The NS Interview: Frances O’Grady, deputy general secretary of the TUC

“Britain is going to be a much meaner, nastier, scarier place”

How and why did you first become involved in the trade union movement?
I first joined as a shopworker - I came from a family where joining a union was the expected thing to do. I've always believed that the relationship between an employer and an individual worker is fundamentally unequal.

How would you describe the purpose of the trade union movement?
We have a moral responsibility to speak up for the poor because not many others can. It's an old saying, but trade unionism is about the strong helping the weak. We've got an obligation to do that.

What is your take on the Spending Review?
It is bad economics. Britain is going to be a much meaner, nastier, scarier place - particularly if you're poor.

What worries you most about it?
I find the cuts in housing, the rent rises and the impact on women and children across the board especially disturbing. Coupled with some of the comments we've heard, it suggests the spirit of Keith Joseph and Norman Tebbit isn't entirely dead within the Tory party.

What is your alternative?
A crackdown on tax avoidance, a "Robin Hood tax" and investment in growth.

What effect will redundancies have?
At the moment, we've got five unemployed people chasing every vacancy, and vacancies are shrinking by the day. Understandably, I think, we'll see a lot of resistance.

Do you think there'll be a poll tax moment?
Yes, in the sense of government MPs going back to their constituencies and finding out that they've become the most unpopular MP in recent history in a very short space of time! We're determined that we're going to make this local and personal.

Will there be co-ordinated strike action?
We've got to be very intelligent about picking the timing, territory and tactics of any strike ­action. We've got to win popular support.

Is the media flurry about another "winter of discontent" exaggerated?
I think a lot of old journos have been reaching for a lot of tired old clichés. This is a very dif­ferent kind of trade union movement from the one we had in the 1970s. It's 50/50 men and women, and there's a new generation of activists coming through who are looking for bolder, more imaginative ways to win.

Do you think the coalition will last a full term?
It's too early to judge. Although there's a lot of focus on the Lib Dems, we need to keep our eyes on the far right of the Tories, who I suspect will become increasingly impatient in their appetite for tax cuts, deregulation and shrinking the state even further.

What do you think of Ed Miliband as leader?
Ed has the potential to become a great social-democratic prime minister. He has a lot of interesting things to say about the quality of life in Britain today and the role of consumerism and how that's corroding our sense of community. People are feeling cheered by that.

You're the first woman to hold your post. Have you ever been treated differently?
We didn't rush things at the TUC, did we? I have been given a lot of encouragement by men and women, and that's something I hope to pass on, particularly to young women.

How equal are men and women in society now?
When I look at my daughter, who's 24, she is much more confident than I ever was and her expectations are higher. But I worry that there is a backlash brewing against progress on equality. I feel very cautious about what may or may not happen on abortion, for example.

Is enough being done to tackle the gender pay gap?
No. We still have one of the biggest gender pay gaps in Europe - it is outrageous in the 21st century. I predict things are going to get a lot worse. As long as it's down to individual women having to put their head above the parapet, progress will be slow.

Who are your political heroes?
My first hero, as a teenager, was James Connolly. I remember discovering that he was a feminist, and that was an eye-opener, coming from a man of such poverty. And all those women, like Mary Macarthur, who've stood on each other's shoulders to get a bit further ahead.

Do you vote?
Oh yes, always.

Is there a plan?
It's better to enjoy what you're doing in the here and now, and let the future look after itself.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
A few spotty boyfriends!

Are we all doomed?
No, as long as we're organised.

 

Defining moments

1960 Born in Oxford
1989 Joins Transport and General Workers Union as a campaigner
1994 Joins the TUC
1998 Becomes head of TUC organisation and services department
1998 Sets up academy to train young union organisers
2003 Becomes TUC deputy general secretary, the first woman in the post
2007 Appointed to Low Pay Commissio