Frances O’Grady: The first woman general secretary of the TUC on industry, strikes and leadership

July August 2015 Interview My Business Life Frances O'Grady TUC

Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, became the first woman ever to hold the position when she was appointed in 2013. Here she talks about challenges facing UK industry, how changes in the labour market are affecting women, and the secret of great leadership

Trade unionism was discussed at the kitchen table when I was growing up. My dad was a steward in the car industry and my granddad worked on building sites around Britain and he often came to stay with us. He was a lovely character and a spirited trade union organiser.

A teacher’s support was really important. If it wasn’t for my secondary school history teacher I wouldn’t have gone to university. She was a strong-minded Scottish lady who was determined that I would go on to higher education, even though it wasn’t something that was expected of me.

I didn’t have a career plan. I was always involved in and felt committed to trade unionism. I started working in a newsagents when I was 14 and was brought up to believe it was important to join a union – that you owed it to the individuals you worked alongside to stand up for people and make sure everyone is treated fairly.

Making it harder for people to strike is not the answer. One of the biggest challenges coming down the track is the trade union reform bill. It will mean there will be a threshold on ballots so that unions cannot strike without 40 per cent support from members. It’s stating the obvious to say you can’t force people to work against their will if they feel they are suffering an injustice. It will only lead to unofficial action, which will make it difficult for employers to settle disputes. We need to drag the regulation into the 21st century and give people the opportunity to vote electronically.

Human beings are not robots. I care about people and I can’t bear to see talent wasted – and the UK could be doing a lot more by creating more satisfying jobs and a better quality of life for workers. Giving people a voice at work is crucial. People want to feel they are being listened to and that their ideas are taken seriously.

Neville and Doreen Lawrence are truly inspirational [the parents of teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993]. The trade union movement has always stayed close to them. They are amazing people who continue to try to find out what happened with the authorities at the time.

Leaders need to be democratic. I see my job as anticipating what’s coming down the line and trying to figure out strategies for delivering our goals, but it’s critical for our success that I have great people alongside me, and that means giving them ownership of their work.

Communication is vital to modern leadership, but it’s also about that human touch – and not having an inflated sense of your own power and influence.

Traditionally the UK has been fantastic at innovation, but not so good at its commercial application. We have a massive productivity challenge facing us and it is going to be one of the defining debates over the coming years. The question is about how we are going to tackle the problem of low investment and low productivity, and whether we’re going to try to match the best standards in the world or take the low road, which could have big implications, not just for our economy and its long-term health but for our society too.

Many women are locked into low-paid, low-skilled jobs with few chances of progression. This is due to the structural changes in the labour market that have hollowed out the skilled middle jobs, leaving us with a two-tier workforce. There are swathes of workers, mainly women, who feel their lives are very insecure. The great concern is what this means for the next generation of young workers – the best-educated individuals are often working well below their capability.

There is no point looking back. You wouldn’t be the person you are today if you hadn’t made mistakes and learnt from them. We’re human and we’re all flawed, but it’s what we do about it that counts. All you can do is your best.

I am the first woman general secretary of the TUC but I hope I’m not the last. Trade unionism is a cause that I feel incredibly privileged to be paid to serve. I am lucky to be involved in a movement that sums up the best of British values, and am extremely proud to be able to lead it.

Born Oxford, in 1959
Position General secretary, TUC
Previous roles TUC deputy general secretary, head of the organisation department, leader of the new unionism campaign, campaigns officer
Before joining the TUC O’Grady worked for the Transport and General Workers’ Union, where she was involved in campaigns to introduce a national minimum wage and equal pay for women, as well as a range of industrial wage claims
Interesting fact In her spare time O’Grady enjoys drawing

About author

Hannah Baker

Hannah Baker

Hannah Baker is deputy editor at Think Publishing. Previously she worked as a features writer and sub-editor for Director magazine

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