Working people are at a turning point where they are not prepared to be “mugged off” with low pay any more, Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, has said, ahead of motions at its congress on greater joint industrial action by unions this autumn.
O’Grady, who leads the organising body for trade unions, said there was an increasing number of strike ballots at the moment, and that while many end in a deal, joint action can show the strength of feeling of workers and bring disputes to an end sooner.
Unite and PCS are among the unions who have motions at the TUC congress in Brighton next week that call for greater coordination over strike action to achieve action on pay and the cost of living.
Asked about the potential for coordinated strikes in the next six months, O’Grady said: “We don’t take strike action to be ineffective. Unions are constantly discussing what is the best way, because it’s in nobody’s interest to have a prolonged dispute. It’s better for everybody if we can show the strength of feeling and that workers are joining together. That’s more likely to get the employer to the table ready to do a fair deal, whether that’s the government or private sector.”
She stressed that it was part of the TUC’s core role to facilitate coordination between unions, but that there was no motion for a “general strike” on the conference agenda as that was not the focus.
On the next six months, O’Grady warned Liz Truss not to underestimate the strength of feeling among workers who have endured pay stagnation and real terms pay cuts for years.
“I feel encouraged by the determination I see,” she said. “I think there’s a long fuse, but when it goes, it really goes. The government should not underestimate that real determination that I see from working people that things have got to change. I think it’s growing. I think people … there is just that turning point when people know they’ve been mugged off and they’re not prepared to accept it any more. I think that’s what we are seeing now.”
She highlighted discontent about pay across many different sectors, including university lecturers, shop workers, cleaners, rail workers, posties, and call centre workers because of the cost of living crisis.
“People feel they made huge personal sacrifices during the pandemic, often facing pay freezes, with a nod and a wink that they would be seen all right at the end of it. But many have been treated like dirt. So of course people are angry,” she said.
O’Grady, who is stepping down after a decade at the end of the year, also sounded the alarm about Truss’s plans to crack down further on strike laws, including legislating for minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure in the first 30 days of government.
The general secretary said the plan to tighten strike laws was a “recipe for chaos because I think she underestimates working people”.
Asked if the new laws could increase the potential for illegal strikes, she said: “I have great confidence in working people’s ingenuity. If people feel they have a just cause, you can’t legislate to stop that feeling.”
She called Truss the “P&O prime minister” over concerns that No 10 will be prepared to roll back workers’ rights such as the working time directive and a “reverse Robin Hood” over her plan to cut taxes in a way that will benefit the rich and companies more.
“It’s breathtaking really that one minute the Conservative government was agreeing that P&O’s behaviour was disgraceful and the next moment it looks like we’ve got a new leader of the Conservative of party who’s going to be the prime minister for P&O, deploying the same tactics against workers,” she said.
The TUC congress in Brighton will debate motions about greater coordinated industrial action on Tuesday, with Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, addressing the gathering that day.
The Labour leader was due to meet union officials on Tuesday amid continuing tensions between the party and unions over his stance on picket lines, with frontbenchers asked not to attend them earlier this year. He has described himself as a proud trade unionist and said he understands why workers are striking but said it is not his role to join them on a picket line.