Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, the body representing over 5.5 million workers across 52 unions. Frances has been an active trade unionist for a number of years, previously working for the Transport and General Workers' Union where she successfully campaigned for the introduction of a national minimum wage and equal pay for women.
What do you think makes a great board?
A great board knows that focusing on the company’s long-term core purpose – making great products or services – is the best way to look after the bottom line. It aims to be a market leader, both in what it makes and how it makes it. That means having great relationships with the workforce, customers and community. And it means having a proper plan for investing in R&D and skills training to spark innovation. Expanding market share is best achieved through organic growth rather than massaging share price.
Why should there be employee representatives on company boards?
No one has a greater interest in the long-term success of a company than the workers whose livelihoods depend on it. Having employees on company boards brings the workforce perspective into the heart of boardroom decision making and helps companies to prioritise long-term, organic growth over short-term financial engineering.
Workers bring in depth knowledge of the company and the environment in which it operates, making them well placed to contribute to strategic and operational decisions. And of course, they can help the board to value and manage the company’s most important asset – its workforce.
If you could introduce one government policy to support British enterprise, what would it be?
No surprises here! It would be to have worker representation on company boards. In much of Continental Europe, worker representation is mainstream and a valued part of the corporate governance system, so why not here? Countries with high levels of worker representation enjoy more R&D investment, higher employment rates and lower levels of poverty and inequality. The results speak for themselves.
The TUC is making the case for worker representatives to comprise one third of the board, with a minimum of two workers per board to make sure they have a strong voice and can contribute effectively. This could be introduced in stages with the largest companies first, as was the case with pensions auto-enrolment. But this doesn’t have to wait for a change in the law. There’s nothing to stop far-sighted firms making the change now.
What is the best career decision you've made or been part of making?
Joining a union. I’m also proud of the TUC launching Unionlearn, our training and education arm. Whether it’s learning how to improve your writing or maths, doing an apprenticeship or taking a business degree, Unionlearn provides practical support for nearly a quarter of million workers each year. We value what learning can do for self-esteem and we work with some great companies who know that empowering workers is good for business too.
What’s your view on Europe: in or out?
There’s a lot at stake for workers – not least investment, good manufacturing jobs and rights at work. But the Brexit campaign has failed to answer what would happen to those rights derived from the EU – paid holidays, maternity rights, equality for agency and part-time workers – if Britain leaves. And the Remain campaign needs to do more to convince ordinary people that it understands the fear of the undercutting of pay that free movement can bring.
The UK is facing some big challenges that we can’t solve alone, so what the TUC wants is EU reform, just not in the way that others do. We want an EU fit for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Security isn’t just about threats from abroad; it’s also about having the chance of a steady job, a predictable income and a good home so you can raise a family. We’re setting out what we think the threats of a Brexit are. But we’re also campaigning for a Europe that knows the only real and lasting answer to insecurity, whether for families or countries, is solidarity and fairness.
What book is on your bedside table?
Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty. I’m busy opposing the government’s draconian Trade Union Bill, so these humane and thoughtful short stories don’t only help me get to sleep, but also provide an antidote to what I deal with in my day job.
What is your golden rule?
Onwards and upwards.
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