‘Enough is enough’: wave of strikes led by ‘fantastic’ women, says Frances O’Grady

This winter’s wave of strike action will be powered by “a generation of women who are saying enough is enough” because the critical jobs they do are undervalued, the outgoing TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, has said.

As she steps down after a decade as the TUC’s first female figurehead, O’Grady said on Friday that thousands of women who worked on the frontline during the pandemic were now saying to ministers, “don’t take us for granted”.

The RMT leader, Mick Lynch, has often been the public face of industrial action in recent months, as his members held a series of stoppages on the rail network. But workplace unrest has now spread across much of the public sector, where many staff have faced a decade-long pay squeeze.

“As we see some of those ballots coming through in education, in health, in the civil service, then it will become increasingly clear that it’s women on the frontline, demanding better,” says O’Grady.

She points to the presence of forthright female general secretaries at the top of several unions, including Unison’s Christina McAnea, Sharon Graham of Unite, and Jo Grady of the UCU, now heading the university lecturers’ strike.

“Fantastic women,” she said.

O’Grady has accused Rishi Sunak’s government of having “a bit of a 1950s attitude around women at work – where women work for love”.

“It’s absolutely true that every NHS staff member I meet, from nurses to cleaners to doctors, has a sense of vocation. But women can’t live on thin air. We have bills to pay. We have children to raise. We should get a fair reward for the work that we do,” she added.

Women account for almost 90% of registered nurses and midwives, and three-quarters of teachers. Membership of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which is holding strikes in a string of government departments, is 60% female.

O’Grady was brought up in Oxford, in a family steeped in trade unionism – her father was a shop steward in what was then the British Leyland car plant in Cowley and her brother was a miner who was involved in the 1984-85 strike.

Reminiscing about those days, she said she had been thinking about how best to ensure women got the support they need in today’s trade union movement. “I think solidarity is often framed, 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 maintaining morale. But I used to wonder when we would see men’s groups organised around delivering solidarity for women.”

As the latest wave of strikes gathers pace, there is “an opportunity for men as well as women to show their solidarity with those workers”, O’Grady said.

More than a million workers are either being balloted for industrial action or have an existing mandate for strikes. Nurses will walk out on 15 and 20 December, and teachers could follow, with ballots closing in January.

Ministers, including the 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 rejects that as “self-evidently nonsense”.

“When you see what’s happened with profits, with top pay, with dividends, it is evidently nonsense. The question is what choices are you going to make? Because there are ways of raising taxes on the wealthy and big corporations,” she said.

She showed a flash of anger when talking about the situation many workers are facing. “People are on the brink, and I’ve seen it too many times now.” She talks about low-paid workers, “sending their children to school with holes in their shoes”.

As a single parent, O’Grady said: “It’s just a little example, but it’s the kind of thing that gets to me – because that shouldn’t be the case, that you have people working long hours and yet not able to buy a new pair of shoes.”

She is in the process of clearing out her spacious office in the TUC’s 1950s Congress House headquarters in central London, from which she can look down on the Jacob Epstein sculpture in its courtyard, commemorating trade unionists lost in two world wars.

She is about 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 position to fight against any diminution of workers’ rights – but squirmed when asked about the pomp and flummery of the upper house. She would make sure to wear flat shoes for her investiture to avoid tripping on the ceremonial robe, she said.

Despite the allure of a new seat on the red leather benches, O’Grady did not hesitate when asked whether she would be willing to see the Lords abolished, as Starmer has suggested. “Yes,” she said, adding that she was attracted to Gordon Brown’s proposal of a “senate of the nations and regions”.

Trusted by Starmer, a fellow Arsenal fan and north Londoner with whom she has worked closely on issues including Brexit, O’Grady rejects the idea that he has turned away from Labour’s historic support for working people.

“The TUC, and of course, affiliated unions, have worked their socks off to put forward a package of proposals that we think would make a real difference to people’s working lives and that’s called a new deal for workers, and Labour’s embraced it. So I’m going to stick up for it,” she said.

The policies, endorsed by Starmer at the TUC’s annual congress in Brighton, include union-negotiated “fair pay agreements” across sectors including social care, a ban on zero-hours contracts and workplace rights from day one on the job.

O’Grady said these concrete commitments were more important than Starmer’s controversial ban on Labour frontbenchers attending picket lines, which irked 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 your primary job is persuading other workers not to cross it. That’s what you should be focused on, as opposed to having your picture taken.”

Asked whether she ever considered standing as an MP, she said “I’ve always felt more comfortable with trade unionists”, before fretting it might sounds as though she was insulting her new parliamentary colleagues.

“The truth is, I enjoyed trade unionism because you can get stuff done: and I’ve always enjoyed that, because I’m not a very patient person.”


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