UNIONS have a major role to play in the workplace and society of the 21st century, according to a top official.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, returned to her native Oxford yesterday to visit the Cowley Mini plant where her father, James, had been a shop steward, and to address students and staff at Ruskin College in Headington.

Ms O’Grady, 54, was full of praise for the state-of-the-art factory and its workforce.

She said its success lay in a strong relationship between management and the Unite union, which contrasted to the time of industrial strife in the 1970s when her father worked at the plant.

She said: “It shows what a difference it makes that you have a company willing to work with the union and that is putting its money where its mouth is. It is a promise for the future to work together in a much more constructive way.”

Ms O’Grady said she was “blown away” by the hi-tech robotics involved in manufacturing the Mini and highly impressed by the plant’s thriving apprenticeship scheme, particularly involving women at all levels from administrators to the production line.

“It is great to see such a commitment,” she added.

The former Wood Farm Primary and Milham Ford School pupil believes that although the world of work has “changed massively,” modern unions are as important as ever.

She said: “People want to have more say and control over their working lives against the rise of issues such as zero hours contracts and agency working.

“They need a union even more. The values of working people looking after each other, having safe working conditions, fair pay and a decent amount of time off.

“If you treat people well and fairly then there is more chance of them doing a better job. The most successful economies are those where unions are strong.”

Ms O’Grady admits union membership has taken “a big hit” in recent years and sees one of her key tasks as rebuilding membership and encouraging bosses and members to work together for the greater good.

She said the Mini plant is a good example of such collaboration, adding: “It is in the DNA of BMW – the majority of people belong to the union.”

But she sees her mission as being to help workers who may not have had the opportunity of belonging to a union.

“Every worker, including cleaners and support staff, should earn a living wage.

“There are too many people on the minimum wage. I have been shocked by the house prices in Oxford.

“The economy is recovering but we know that working families are £40-a-week worse off than before the financial crash.”

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