This winter’s wave of strikes will be fueled by “a generation of women who say enough is enough” because the critical jobs they do are undervalued, outgoing TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has said.
As she steps down after a decade as the TUC’s first figurehead, O’Grady said on Friday that thousands of women who worked on the front lines during the pandemic were now telling ministers: ‘don’t take us for granted’ .
RMT leader Mick Lynch has often been the public face of industrial action in recent months as its members have staged a series of stops on the rail network. But workplace unrest has now spread across much of the public sector, where many workers have faced a decade-long wage squeeze.
“As we see some of these polls coming in education, health care, public service, it will become increasingly clear that these are the women on the front lines, demanding better,” says O’Grady .
She points to the presence of outspoken female general secretaries at the top of several unions, including Christina McAnea of Unison, Sharon Graham of Unite and Jo Grady of UCU, now leading the strike by university professors.
“Fantastic women,” she said.
O’Grady accused Rishi Sunak’s government of having “a bit of a 1950s attitude towards women in the workplace – where women work for love”.
“It is absolutely true that every NHS staff member I meet, from nurses to cleaners to doctors, has a sense of vocation. But women cannot live on nothing. We have bills to pay. We have children to raise. We should receive a just reward for the work we do,” she added.
Women make up nearly 90% of registered nurses and midwives and three-quarters of teachers. The union of public and commercial services (PCS), which organizes strikes in a series of ministries, has 60% women.
O’Grady grew up in Oxford, in a family rooted in trade unionism – his father was a shop steward at what was then the British Leyland car factory in Cowley and his brother was a miner involved in the 1984-85 strike.
Looking back on those days, she said she thought about how best to make sure women get the support they need in today’s labor movement. “I think solidarity is often defined, historically, as loyalty to men,” she said.
During the miners’ strike, she said, “Women Against Pit Closures was a really, really important source of practical solidarity and morale-boosting. But I wondered when we would see groups of men organized around solidarity with women.
As the latest wave of strikes gathers pace, there is “an opportunity for both men and women to show solidarity with these workers,” O’Grady said.
More than a million workers are either being elected for industrial action or already have a strike mandate. Nurses will be out on December 15 and 20, and teachers could follow, with ballots closing in January.
Ministers, including Transport Secretary Mark Harper, have insisted inflation-matching pay rises in the public sector are “unaffordable” because “there simply isn’t the money”. But O’Grady dismisses this as “obvious nonsense”.
“When you see what’s happened with the profits, with the top salaries, with the dividends, it’s obviously nonsense. The question is what choices are you going to make? Because there are ways to ‘raise taxes on the rich and big business,’ she said.
She showed a flash of anger as she spoke about the situation many workers are facing. “People are on the brink, and I’ve seen it too many times now.” She speaks of poorly paid workers, “sending their children to school with holes in their shoes”.
As a single parent, O’Grady said: “It’s just a small example, but it’s the kind of thing that gets to me – because it shouldn’t be, that you have people who work long hours and cannot afford a new pair of shoes.
She is emptying her spacious office at the TUC’s 1950s Congress headquarters in central London, from where she can admire the sculpture of Jacob Epstein in her courtyard, commemorating trade unionists lost in two world wars.
She is set to start a new chapter in the House of Lords, after Keir Starmer nominated her for a life peerage in October. She said she wanted to use the post to fight any cuts to workers’ rights – but squirmed when asked about the glitz and bluster of the upper house. She would make sure to wear flat shoes for her inauguration to avoid tripping over the ceremonial dress, she said.
Despite the allure of a new seat on the red leather benches, O’Grady did not hesitate when asked if she would be willing to see the Lords abolished, as Starmer suggested. “Yes,” she said, adding that she was attracted to Gordon Brown’s proposal for a “senate of nations and regions.”
Recognized by Starmer, another Arsenal fan and North Londoner with whom she has worked closely on issues such as Brexit, O’Grady rejects the idea that he has turned away from Labour’s historic support to workers.
“The TUC, and of course the affiliated unions, have worked hard to put forward a package of proposals which we believe would make a real difference to people’s working lives and which is called a New Deal for Workers , and Labor adopted it. So I’m going to stick with it,” she said.
The policies, endorsed by Starmer at the TUC’s annual congress in Brighton, include union-brokered ‘fair pay deals’ across all sectors, including social care, a ban on zero-hours contracts and workplace rights. work from the first day of work.
O’Grady said those concrete commitments were more important than Starmer’s controversial ban on Labor frontbenchers from attending picket lines, which angered many colleagues earlier this year.
“Many of us have been amused by the obsession with picket lines. Call me old-fashioned, but my understanding of the picket line is that your main job is to persuade other workers not to cross it. That’s what you should focus on, rather than having your picture taken.
When asked if she had ever considered running for an MP, she replied: “I’ve always felt more comfortable with trade unionists”, before worrying that she looked like a insult his new parliamentary colleagues.
“The truth is that I liked unionism because you can get things done: and I’ve always liked that, because I’m not a very patient person.