Frances O’Grady: Trade unions are ready to face the challenges of Brexit

The TUC head reflects on the road ahead as Congress 2016 kicks off in Brighton

Frances O'Grady, TUC General Secretary.

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This week Trade Unionists from around the country will gather in Brighton for the annual TUC Congress. The big themes are: securing the best possible deal for working people outside the EU, responding to the Trade Union Act robustly and supporting Britain’s young core workers.

In all walks of life, the disruption and uncertainty sparked by the vote to leave the EU is still palpable. Trade unionists took a variety of positions about the referendum – but all of them were united by advocating what they thought was best for working people, and for the sectors they work in.

The TUC believed that the best option for working people was a Remain vote. Now the British people have spoken, the task is to win the best possible deal for working people outside the EU. We must put rights at work, good jobs and investment and great public services at the heart of a new settlement.

The majority Conservative government presents a huge risk for our members, and for all working people; we can’t trust them to put workers’ needs front and centre in the international negotiations or domestic legislation to follow.

At the heart of our Congress this year is a series of debates exploring what a good Brexit looks like for working people.

Responding to the Trade Union Act

This time last year we were facing an attack from the government on our ability to organise and represent our members – including the fundamental right to strike.

As we come together this year, the Trade Union Act has passed – but not unamended. This movement pulled together tremendously, and reached out to new and unusual allies.

The government had to fight for their legislation, and we won crucial amendments. Together we stood up for the foundations of our movement: the power, as a last resort, to withdraw your labour, when your boss won’t talk and won’t negotiate.

I am proud of the campaign this movement ran – and it made the difference.

However, we did not win everything we wanted. Our fight continues as the government releases the fine print. This autumn they will also consult on allowing unions to ballot online – an essential mechanism for us to deal with the new double thresholds.

We will take the opportunity at Congress to discuss together in depth how the movement will respond to the Trade Union Act.

Jobs, Rights, Investment

Our theme for Congress this year is ‘jobs, rights, investment’. We want to see great jobs for everyone and will get it by building a stronger, fairer economy together.

Our campaigning focus over the coming year is ‘building back stronger’. This exemplifies our response to tough times and being under attack: to grow bigger and stronger, and win even more for working people.

One group most in need of help from the Trade Union movement is Britain’s young core workers. They face a double challenge: being more likely to be in insecure, low paid jobs — and less likely to have contact with a trade union who can help them fight for a fair wage.

This Congress, we are launching a new campaign to reach out to these workers and improve their experience at work.

This week we are putting the everyday concerns of working people front and centre. I’m sure the debates and discussions we have will showcase the diversity, vibrancy and relevance of our trade union movement.

In times like this, the UK needs a strong, united union movement more than ever. The road ahead will be hard, but this Congress will be living proof that we are ready for the challenge.

Frances O’ Grady is General Secretary of the TUC.

Left Foot Forward will be reporting from Trades Union Congress 2016 over the coming days.

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