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Editorial: A union woman who could make a difference

When Frances O'Grady was elected general secretary of the TUC, there were two widespread responses. The first was to hail the arrival of the first woman in that job and lament that it had taken so long. The second was to ask what difference it might make to have a woman at the top of an organisation known – rightly or wrongly – for a bias towards the old industries and rather a lot of unreconstructed paternalism.

The first point remains valid. Even if you take as your starting point the 1960s, when women began entering the work force in greater numbers, rather than the 1860s when the British trade union movement proper started, it has still taken almost half a century for a woman to reach the top job. That lag does not reflect well on the TUC's ability to move with the times.

But the huge changes that have taken place, not just in the workforce, but even more conspicuously in trades union membership – where women are now in the majority – offer at least part of an answer to the second point. Having a woman heading the TUC, especially a woman as experienced and outspoken as Ms O'Grady, could indeed make an enormous difference.

The interview we print today shows some of the reasons why. Her support for worker representation on company boards – as in Germany – is especially pertinent at a time when ordinary workers are realising how far their pay has been squeezed to boost shareholder value, and with it executive bonuses. Ms O'Grady will have her work cut out trying to change that, but she would not be representing her members' interests if she did not try.

Something similar applies to her comments on quotas for women on boards. It would be a rare man who admitted that by no means all male board members were there on merit. It takes a woman to do that, a woman moreover who knows how British business works. The glacial progress made in promoting women to boards is just one of the arguments for quotas. Another, as Ms O'Grady has the temerity to point out, is the calibre of some of the men already there.

The new general secretary takes on a huge responsibility. The trade union movement in Britain has languished recently, and not only because the Thatcher government's legislation curbed union powers. The rise of casual labour, the use of agency workers, the way working tax credits allowed employers to escape the consequences of too-low pay are all areas for a TUC in tune with today's Britain to address.

But Ms O'Grady also has opportunities. Many workers, especially in the service sector, are not unionised and might welcome representation that does not treat their employment as second-class. The de facto segregation of the British job market, not just as between different types of jobs, but between the public and private sector, is also worthy of attention.

Women now make up more than 70 per cent of public sector workers, while the ratio in the private sector is the reverse. And while some reasons are evident – women traded lower pay for security and punctilious observance of their rights to, say, maternity leave – the landscape is shifting. A public sector job is no longer so secure, even though it still carries the advantage of a final-salary pension. But nor can it be assumed that private sector pay is higher; the reverse is often true. Ms O'Grady has a chance to engage in some salutary myth-busting here, to defuse what is an increasingly ugly argument between private and public sector.

This is a big job, at a time, in the wake of the banking and financial crisis, when worker-employer-shareholder relations are being examined anew. Her approach suggests that she will engage in less old-style grandstanding and pay more attention to what will improve workers' lives. That would not be a bad place to start.