POLITICS

David Cameron's Right To Strike Law Could Led To Mass Sickies, Warns Frances O'Grady

25/06/2015 17:14 BST | Updated 25/06/2015 17:59 BST

Frances O'Grady

It is a line which few could get away with, but TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady delivered it with a smile.

When asked if the old “beer and sandwiches” stereotype of trade unionists harms the movement, she smiled and said: “Dragging out the old TV pictures of men of a certain girth stood around fires it’s just not how the modern trade union movement feels. This is men and women working together."

A “certain girth” - who could she be referring to?

O’Grady is certainly not what springs to mind when thinking of trade union figures.

Len McCluskey, Paul Kenny and the late Bob Crow are perhaps more typical – large men with booming voices rallying the crowds with rhetoric filled speeches.

O’Grady is softly-spoken, more measured with her language, and, quite obviously, not a man.

"I would hope that some of those old stereotypes are just running out of time. Our membership is 50/50 men and women,” she said, speaking from her office in Congress House, central London.

"There’s a lot of great stuff happening and trying to hang those stereotypes round our necks is so out-dated. I don’t know whether it’s just ignorance or a deliberate ignorance but it’s our job to break down those stereotypes. You look around the General Council table – Sally Hunt [University and College Union], Chris Keates [National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers], Chris Blower [National Union of Teachers], Michelle Stanistreet [National Union of Journalists] – we have got so many women leaders now and we each bring a different style obviously, as men do.”

With women now at the top of many of Britain’s unions, is now the time for Labour to finally elect a female leader for the first time in its history?

"I would like to see women running the world, but I don’t think that’s the test on offer here," O’Grady replied diplomatically.

In a parallel universe, O’Grady would not have been carefully avoiding endorsing any candidate in the Labour leadership election, and would instead have been telling The Huffington Post UK what she was hoping for from Ed Miliband’s new government.

Instead, she is having to prepare for five years of a Tory Government, able to pursue its agenda without the influence of the Lib Dems.

One of the major Conservative policies affecting unions is the change to strike rules.

The Tories plan to change that rules so that any industrial action needs not just the support of the majority of those who vote in a union ballot, but 40 per cent of the total workforce.

O’Grady warned the change in rules could lead to more unofficial strikes taking place.

She said: "What ever you do on the right to strike, you could remove the right to strike, but you will never be able to force people to work when they feel they are suffering an injustice. That’s the bottom line. So even if you remove the right to strike you would end up with unofficial action, wildcat action, mass sickies, people will find a way to express that discontent. The difference is it’s much harder to resolve because you have got nobody to negotiate with.”

She added: “We are democratic organisations, skilled in finding solutions and deals. If you make that harder for us you will find it an awful lot harder to settle problems when they do arise in the work place."

With the Conservatives now enjoying a majority government for the first time since 1997, are the trade unions in their least influential position for 18 years.

O’Grady said she has always enjoyed good access to the Government, although admits that is not the same as good influence.

She said: "David Cameron needs to remember there’s a difference between being in office and being in power too. In that it would be a terrible mistake for him to keep feeding the monster of his own right wing backbenchers and forget that the great majority of people in this country may not be aligned to any party but what they reject is in my experience is some of the extreme policies that this government seems to be intent on pursuing not least in respect of trade union rights."

"The real battles of this next parliament will be blue-on-blue. But my counsel will be you’re never going to please those backbenchers: either the eurosceptics who keep moving the goal posts on what an acceptable deal in Europe could be, or those who would like to relive the Thatcherite battles of the 80s and demonise unions. It’s a monster. You cannot ever satisfy it. Beating up unions does not win any votes. What it does do, and even the FT and the Economist have talked about, the risk of appearing to victimise trade unionist. The risk of looking spiteful and out of touch with working people, because even people who aren’t members know that we still set the pay and conditions way beyond the third of the workforce that we collectively bargain for."

While O’Grady has words of warning for the Tories, she is more reflective when it comes to Labour.

She praised Miliband for being “a very decent man and I suspect that when the dust has settled more people will realise that."

"His most compelling insight is you have to tackle the root causes of inequality not just the symptoms," she added.

But what about the election result? For all his decency, Miliband led Labour to its worst election result since 1987.

"There is a risk that in the disappointment of the election result Labour forgets what was popular about its programme with the public, even those who didn’t vote for it,” O’Grady said.

“The polling that we conducted immediately after the election shows very clearly that people didn’t think Labour was too tough on big business. On the contrary, they wanted harder controls on big business and the banks and in some ways I think a dilemma for Labour during the election campaign was whether to admit it had been too soft on regulating business and the banks in particular, the finance sector, and perhaps if it had put its hands up earlier and admitted it had been too soft it would have been easier to right the story about where the British economy needs to go from here on in.

"In other words, we have been too dominated by the finance sector, that we do need a plan for the real economy, we do need to ensure that everybody gets a fair share of the rewards of productivity and growth."

But surely if Labour had been even tougher on big business, it would have alienated the aspirational classes even more?

