Gregor Gall: Can first woman at TUC helm reverse the rot?
FRANCES O’Grady’s experience outside unions puts her in good stead to build new anti-austerity alliances, argues Gregor Gall
THE brothers and sisters of the Trades’ Union Congress (TUC) meet next week in Brighton for their 144th annual congress. The TUC faces change and continuity as it tries to grapple with a number of pressing issues while having less influence and power than before.
It will be current general secretary Brendan Barber’s last congress. After ten years at the helm, he will be succeeded by the first woman to hold the top post, Frances O’Grady. Mr Barber had the benefit of being in charge when the economy was growing and Labour was in office. Nonetheless, his attempt to gain a negotiated settlement during the firefighters’ strike of 2002-3 showed that Tony Blair’s was very much a “new” – and not an “old” – Labour government.
Ms O’Grady faces an uphill challenge in being the captain of the tanker. It’s often said a tanker takes miles to slow and turn. The same is true of the union movement. Even if its leaders proclaim their dedication to change, the staff in the engine room – the activists and members – need to believe in it and do something about it.
Being elected without opposition and having had campaigning experience outside the TUC when she worked for a charity and then the T&GWU (now part of Unite) are strengths Ms O’Grady has brought to the TUC. Previously, she held the posts of TUC campaigns officer, head of the TUC’s Organising Academy and, finally, deputy general secretary. She is known for a greater orientation on working with social forces outside the union movement (like NGOs, charities and pressure groups) to help gain a more civilised society. In other words, she’s not the time-served fixer and administrator of years gone by.
Her leadership will be put to the test on a number of fronts.
First, TUC affiliated membership is likely to drop below six million in her first year as a result of continuing public sector job losses. Overall union membership was 13.5m in 1979, or 55 per cent density. With another half a million members outside the TUC fold, density is now just 26 per cent.
This means the power base of the union movement is still being eroded. Being a woman, and with women now comprising 60 per cent of members, may be helpful but it will not be sufficient in itself to grow union membership. Resources and determination will be the critical factors.
Second, the union movement faces continuing battles over pensions, pay and job cuts in the public sector. While the fight on pay and job cuts has yet to really start, the fight on pensions has become fragmented and dissipated under Mr Barber who led the unions’ negotiating team with the government.
It will prove difficult to revive and win the fight on public sector pensions because Unite, Unison and the GMB – the three biggest unions – have accepted the government’s concessions in many of the pension schemes. This isolates the smaller and more recalcitrant unions such as the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and the teaching unions. It is coming up to a year since the massive single day strike of 30 November 2011, and the feeling amongst most union activists is that they have been left around waiting for further action as the head of steam that the strike represented dissipated.
Moving on to the terrain of stopping pay freezes and job cuts in the public sector seems entirely sensible. On pay, it is until one realises that it will be difficult – though not impossible – to co-ordinate joint action because of different settlement dates for different groups of workers and the inevitable government offers to divide and rule. The willingness of the PCS and NUT teaching union, and now Unison, to kick- start this fight provides a good starting point. Public sector workers are being squeezed by falling pay and increasing prices. Yet their fight on pay could be characterised as looking after their own vested interests.
It will be harder for the government to push on with job cuts if the unions fight them by forming alliances between providers and users of public services. Ms O’Grady has a major role to play in constructing these alliances by showing fewer jobs mean poorer services. Her launch-pad for this will be the 20 October demonstrations in Glasgow and London.
The demos need to attract the same numbers that turned out for the massive 26 March 2011 London TUC demonstration for jobs and growth. The feeling marchers were left with was “what next?” after the demonstration’s success. Ms O’Grady can answer their question after 20 October with new alliances, and their mobilisation in future demos and industrial action.
But in constructing these alliances, the decline of social movements such as Occupy! means the TUC under Ms O’Grady will not find as many ready-made allies to work with in defending its members and reconfiguring the economy towards social justice.
Third, although the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is no longer as strong and stable as it once was, Labour has yet to capitalise on this by mapping out a credible alternative reviving growth and raising equality through redistribution. For the TUC, this means that its natural ally is still not in a commanding position and so the TUC still finds itself on the back foot. Of course, as always, the situation is a little different in Scotland with the SNP government and Scotland-only bargaining units. Here, the job of the Scottish TUC is to provide the means of co-ordination with the TUC’s marshalling of its forces. So as Ms O’Grady steps up to the tanker’s bridge, she will be hoping she can make the forces for innovative change outstrip those of the dull continuity of decline.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (email@example.com)
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