Frances O’Grady to stand down as TUC leader at end of year

The Guardian
The Guardian
Frances O'Grady wears a red top Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Frances O’Grady will stand down as general secretary of the Trades Union Congress at the end of the year.

The first woman to hold the post in the TUC’s 154-year-old history, she said it had been the greatest honour of her life to serve the trade union movement during a turbulent decade for workers.

The leader of the UK union movement’s umbrella group since January 2013, O’Grady played an instrumental role early in the Covid pandemic working alongside Carolyn Fairbairn, then head of the CBI, the business lobby group, in drawing up the furlough scheme with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

Her departure comes after one of the most challenging periods in modern history for workers, with years of austerity-driven cuts for public sector staff and stagnating pay and a rise in precarious work across the economy.

Highly respected for her work fighting for workers’ rights in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and during the Covid pandemic, O’Grady is regarded as having boosted the campaigning profile of the TUC during her time in charge, particularly on issues affecting women and insecure workers amid the boom in the gig economy.

“Unions are a force for good in British society. I am proud of what we achieved during the pandemic – from securing furlough to keeping people safe at work, championing equality and keeping vital services running,” she said. “I’m proud of the work we do every day protecting workers’ jobs, pay, rights and working conditions.”

Her planned departure comes as rates of union membership rise steadily for the first time in decades amid heightened economic unrest, driven by an increase in women joining trade unions. The number of trade unionists has climbed to 6.6 million from a low of 6.2 million around 2017. It is, however, only half of the peak level of 13.2 million reached in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.

O’Grady said: “The last decade has been turbulent, with three general elections, two anti-trade union bills, an EU referendum and a pandemic to contend with. But on every occasion unions have risen to the challenge and fought for working people.”

As part of the search for her successor each affiliated union can name a candidate before the closing date for nominations on 11 July. If more than one is nominated, an election will be held at the TUC’s annual congress this autumn with each union’s vote being cast based on its total membership.

Each of the TUC’s last three general secretaries had been the organisation’s deputy prior to their election, including O’Grady, while each ran for the job unopposed after securing enough support from affiliated unions. O’Grady’s deputy is Paul Nowak, a trade unionist from Birkenhead on the Wirral.

Nowak, 49, became deputy general secretary in 2016, having joined the organisation in 2000 after holding jobs as a call centre operator, hotel porter and bus information officer. He first become a union member aged 17 while working part-time at Asda.

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The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, led tributes to O’Grady’s tenure at the TUC, saying she had been a “great champion for working people all her life”, adding that her decision to retire was a “huge loss” for the organisation.

“I’ll always be grateful for her support and friendship. On behalf of @UKLabour thank you for your incredible contribution to public life and best wishes for the future,” he tweeted.

O’Grady was elected general secretary in December 2012, and formally took up the position in January 2013 when her predecessor Brendan Barber retired. She has served on a number of public bodies and commissions – including the Low Pay and the High Pay Commissions – and been a been a member of the Court of the Bank of England since 2019.

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