In June this year, Frances O’Grady spoke at an event at Manton Sports Club, on the site of the old Nottinghamshire colliery.
Her decade-long career as General Secretary of the TUC – from which she will shortly retire – has had her address meetings anywhere from the stage at Wembley Arena to the most remote of working men’s clubs.
In Manton, O’Grady was, as always, passionate, thoughtful, convincing – and took time to listen to individual members of the audience, arriving back in London late into the night.
Few at the event knew she had just lost her beloved sister, Kathleen.
Even at a time of deep personal pain, she says her family obligations included being true to the O’Gradys’ long roots in the trade union movement. Bereavement only served to remind her where she had come from more than ever.
“It taught me life is short,” she says. “You have an obligation never to forget your roots.”
Speaking at her London office, which overlooks a statue of a bereaved mother, it’s clear the struggle for O’Grady has always been deeply personal. Private loss only makes it more so.
“Solidarity is emotional,” she says.
The first woman to lead the TUC is descended from a long line of trade unionists.
Her Dubliner grandfather and great-grandfather were founder members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and her dad a shop steward at the Cowley car plant in Oxford. His daughter has never forgotten the sacrifices her family made during strike action, or her older brother’s experience as a miner in the 1980s.
“It wasn’t always easy growing up,” she says. “My dad was out of work at one time after a serious accident, and when we were on strike there was no money coming in. My brother made huge sacrifices. So it’s emotional when you know we’re in one of those times again.
“Working people are in the fight of our lives. Rishi Sunak is bringing back austerity with real pay cuts.
“We are facing an unprecedented assault on living standards. Yet shareholders’ dividends have gone up three times faster than wages. They’ve had a pandemic bonanza. All we’ve got is each other. So, we have to look after each other with caring and compassion.”
There are few parables more telling than that of Michelle Mone, the Tory baroness who is alleged to have secretly received £29million profits from PPE contracts.
“During the pandemic we clapped for key workers – but now a million of their children are in poverty,” she says. “And there’s Lady Mone swanning around profiting out of people’s misery.”
Meanwhile, the man in charge of the PPE contracts has been grinning away on a reality show in Australia.
“ Matt Hancock may have gone into the jungle seeking forgiveness, but some of us won’t forget,” O’Grady says.
“We won’t forget who those contracts went to. It’s disgusting. I would rather have seen a kangaroo consuming parts of Matt Hancock.”
O’Grady spent the pandemic arguing for and co-designing a ready-made furlough scheme for workers. One unexpected career moment saw her standing on the steps of 11 Downing Street with then-Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak, presenting it to the public.
“Unions have good ideas, and this idea saved millions of jobs,” she says. “It wasn’t perfect but it turned out to be one of the best schemes in Europe.”
After 10 years as arguably Britain’s most influential trade unionist, O’Grady steps down at year’s end. In January, she begins a new challenge as a Labour peer in the House of Lords.
Her recent Desert Island Discs choices revealed her to be a soul rebel at heart, and she says the decision to join the Lords was “a dilemma”.
“I’m not one for pomp and ceremony,” she says. “And I’m an ex-Catholic so of course I feel constantly guilty. But the timing is important. This Government’s threats to working people’s right to withdraw their labour are very real. There is a short-term urgency to blunt the attack.”
She will wear fake fur for her investiture and flat shoes “as I always have a fear of tripping over”. She laughs: “Luckily, I think you only have to dress up like Henry VIII the once.”
When O’Grady became General Secretary, trade unions were struggling for relevance. She leaves with the movement fighting fit, as she hands over to friend Paul Nowak.
“There’s a lot of life in the trade union movement right now,” she says. “We’ve seen some big wins – the Liverpool dockers, the bus workers, BT. It’s a nonsense that the country can’t afford to protect people against real wage cuts.”
Over the years, she has earned respect even from her enemies for her composed, no-nonsense style. “My family certainly wouldn’t recognise the idea of me as unemotional,” she laughs. “I do get nervous, and I do panic. But I try to think my views and the views of people from ordinary backgrounds are worth just as much as anyone else’s.
“I feel this incredible pride to have worked for the trade union movement. We are not perfect, and we don’t get everything right. But we are the essence of a decent society. We earn our membership.”
Modest to a fault, O’Grady says her epitaph would be, “She kept the show on the road”.
She adds: “Given we’ve had 12 years of the Tories attacking us relentlessly, it’s actually an achievement.”