Two most powerful women trade unionists share their thoughts on world and domestic issues affecting workers, their rights and their movement

15 May 2013 By Roger Jeary Last night in a packed room in Unite’s Headquarters, the Institute along with the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers hosted a conversation between two of the most powerful women in the trade union movement, Sharan Burrows, General Secretary of the ITUC, and Frances O’Grady, recently elected General Secretary of the British TUC.

Commentary icon15 May 2013|Comment

15 May 2013

By Roger Jeary

Last night in a packed room in Unite’s Headquarters, the Institute along with the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers hosted a conversation between two of the most powerful women in the trade union movement, Sharan Burrows, General Secretary of the ITUC, and Frances O’Grady, recently elected General Secretary of the British TUC.

IER Director, Carolyn Jones, welcomed those present to the fourth in the series of In Conversation events. She reminded the audience that the series began with those giants of the labour movement, Lord Bill Wedderburn and Jim Mortimer, and was so successful it has continued. This year, the event took an international dimension – a timely response, she said, to the problems created by neoliberalism, which knows no boundaries and respects no borders. Carolyn said it is crucial for trade unions to compare notes and exchange strategies on how best to turn back the neoliberal tide. She said the IER is doing its bit to highlight the ideological basis of the attacks by developing a new, interactive, online resource called the Coalition Timeline, which she urged people to read and use. She said it “joins the dots” of the individual policies to expose the bigger picture.

The conversation was preceded by a passionate plea from Liz Davies, Secretary of the Haldane Society, for support to oppose the changes to the legal aid system currently going through parliament. Following on from the swingeing cuts introduced to legal aid this April, a further spate of cuts are now being aimed at the service, which Liz told the meeting would do irreparable damage to the quality of the service and ultimately bring an end to this support. She drew attention to the current consultation by the Ministry of Justice and urged everyone to respond opposing the cuts.

John Hendy QC

The evening then moved on under the chairmanship of the Institute President John Hendy QC, who skilfully steered the conversation between Sharan and Frances across the domestic and international issues facing the movement. John made the point that here we had two women representing all the workers in the world and this conversation was an ideal opportunity to see into the minds of trade union leaders. He started by asking about the role of the media, making the point that in the UK despite a drop in membership, trade unions still represented 1 in 10 working people, a significant force yet largely ignored by the media.

Frances responded by acknowledging that the recent Leveson enquiry, whilst exposing how the media works, did not address the issue of media ownership. She felt that since being elected she had received a fair share of coverage and pointed to the excellent work done by media unions in their campaigns for freedom of the press. Unions she said had other means of reaching their members and argued for greater and better use of social media as an organising tool.

Sharan brought another dimension to the topic by referring to the fact that Asset Managers looking after pension funds of workers had done little or nothing to divest their Murdoch stocks despite his organisation’s continuing attacks on trade unions. She shared Frances’ view on social media using the occasion to plug the ITUC digital magazine “Equal Times”.

Both raised the importance of linking digital media, but emphasised that it is not a substitute for face-to-face meetings and is an enabling tool for members to communicate laterally as well as hierarchically.

The conversation then moved to the tragedies in Bangladesh, in which over 1,000 workers have died. Sharan was particularly vocal on the absence of commitments from retailers and manufacturers to pay for upgrades to factories, whilst agreeing to pay for inspections. She mounted a scathing attack on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), describing the concept as “bullshit” – an Aussie term for ‘rubbish’ I believe. It was the absence of rights to freedom of association in Bangladesh and other developing nations which is the real problem and fundamental labour rights are at the core of this issue.

Frances agreed and commented on the positive response from the movement to the Bangladesh tragedy. She pointed out that tuppence on prices would double the wages of a garment worker and argued for greater exploitation of the sensitivity of the retail trade to brand damage.

In turning the conversation to collective bargaining, John Hendy put it to Frances that the British trade unions had not done enough to defend collective bargaining. Only 23% of workers are now covered by collective agreements and he asked if this issue is a priority for trade unions.

