FROM a shop steward’s daughter sitting cross-legged at Cowley’s British Leyland plant, to becoming one of the most powerful women in the country, Frances O’Grady’s rise has been spectacular.
The Oxford-born 53-year-old became the first female general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) this year.
She said her appointment, where she has been deputy general secretary since 2003, was “an incredible honour”.
The daughter of British Leyland worker Jim O’Grady, she grew up on Oxford’s Wood Farm estate.
She said: “I’ve got happy memories of Wood Farm, especially my little school [Wood Farm Junior School]. There were so many big families.
“I remember things like going down Cuckoo Lane to watch Oxford United play, and swimming in the rivers.”
The Cowley car plant – plagued by industrial disputes in the 1970s and 1980s – played a big part in her family’s life.
She said: “There was a social club up there and, despite all the troubles at Cowley, one of my fond memories was that all the kids of the workers would go up, sit cross-legged and watch films and be given a Mars bar and an ice cream.
“It was this great event that everybody looked forward to.”
As a teenager in the 1970s she worked at Paris’s Newsagent, in Headington, Marks & Spencer in the city centre, and Oxford University’s Somerville College.
It was during that short-lived job serving Oxford dons that she became aware of the city’s ‘Town and Gown’ divide.
It was a job that quickly came to an end, she admits, after she placed a very hot plate on the shoulder of a guest while listening in to conversations.
She added: “There was a really sharp contrast between North and South. I would say it was sharper than it is now.”
The car industry’s woes were often blamed on poor relationships between bosses and unions, but Mrs O’Grady said owners failed to adapt to the times.
She said: “There was a lack of development of new products and quality standards which was a major problem for the British car industry at the time.
“I remember one of the pamphlets I’d kept was arguing that the company needed to invest in hybrid and electric cars, arguing that Japan had already built prototypes.
“If only the industry had listened to its workers back then, Britain would be a market leader in green cars.”
She worked for the Transport and General Workers’ Union and started with the TUC as campaigns secretary in 1994.
Trade unionism was definitely in Ms O’Grady’s blood – grand-father Eddie Hamilton was in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.
But she said: “We can’t rely on trade unions being handed down the generations.
“There are large numbers of young people who have never been in a union and unions need to change and encourage people to join.”