Strikes are “not easy to organize” and require a “burning sense of injustice,” says union boss

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady spoke at a rally ahead of Saturday’s cost of living demo in London. She said Boris Johnson is “not a stupid man” but “plays all the old tunes”.

The Worksop Demands Better event at Manton Sports Club
The Worksop Demands Better event at Manton Sports Club

At Manton Sports Club in Worksop, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady gathers the crowd.

“We have a prime minister who is more concerned about saving his own job than he is about other people’s,” she told a full meeting. “There are now four million children living in poverty, and most have at least one working parent. We don’t just say we deserve better for working people, we demand it.”

The cost of living crisis is hitting local people. Pay packages in Worksop, Notts, are expected to be worth £440 a year less this year – as inflation outstrips wage growth, according to a new TUC analysis.

Many of those hardest hit are key workers who have held the hand of Britain through Covid.

“During the pandemic, Downing Street was the center of Partygate, with cleaners wiping red wine and vomit off the walls,” says Frances. “Meanwhile, caregivers, nurses and firefighters have carried out their duty at enormous personal cost, putting their health and lives at risk.

“What was her reward? Ministers clap for key workers. And that’s it.”

Frances O’Grady from TUC


Paul David Drabble)

The rally is one of many being organized by the TUC across the UK ahead of Saturday’s cost of living demo in London.

Wearing a black campaign T-shirt over her summer dress, O’Grady – who recently announced she would step down as general secretary later this year – heads into the fray.

“Boris Johnson is not a stupid man,” she tells me. “He knows that a pay rise for a nurse is not going to bring the country down. But he plays all the old tunes and tries to keep a certain group of backbenchers happy.

“Everyone saw what happened at P&O. The government hardly lifted a finger. They cried crocodile tears while P&O fired people for Zoom and replaced them with contract workers. Now the government is threatening to replace striking workers with temporary workers. It’s P&O under a different name.”

The old Manton Colliery wheel, set in the street outside, is a reminder of a time when Worksop people had guaranteed jobs with decent pay and strong unions.

“It’s not easy going on strike in the UK,” O’Grady says of upcoming strikes across the UK, including on trains. “You need a democratic majority. Most people don’t give up money easily. You have to have a real burning sense of injustice. People have a long fuse, but when it burns, it burns.

Pat McGrath from Unite


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“They’re trying to get people to apologize for wanting to raise their family with a decent wage. We will not be ashamed of that. Most people understand that workers deserve a decent standard of living. If it’s not good for working families, it’s not good for this country.”

The government is now determined to fight the unions with a vengeance. “Well, they picked the wrong fight,” says O’Grady. “We’ve been here before.”

In Worksop, people talk about their struggle for survival. “Almost one in four children gets free school meals. It’s improving,” says Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of NEU. “Children are getting hungrier and hungrier. They wear their school pants inside out to avoid the shame of holes in their knees.”

But the rally is also set to celebrate two recent union victories. When the B&Q warehouse on the old colliery site offered a below-inflation pay rise, Unite the Union set up a picket line right where the miners stood during the 1984-5 pit strike.

The new strikers were often mothers who dropped off their children in front of the school picket line, explains Pat McGrath, senior Unite representative. “There’s real need here,” says McGrath. “Our members tell us they have relied on food banks and are struggling to get fuel into their cars.”

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Local MP Brendan Clarke-Smith had suggested union members give up their subs if they were feeling down. But it turned out to be paid in a union.

B&Q had bid 4%. “In the end, the members won a 10.75% salary agreement,” says McGrath.

In her speech, O’Grady also paid tribute to Unite members at Riverside Bakery in Nottingham – pie and quiche makers who won a 7% pay rise after a labor dispute. “This is a city that I know stands up for their friends,” she tells the crowd.

This week, O’Grady appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, where she chose Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, among others. As tomorrow’s rally draws near, she seems more upbeat than I’ve ever seen her.

“The older I get, the more I’m like my Dublin grandfather,” she says of her grandfather, who was a founding member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. “I’m more impatient.”

She looks around the crowded clubhouse. “The government and boardrooms try to put people down so they lose faith,” says O’Grady. “But look at B&Q and the Riverside Bakery here. There’s more of us. You can’t take us all down. At the end of the day, that’s the point of joining a union.”

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