O’Grady disagreed: "It’s a mistake to believe that people thought Labour was business bashing and our polling is very clear about that. People had an appetite for politicians for all parties to take a proper stance on big business and the banks. We know that Conservative supporters are as worried about runaway greed and bad behaviour in boardrooms as Labour supporters. So there’s an issue, almost a psychological battle here I think for people to be self confident enough in those values of fair play to write a convincing story of what the economy should look like and I think Labour never really got into the territory of defining the terms of the debate.

"So we had an awful lot of defensiveness around deficit reduction and not enough going on the offensive in terms of building an economy that works for working people. So we heard the sound bites but we didn’t get the beef in the sandwich. There wasn’t a convincing plan set out for an industrial policy."

Speaking of industrial policy, many in the business sector are worried about Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Even those businesses who would want Britain to remain in the EU wouldn’t object to fewer regulations coming from Brussels.

It may be that the deal Cameron needs to convince some eurosceptics to vote to stay ‘in’ could see workers’ rights weakened in a bid to burn Brussels red tape.

O’Grady is concerned, and on Wednesday wrote to Downing Street warning him that workers may vote to leave if that it is the case.

She said: "The mutterings over the weekend attributed to the prime ministerial aides suggesting that the, at the very best, dilution of the social chapter is going to be pulled like a rabbit from the hat one minute to midnight before the referendum doesn't fill me with confidence that we even know the terms of renegotiation that the Prime Minister is pursuing. We have been calling for some time now for the Prime Minister to come clean and spell out what his renegotiation actually involves."

"It would be very stupid, because you are not going to win workers' votes by worsening their rights. Our polling shows very clearly more people would vote to stay in the EU if they believed it would improve their pay and conditions and rights at work. If this false choice on offer is heads we lose, tails we lose, then that isn't going to inspire people to put their cross in the 'yes' box to stay in.

"It's playing with fire, it's a very dangerous game. It's dangerous on lots of different levels because from my perspective it's a threat to the very fabric of the deal on which Europe is based which is: yes we have a single market but we balance that with strong rights and protections and a voice for workers so that Europe is seen and felt to work for everybody."

O’Grady spelt out fears that taking away rules that meant agency workers should receive equal pay could further depress wages and lead to increased tension between migrants and Brits.

“If you remove equal pay and treatment for agency workers, what does that mean in practice? We know that a lot of the noise in this debate is around migration. Some communities are worried that pay and conditions are being undercut by migrant workers. We also know migrant workers are much for likely to be employed under agency contracts in construction and manufacturing, food factories.

"We've been around, speaking to people we know the picture. If you make it easier for employers to undercut the rate for the job by stripping away that right to equal treatment for agency workers then that could unleash real resentment amongst workers and that will make it all the harder for those who believe in the principle of free movement to defend it.

“So it's frankly not a very intelligent move from those who want to stay in the EU, want freedom of movement. They have to understand that there has to be a bargain. In real life, the way most of is are brought up anyway, you don't always get everything you want, life is all about compromises and trade unions are about negotiating deals. If you say there is no deal, we're going to have it all our own way, then of course support will peel away.”

The In/Out referendum aside, the biggest cause of concern for O’Grady and the TUC coming from the EU is the negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

This deal, between the EU and the US, is focusing on breaking down trade regulations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Opponents of the deal, including Ukip leader Nigel Farage, are worried the secret negotiations could lead to the British government being sued by large companies if public sector bodies such as the NHS are not privatised.

The TUC and Ukip are unlikely allies in this fight, and O’Grady said: "We’re opposed in its current form. This isn’t just happening in Europe, there is a massive debate in the United States where not just trade unionists, but citizens in general are not happy about trade deals being drawn up in secret and then being presented as a fait accompli and people discovering late in the day that corporations have been given significant advantages and that ordinary workers and citizens don’t appear to have been considered.

“If you take perhaps the most glaring embodiment of that problem, the ISDS mechanism, these so-called secret courts that allow a privilege position for corporations to sue national democratically-elected governments if they feel there profits have been harmed. And we’ve seen the results of that with the on-going case against Egypt for raising the minimum wage, pursued by Veolia.

"On plain packaging for cigarettes, on a whole range of democratically decided policies that then become the subject of court action. Many people feel that is fundamentally unfair and dangerous for democracy. There appears to be no commensurate avenue for workers whose labour standards are harmed to take any action.

“On the contrary, the most that’s provided for in the current draft of the agreement is a strongly worded letter. That’s it. No sanctions, a real telling off at best where as corporations can sue governments for millions of dollars. Secondly I think the issue isn’t so much about privatisation, in real life its about where government’s want to bring services back. Had Labour been elected or led a government and wanted to bring back services that had been outsourced from the NHS, or bring back part of the railway system our reading is they could have been vulnerable to legal action by the corporations affected under this kind of agreement and with that ISDS provision. And thirdly, what are these agreements for? Surely it should be ultimately, about helping good businesses create good jobs and decent living standards and fair shares of the rewards for everybody. Now if that’s where you start from I think you would come up with quite a different agreement."

Could O’Grady and Farage join forces to tackle TTIP?

"I’m not aware that Nigel Farage is advocating the social model of Europe,” replied O’Grady, after a pause. “I’m up for debate with anybody but I’m here to represent working people’s interest."