Trade unionism after the crash: Frances O'Grady interviewed by Sarah Hutchinson and Florence Sutcliffe Braithwaite.

Author:O'Grady, Frances

Frances O'Grady became General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress in January 2013--the first woman ever to hold the post. Before that, she had been Deputy General Secretary, head of the TUC's organisation department, and TUC Campaigns Officer, as well as working for the Transport and General Workers Union, and in a variety of jobs, from shop work to the voluntary sector. In April 2013 she delivered the Attlee Memorial Lecture at University College, Oxford (O'Grady, 2013). In this interview, she talks about the agenda she set out in her Attlee lecture; the role of trade unionism in Britain today; the new feminism; and the prospects for democratic socialism.

Citizenship in the workplace

FS-B: One of the key arguments of your Attlee lecture is that in the post-war boom years, the trade union movement missed the opportunity to assert more influence over industry, settling merely for fighting for higher wages and better conditions. You suggest that this must be reversed, and co-determination, or industrial democracy, placed at the centre of the TUC's aims. What are the blueprints for how you see this working?

FO'G: First of all, I think we need to build a consensus that it's a good thing: that citizenship shouldn't stop at the workplace door; that it's a problem that 8 in 10 workers in the private sector have no voice at all over their own pay and conditions, let alone the strategic direction of their company. And this is a problem not just for the dignity of those people, but also because it's been a key driver of the financial crash and the economic problems we're facing now. Co-determination is a key part of the solution--the way to build the more balanced, fairer economy that many of us want to see. So it's important because it's not just a fantasy idea up there: it's real people's lives. It's also the future of the economy that we're talking about. It's not just something that's 'nice to have', it's an essential feature of the new economy that we want to build.

And there are lots of practical policies that can help us to achieve that--policies that have the potential to be incredibly popular, too. Polling tells us, for example (and, if we're honest, to the surprise to many in the world of politics), that it's common sense to the general public that workers should be represented on the boards of companies. Not just Labour supporters--7 in 10 Tory supporters think it makes sense--why wouldn't you have the workforce represented on the board? And of course, this is mainstream in Europe--Britain's unusual in that it's not a matter of course for workers to have a voice at that level.

Take an important area like remuneration. We know that the obscene levels of remuneration at the top fuelled some very poor decision-making, created the culture of short-termism that is a major problem for the British economy, and were socially and morally unpalatable to many people. Again, there is huge popular support for workers being represented on remuneration committees. It's actually quite easy to do, and wouldn't require a major change in the law. But if you had that change, then you'd have to ask questions about how the representatives are chosen. Where you have a union, it's easy, because unions already provide a democratic structure for working people within companies. Where you don't have a union, I think we need to start looking at the Works Council model, which works very well in Europe. Experience here in Britain on European Works Councils shows that wherever there are elections for workers, union members do very well, because they tend to be natural leaders. They're backed by democratic organisations that can give them training and expertise so that they're not sat there like a lemon, they actually do a good job for the people they're meant to represent.

I'm also very interested in broader debates about different models of ownership, and in an even bigger debate about what companies are there to do. Is it acceptable that companies exist as institutions only to benefit the bottom line, or do they have a broader responsibility to the societies they operate within? And, for me even more interestingly, what are the goods and services that they actually produce? In the trade union movement we haven't talked about this enough with our own membership. All my experience tells me that people care passionately about what they do when they go to work, and most people want to feel proud of the jobs they do, and of the organisations they work for. You see this very graphically in some of the new, growing renewable energy companies, where people feel a sense of mission about what they're doing. And you see it in care organisations, where, despite what remain incredibly shabby conditions and pay for an overwhelmingly female workforce, individual women I speak to really care about the children or the elderly people they're looking after. So I'd like there to be an even bigger discussion about what we work for and on--work is the one thing that unites nearly all of us, that we all have experience of, that we spend most of our waking hours doing. So I want to see less inequality, I want to see fair pay and conditions, but I also want to see a better quality of working life for people.

FS-B: You say you want to move away from a situation where companies see the bottom line, and the satisfaction of shareowners, as their sole purpose. So can I ask specifically about employee share ownership--do you see it as a step in the right direction or more of a dead end?

FO'G: There have been some employee share ownership schemes that unions have negotiated that have been incredibly positive. But there have been too many others where it's been used in a very negative way--the most extreme example being George Osborne's proposals to swap employment rights for shares, creating this new status of employees with fewer rights. So, understandably, there's a lot of caution and cynicism in parts of the trade union movement about share ownership schemes, because people's real experience of how these schemes have been used has been mixed, to say the least.

It's not the priority for me; my priority is that ordinary working people should have a voice over the companies they've invested their lives in. That's more important than whether they get a thousand pounds' worth of shares. Employee share ownership is a model for building a sense of...

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