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Frances O’Grady: The UK needs the ambition of Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus plan

The Independent
The Independent
 2021-03-15

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The head of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, has called for a “ Biden boost” for Britain’s Covid-battered economy , along the lines of the US president’s ambitious $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus plan.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent to mark the anniversary of the job-protecting furlough scheme, which she played a key role in constructing, Ms O’Grady said: “We need the ambition of the US scheme but also the values.

“It’s not just morally right; it’s economically literate. If I’ve learned anything in life, if you give to the rich, they’ll hold on to the money. If you give to ordinary people, they’ll spend it and boost demand.”

Visibly frustrated, Ms O’Grady pointed out that, in proportion to GDP, the Biden package is three times the size of what the UK is spending on its recovery plan.

“Why can’t the government think big like the US, where the president is injecting real, hard cash into the pockets of working people?

“Not only was the budget unambitious, but so much was hidden in the small print, including cuts to public services, and it wasn’t long before the chancellor got headlines he didn’t want around NHS pay.”

She also hailed Mr Biden’s “backing for workers’ right to organise”, referring to the president’s recent support of Amazon workers in Alabama who have been trying to unionise in the face of opposition from management at the internet retail giant.

The US president wrote on Twitter: “Workers in Alabama – and all across America – are voting on whether to organise a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”

Mr Biden’s administration has several members who have close links to the American labour unions or have previously worked for them. This could yet complicate relations with the UK, given the British government’s less-than-friendly stance towards unions, and at a time when it is seeking US support over Northern Ireland in its battle over trading arrangements with the EU.

The TUC was notably snubbed when it was putting together its Build Back Better council, despite Ms O’Grady cultivating a productive working relationship with employers’ groups such as the CBI.

She recently participated in a video call with its new director general, Tony Danker.

Ms O’Grady said: “We are always ready to work constructively and I think we have proved that throughout this crisis. Whoever is in power, we want to be there, and the door is never closed. It’s just for others to open up.

“I believe in working people having a voice; that’s what unions are there to do. We have ideas, we have expertise, and we have real life experience. There is a lot of wisdom in the shop floor. Here was a chance for the government to recognise that.”

However, Ms O’Grady went back on the offensive when it came to NHS pay, describing the mooted 1 per cent rise as “an insult” and saying she was minded to “bang a couple of saucepans together” during the slow handclap that Unison planned for last Thursday.

“I’m not sure the government gets it, even though the vast majority of people get that it’s an insult. It’s not just about the money; it is what you’re saying about the value of the work people have done, people who every time they put on a uniform are putting their health and their lives at risk.

“How can you keep thanking people and then treat them in that way? To me, it’s astonishing. Is it because it’s a majority female workforce? Is it taken for granted that they will be dedicated and put their vocation first? We’re talking about a real-term pay cut on the basis of predicted inflation. They deserve a rise, and this is not just the nurses.

“The nurses I know will be the first to say, we’re a team, this is about all the staff as a whole.” Ms O’Grady said that should extend to workers in social care, who are typically employed by private companies and are paid what she describes as “peanuts”.

“Many of us are learning the true value of people who work in public services. This is something I think we are all beginning to understand. If anyone calls them unskilled… I think my blood pressure will go through the roof if I hear that again. These are skilled and dedicated workers who deserve recognition for their contribution.”

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