Frances responded by stating that organising was the top priority and pointed to the failings of shareholder supremacy and that we need an alliance between trade unions and a sympathetic government similar to the events following the second world war, (she didn’t identify who was likely to provide such a government – none springs to my mind). We were reminded that the late Jim Mortimer had always said that you can’t have collective bargaining without a supportive government. Frances also referred to the living wage and, although a great fan of the concept, she reminded us that wages are only one part of the collective jigsaw and that a wage defined solely by academics lacks credibility.

Sharan Burrow

Sharan’s take on this issue highlighted the impact of the absence of collective bargaining worldwide on equality. A recent OECD report shows that inequality is growing and that this is down to the attacks by governments on collective bargaining. She posed the thought that you would think governments would understand this. She referred to Brown and Obama, both of whom have spoken of the need to rein back the banks, but the forces of austerity have fought back and we are no further forward. She pointed to the casualisation of work and argued that the absence of collective rights has contributed to this state. She referred to the difficulties faced by workers in Spain and argued for the rebuilding of progressive governments where systems have broken down. She also reminded us of the need to fight back against imperial forces, as indeed her own country did against the colonisers of Australia!

As Frances put forward the need to work within communities to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality, Sharan expressed a concern about our capacity to organise communities, as globally only 13% of people believe they have an influence over their governments. She told us organising around shared values in communities was as important as organising in the workplace.

John moved the conversation to international law and conventions and asked the question as to what extent it was felt the union movement use the fact that these fundamental rights are acknowledged by governments in the civilised world?

Frances O’Grady

Sharan spoke of the issues facing organisations like the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and lawyers who are arguing that international treaties are not part of international law. She said that this needs to be challenged before too much ground is lost, and pointed to the fact that governments deny the importance the ILO’s role. Frances agreed and reminded us that the TUC has a history of defending international law and treaties, but said there is a fine line between legal strategies and our ability to deliver through organisation in the workplace. On a more positive note, Sharan said that the ILO can work and has aided the ability to build trade unions in Burma.

Finally, and topically, John asked about the European Union and what was left of the social dimension.

Frances was scathing about the Coalition’s political games with Europe and a referendum. She told us that whilst we are outside the Eurozone, we are not unaffected by its problems. British workers are paying for the problems of the Euro. When Tories talk about repatriation of powers, what they mean is repatriation of workers’ rights, and UKIP are simply playing on people’s fears as they drag the centre of British politics to the right. Sharan argued that it actually makes economic sense for unions and employers to work together to keep the European model with a social dimension.

As the conversation drew to a close, John asked about the relationship between the TUC and the ITUC. Frances responded by praising the leadership given by Sharan, and pointed to the convergence of wages around the world, which provides the possibility for workers on an international level to become organised, and stressed the strength through democracy in the global movement. She reminded us that unity is our strength and that when the left is divided, the rights always wins.

Sharan complemented this by saying that the TUC is one of the most inspirational affiliates of the ITUC, and that the organisation will continue to work with its affiliates. However, where no organisation currently exists, it will also provide leadership to deliver campaigns, pointing to Qatar as an example of current slavery across the board.

John summed up by saying there are more angry people in the world now than for some time and Frances said that the next UK election will be about hope and fear with the need to harness the anger in order to deliver the hope.

This latest in the series of Conversations by leaders in employment and trade union rights offered the opportunity to hear from our two guests their thoughts on these issues with a global perspective and a practical slant.

The IER will soon release a video of this In Conversation event. Join up to our mailing list to be alerted.

Roger Jeary

Roger Jeary Roger Jeary retired from Unite in January 2012 after 33 year’s service as a negotiating officer and Director of Research. Roger worked in Northern Ireland, Manchester and London as an official of the union starting with ASTMS and then MSF and AMICUS before the final merger to Unite. In 2004 he was appointed Director of Research of Amicus and subsequently took on that role for Unite in 2007. Roger is a member of the Institute’s Publications Sub Committee. Currently Roger is a Trustee Director of FairPensions, an independent member of the ACAS Panel of Arbitrators, sits on the Advisory Panel of the IPA and is a member of the Manufacturing Policy Panel of the Institute of Engineering & Technology (IET).