unions nominated her for the post of general secretary and she was elected unopposed, taking up the position at the beginning of this year.
In February, she was declared by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to be the 11th most powerful woman in Britain.
She has sat on the Resolution Foundation’s commission on living standards and on both the Low Pay and the High Pay Commissions.
She is the author of Women, Work and Maternity: The inside story (1989).
She has two adult children: a daughter and a son.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2013