“We have the forced-labour convention being signed up to by the UK, something we have campaigned for – the principle that you cannot force people to work against their will. But it is matched by the fact that you cannot stop people from withdrawing their labour.”
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, is angry. She is observing how the Government has ratified an international anti-slavery convention, while, at the same time, some of the most restrictive union legislation in the western world wends its way through parliament.
“I speak informally to Conservative ministers and it seems that we are the sacrificial red meat for the backwoods [MPs]. There are some who want to replay what they would see as the glory days of the Conservative Party in the 1980s. What I think they haven’t clocked, in their bid for union-bashing, is that there isn’t an appetite for it,” she says.
She is not alone in her view. In addition to libertarian MPs on the government benches – such as David Davis – the laws have been criticised by employers and some of their organisations. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, for example, urged ministers to stop “fighting the battles of the past”.
“I really hope they do think again on some of these key issues,” Ms O’Grady adds. “They look like vindictive, spiteful attacks that employers don’t want. It will rebound on them. They’re actually bashing women. The average striker today is a middle-aged woman.”
She is particularly disturbed about demands for unions to disclose their membership lists, and attempts to prevent voluntary deals that allow dues to be deducted from public sector payrolls.
“Whatever they [the employers] think of unions, they’re saying what on earth are Westminster and Whitehall doing by interfering in something that should be locally determined? Employers are worried that this will end with more unofficial action. You cannot in a free society force people to work. It’s the sort of thing that happens in Zimbabwe. It should never happen here.”
Fierce rhetoric, but delivered calmly. When you first meet Ms O’Grady, you could easily underestimate her. She is informal, self-deprecating too. She smiles a lot. There is none of the portentousness that some of the union movement’s male leaders are prone to. We meet in her office in Congress House in central London and I cannot help noticing a Puma top on a hanger near her sofa. Is it intended for sporting use? Has she joined the cycling craze?
“Have you looked at me?” she says, and there’s that self-deprecation. It turns out to be an Arsenal football shirt, which leads to a conversation about one of the perks of the job: attending the annual dinner of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). The union is an affiliate and she was able to take her son.
Disarming? Certainly. But don’t be fooled. When we move on to the Government’s industrial policy, or the lack of one, she is all business – and she’s not happy.
“Do you know I don’t think [Business Secretary] Sajid [Javid] has broken into a sweat in terms of the battle for our steel industry. I really wonder what would happen if we had an Ellesmere Port today,” she says, referring to the once-threatened General Motors car plant that makes the Vauxhall Astra.
“People are waking up to the fact that there has been a fundamental change in the view of which industries matter,” she adds. “I thought we had reached, at the back end of the previous Labour government, a much broader consensus that there are things the state can and should do to accelerate success.
“It isn’t about backing lame ducks. It’s about laying down the conditions for success, whether that is on infrastructure skills, planning or a whole range of areas where government has convening power, which should not be underestimated.”
That the TUC has little love for the Conservative approach is no surprise. But how does she feel about Labour and its new leader Jeremy Corbyn? Ms O’Grady is careful here. “We’ll see, it’s early days,” she says. “The TUC is not affiliated to any party. Obviously we have values and we don’t want a continuation of policies that end up attacking trade unions.”
And Mr Corbyn’s idea of suspending companies’ right to pay dividends if they fail to pay a living wage? Ms O’Grady remains cautious, adding: “I think the ambition of spreading the living wage is absolutely right. We were in there at the start, part of the coalition that fought for the Living Wage that’s now set by the Living Wage Foundation [as opposed to George Osborne’s version]. We have 6 million people earning less. We need to look at the detail. The ambition is right, as I keep saying.
“What we do need to see is a strong focus on credible economic policies. Not just on the living wage but what about fair wages? Labour’s values rightly address and care about deprived areas in inner cities, but we also need to think about the average working family living in a new-build estate in Reading, with a car outside, a foreign holiday – the families many of us come from.”
Does the Labour Party in its current form speak to them? I wonder aloud. I mention the point of musician and Labour supporter Noel Gallagher that while he was disappointed by Blairism, Mr Corbyn is “a communist” who doesn’t care about aspiration.
“I think ‘aspiration’ is a very elastic word,” Ms O’Grady muses. But is Labour ignoring the families she spoke of? “I think they’re feeling ignored by everybody, apart from – I hope – us. To us, the way I define aspiration is us all getting on, together, doing it collectively.”
Of course, achieving that will require unions to engage with a new generation of workers in a rapidly changing workplace. Ms O’Grady agrees: “It’s the most important issue we have to address: how do we appeal to the next generation of workers, who might not have a fixed workplace, or a contract, who don’t even know who they’re really working for? Insecurity is spreading.
“We have to look at the context of everything taking place in the new digital economy. We haven’t yet started to talk about digital trade unionism in the same way. We have got out of sync with how a lot of people now work. If you’re crowdsourced, and you get your job online through an online agency, it is a different experience and should give rise to different models of representation.”
Who is doing that well? “[Broadcast union] Bectu, where they’ve had wholesale casualisation of their industry, and a young, creative, workforce. They’ve needed to focus on new technology to organise. They’ve had to look for and build alliances to win change, often by going to the head of the source of work.”
Ms O’Grady says unions, in the new world of work, have to focus on campaigning for industry-wide standards. “We need to protect the good employers from being undercut by the bad in a race to the bottom. The best thing we can do to protect decent employers is to achieve industry standards, otherwise they will be dragged down.”
Ms O’Grady is certainly a new type of union boss. Perhaps she’s what this new world needs.
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