It was a moment when the wheel of fortune appeared to have turned full circle. After four decades when the trade union movement was kept at arm’s length from the levers of power, the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, found herself standing alongside Rishi Sunak and the CBI boss, Carolyn Fairbairn, on the steps of No 11 Downing Street.
The photo-op in September 2020 came after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the chancellor to bury his antipathy towards organised labour, at least temporarily, and agree a “winter economic plan” with unions and employers that included an extension to the furlough scheme.
O’Grady, who has announced she is stepping down at the end of 2022 as boss of the TUC after almost 10 years in the job, said: “It doesn’t matter who’s in government, our job is to present our case, to look for a fair hearing, and to secure jobs and livelihoods for working people. That’s what we do.”
The 62-year-old leaves with union membership on the rise and the wider public gripped by a cost-of-living crisis that has brought worker power and wage negotiations to the fore.
Long before the pandemic, O’Grady was leading a campaign under the banner “Britain needs a pay rise”, which increased the pressure on Tory ministers to increase the minimum wage well above the rate of inflation.
Yet for almost all her tenure as general secretary, wages have stagnated as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. After the latest fall in real wages, which is expected to last until 2023, the value of earnings in relation to prices could be no more than it was in 2007.
O’Grady grew up in Oxford with four siblings and saw first-hand the split between town and gown, with her home firmly in the working-class district near the Cowley Leyland car plant, where her father worked on the production line.
Growing up a Catholic to a mother and a father whose parents were from Ireland, gave her further encouragement to reject Margaret Thatcher’s cuts to public services and Tory individualism. In one interview, she said when she was growing up the local church actively encouraged people to join a union, adding, sadly, “not any more”.
After a state-school education she went to Manchester University to study politics and modern history. She secured a job with the Transport and General Workers’ union before switching to the TUC in the mid-1990s.
Always keen to push the cause of women in a traditionally male trade-union hierarchy, in 1998 O’Grady was responsible for launching the TUC union organising academy, which provides training and skills for those wanting to rise within the movement.
She became deputy to the general secretary Brendan Barber in 2003, and in 2013 became the first woman to hold the general secretary post, last year being paid £112,000.
During her tenure she has participated in the Resolution Foundation’s commission on living standards and taken a seat among the Bank of England’s 13 court of directors.
An Arsenal supporter who is inclined to laugh about difficult situations, O’Grady has never been among the angry brigade of union leaders, though she gets angry whenever confronted by injustice, she says.
Last month she said she was realistic about the difficulties workers faced driving up their wages to match inflation, but that it was not a situation anyone should accept.
“I don’t see wages taking off. I don’t know how anybody can make that case. I don’t find the comparisons with the 1970s convincing. If we don’t get wages rising again we will hold back economic growth. There is plenty of evidence that working families are really struggling, and not just low-paid workers. Middle-income people are feeling it too.”