Inspiring leaders: Frances O’Grady

The first woman to lead the General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) Frances O’Grady shares her journey in fighting for equal opportunities

I grew up in Oxford, the youngest of five children from a working-class family. My mum, a true Dublin North-sider, ended her working life in the NHS – and loved it. My dad worked on the production line and was a shop steward at the British Leyland car plant in Cowley. My own experience as a union activist was that most people just want a fair hearing – and a fair resolution to problems they face. Whether on the shop floor or at the top of the TUC, union leaders need to give people hope with a clear vision and strategy. And show them that, if we act collectively, we can change things for the better.

One of my first jobs was a part-time one, working as a kitchen assistant Oxford college when I was 17. The spell I spent on silver service was a bit of an eye-opener! It didn’t take long to work out that the students weren’t necessarily cleverer than my friends, just (for the most part) richer. It was like two different worlds back then – ‘town’ and ‘gown’. As well as the University, we had that hub of working class intellectualism, Ruskin College. There was even a strike at the Randolph Hotel. All in all, Oxford in the 1970s was a lively melting-pot of ideas and activism, and I learned a lot from that.

“There were days when being a mum and holding down a job felt like mission impossible”

I’m proud of what the union movement has achieved and how we’re changing – union membership is now 50:50 men and women. Becoming the first female General Secretary of the TUC back in 2013 felt like a great honour. I’ve dedicated much of my working life to equality – on campaigns for the introduction of a national minimum wage, for equal pay for women and for equal rights for part-timers. But there’s a lot more to do. I want to see more people – especially young people in the so-called ‘gig economy’ – joining unions and having a much bigger voice in the workplace. Too many don’t know their rights and end up getting shafted. I’d like to see an economy that genuinely works for everyone, with great jobs and decent pay, and a fairer and more equal society.

I’ve lived in North London for most of my adult life – so obviously there’s only one football team I could support, Arsenal! And last year I became a patron of Just A Ball Game. There should be no room for hate and homophobia in what is ‘the beautiful game’ or anywhere else. Together, we’ve made a lot of progress but there’s still a long way to go before everyone is treated with the dignity and respect we all have the right to expect.

My advice to anyone – whether they’re just starting out in their career or if they’ve been in the same job for 30 years – is to join a union. As well as winning better pay and conditions, it’s a great way to network, build your confidence and learn new skills. Treat others as you want to be treated, don’t ask of people what you’re not prepared to give yourself, and always try to think one step ahead. Finally, if it’s any comfort, I never had a ‘career plan’, I made loads of mistakes along the way and there were days when being a mum and holding down a job felt like mission impossible. The big breakthrough for me was finding a job that I really loved and working for people who encouraged me to do my best. I’m a great believer in the idea that if you find the right environment for you, all of us can shine.