New TUC leader calls for bank staff to have say in deciding fat cats' pay deals

Cashiers could play 'constructive role' in remuneration panels, says TUC's leader-elect

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Indy Politics

Frances O'Grady, who is due to take over as the first female head of the TUC, has called for low-paid bank employees to be included on the committees which decide the pay packages of the executives at the top.

In an interview with The Independent, she brushed aside the inevitable objection that staff with jobs serving customers across the counter do not understand the need to pay seven-figure salaries or multimillion-pound bonuses to stop high-flying executives moving to jobs abroad.

"People who worry about how a [low-paid] worker would manage [on the committees] haven't met too many of our union reps," she boasted. "We already have union-supported pension trustees who do a brilliant job making sure that working people's interests are represented on those boards. It's not the biggest leap in the world to think that worker representatives could play a constructive and useful role in remuneration committees.

"Under current corporate law, those committees are supposed to take account of workforce interests. I don't see any evidence that they do, in many cases. I don't see any better way of making sure that code is honoured than by having worker representatives on the committee. It's uncomfortable, for sure, but it would help break up some of those cosy clubs."

Ms O'Grady, a single mother of two adult children, will take over as general secretary of the TUC when Brendan Barber retires at the end of the year. She has worked at TUC headquarters for nearly 18 years, and before that at the headquarters of the TGWU, then the country's biggest union.

Her emergence as the first female head of the TUC in its 144-year history will highlight the fact that half the country's trade union members are now women; a century ago, TUC membership was 90 per cent male. She hopes her appointment will also dispel lingering images of trade union members as "horny handed sons of toil" or "industrial wreckers".

She said: "The image of the unions is still not in tune with where we actually are, which is fifty-fifty men and women, with an increasing number of women at the top. I think it is changing, but I'm not complacent about this."

Her appointment is also expected to have an impact on the male culture of some of the industrial unions, where there is historic opposition to seeing women in prominent positions in the union movement.

Norman Willis, a former TUC general secretary, was one of the first to write to congratulate Ms O'Grady when news of her appointment came. The opening sentence of his letter said: "The days when blokes used to cat call women as they got up to speak at TUC Congress are well and truly over."

She remarked: "It's good to be reminded of that history, but it is equally important to remember that we wouldn't have equal pay for women if it wasn't for women trade unionists organising themselves and going on strike to achieve it.

"For sure, they had some who opposed them in the trade union movement, but they also had a lot of men who supported them."

Part of the job of a TUC general secretary is to deal with government ministers, so Ms O'Grady will have to put aside her lifelong membership of the Labour Party when she visits Downing Street for talks with David Cameron.

One of her heroes was Jack Jones, who led the TGWU in the 1970s. "He was powerful because he was an incredible leader and the authentic voice of working people," she says.

Another role model was Margaret Prosser, now a Labour peer, who rose to be deputy head of the TGWU. "I would never have dreamed of doing some of the things I've done if Margaret Prosser hadn't broken through glass ceilings."