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A new dawn for the Unions? Frances O’Grady and economic democracy

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The TUC’s new General Secretary seems to represent real change in the 'pale, male, stale' world of British unions. But can she shake them up in policy terms, and draw in the energy of a disparate anti-austerity movement?

Niki Seth-Smith
30 April 2013

What is the future for trade unions in Britain? Last Friday, forty or fifty of us jammed into an Oxford college seminar room to hear that question answered. It was the annual Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture, at University College where the Prime Minister of the post-war settlement spent his student years. Less to remember the great man, we were there to hear Frances O'Grady, the new TUC General Secretary and the first woman to occupy this most pivotal office for the British labour movement. 

O'Grady was little known outside the movement until her appointment late last year, but popular within it. She was the only candidate nominated for the post, with 32 of the 54 affiliated unions putting her name forward. Since then, her sex has been the obvious talking point. So many hopes are pinned on her. Billed as the face to break the 'pale, male, stale' stereotype, she is suited to head a federation whose six million plus members are now almost half women. Numbers aside, it is women who are bearing the brunt of austerity. Disproportionately hit by the privatisation of the public sector, last year female unemployment reached a 25-year high, while cuts in vital services are tying women back to the kitchen sink, to do the caring once provided by the state. There has never been a better time to have a woman at the head of the Trades Union Congress.

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I was looking forward to encountering O’Grady in person. Not only to know more about her views, but literally to hear her speak. However much this degrades our politics, her ‘manner’ and ‘image’ will prove crucial. For a decade in the role, Brendan Barber had confronted a press machine set on demonising union 'chiefs' as power-hungry militants, lording over an authoritarian and paternalistic movement. It will be harder to likewise brand O’Grady. Opening with a personal anecdote – how she first joined a union at Oxford after “a disastrous experience of serving at table in a college” – she is personal and relaxed, with friendly gusto. This year, the spending cuts will truly bite, and the thirst for industrial unrest is not likely to be slaked by the action planned for 20 October. The scene is set for confrontation, and if O’Grady is able to evade stereotyping, she may stand a chance of beginning to win public approval.

It is important, then, that in the ‘Attlee to Miliband’ history set out in her lecture, O’Grady fixed on the failure to compromise, co-operate and adapt as behind the long-term decline of the union movement. She bemoaned the “strategic error” in the ‘70s of “failing to seize the opportunity of the European model of co-determination and industrial democracy.” Instead of going the way of the Germans, embracing collective ownership, Britain took the "easy option" of relying purely on shop floor power. It was this error, O’Grady believes, that led eventually to the “breakdown of the social contract, the subsequent Winter of Discontent and the Thatcherite counter-revolution.” Hers is a 'better late than never' proposal: economic strength in Britain built on economic democracy. Let’s grasp now what we squandered then. She wants a "recalibration of the relationship between capital and labour", supported by new models of corporate governance and new institutions to facilitate collective bargaining. 

Wait a minute. Isn’t this simply the Labour line? Her words on "a new set of socialist relationships in the workplace” could well have been spoken by Miliband adviser Jon Cruddas, who delivered last year’s Atlee lecture. The difference is that O’Grady could be in a position to deliver – both in shaking up the unions and bringing the public with her. She sees her role as transforming the intellectual heavy lifting begun in Labour circles around responsible capitalism into a populist agenda. Talking about pre-distribution, a favourite Milibandism, she slips in an aside – "otherwise known as collective bargaining" – with a cheeky grin that draws titters from the audience. Milibot and the straight-talking lady. She clearly believes they’ll make a good pair. 

Perhaps she’s right. O’Grady’s commitment to economic democracy is welcome, as is her ability to act as a figurehead for women and the struggle against a feminized recession. In slamming her forebears’ refusal to abandon their adversarial stance, she has distanced herself from the still live memory of a male-dominated trade union culture of pride, power and (some might argue) perversity. 

Yet O’Grady has not yet acknowledged the influence and importance of her potential allies. She said on her appointment that she wants to build "a mass movement, a social movement as well as a trade union movement and, particularly for young people, I think we have to offer a home". Yet when I asked for her perspective on pop-up unions, she appeared not to have heard of them. Faced with a bemused smile, I explained. I gave Sussex University as an example, where the struggle against outsourcing has led students and workers to establish a single-issue union to represent their demands. The Sussex Against Privatisation Campaign originally sought support from the existing union branches on campus – Unite, Unison and UCU – but were rebuffed by what they see as a conservative leadership presiding over an ossified system. In its short life, the pop-up union, which is certified and can take legal industrial action, has recruited a membership exceeding that of all three official unions. 

Hopes that pop-up unions could help deliver a responsive, flexible, 21st century union movement are premature. What the development is doing is getting activists and young people previously switched off from member-led politics engaged with unionisation. That O’Grady hadn’t heard of them speaks volumes. Her speech on Friday began with a challenge, "if we are to build a future that works for all, then both sides of the labour movement need to change." But the struggle for rights, equality and democracy for working people, everyday citizens of Britain, is no longer held in the balance of that well-worn coin – with Unions on one side and Labour on the other.

This point was put by the youngest audience member to speak from the floor. She touched on activists, students, the wider anti-austerity movement, the desire for co-ordinated strikes, direct action. It was incoherent, rambling, like a fart in a church in that rarified air dedicated to Labour’s sainted PM. It was a statement, not a question: “You need to do more”. O’Grady should take heed. She has grasped that the role of the unions must expand beyond securing better terms and conditions for workers – the long-term survival of the movement demands it. To help reshape the banking system, break shareholder supremacy and place workers at the heart of decision-making, requires a commensurate broadening of alliances. The lion’s share of this work has not begun. O’Grady may have charisma, she may have a few policies up her sleeve (the commitment to union membership for the unemployed is promising) but an attitude shift is needed if the unions are to draw in the energy of the disparate anti-austerity movement. Since the lecture, has O’Grady done her research on pop-up unions? Let me believe that she has. It’s still early days, and time for hope. 

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.

 

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