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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:10 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 2:10 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Jordan for promoting this debate and for the powerful introduction which he gave to it. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken because we have covered a wide range of topics today, not just the ILO but British society, its trade unions and the future.

I was very grateful to be reminded of Lord Brett and the great contribution he made to the trade union movement in the UK and, in particular, on the international organisation front. My noble friend Lady Symons and I introduced Lord Brett to the House; he is a great loss to us. I know the Minister was a neighbour of Lord Brett in the north-west and that they had an association. I congratulate the ILO and all those who have worked for more than a century to make it an effective organisation.

I want to express my thanks to the House of Lords Library for a very comprehensive briefing. If there is any weakness in it, it might be in the area which has just been picked up by my noble friend Lord Parekh and which was spoken to earlier by my noble friend Lord Murphy. The trade union movement is not simply about working to protect its members’ wages and prospects and to keep them secure. It has made a much wider contribution over the past two centuries.

In Westminster Hall, there is a worthwhile exhibition on the Peterloo massacre and the fight for greater democracy in this country. It was led by many workers—by women, but mainly by men—who became leaders of the workers and formed the British trade union movement going back over 200 years. Many of them were killed fighting for democratic rights. There is a long history there that we should not ignore.

Even today, although the movement is not on the scale that it was, it still makes a significant wider contribution to the fabric of our democratic society, not simply at national level but at regional level, and particularly at local level where trade unionists discharge a host of different functions in communities which go beyond their immediate activities in the workplace. That continues and needs to be encouraged; without it, our society will be weaker.

At international level, the ILO is perhaps perceived as being not quite as strong as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, some countries made efforts to undermine its functions when they felt that it was not responding to particular national interests. If we look at what is happening in the world, it can be argued—as the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, did—that we need stronger international organisations than we currently have. As identified by other speakers, we see the power of multinational corporations and companies, especially in the digital field; many of these companies have gross earnings higher than those of nation states, and they are much less accountable. They need to be called to account. The ILO is one body that can, wherever possible, exercise efforts to try to do that; we should give it our full support.

Regrettably, as we see the growth of nationalism, there appears to be little appetite for such initiatives, for new international organisations or for international co-operation; but we need it. I anticipate that, as night follows day, the pendulum will swing the other way—I am mixing my metaphors now—and we will see pressure start to grow for unaccountable bodies that exercise such influence to have their overbearing and abusive approaches in certain areas brought to an end. They have been given far too much freedom; for the good of us all, that has to be limited.

There are some healthy signs that grass-roots movements are starting to respond and grow. My noble friend Lord Adonis referred to some of the grass-roots movements within the trade union movement. I have been told that the big industrial relations and employment rights campaigns are often advanced by the grass-roots trade unions that have developed over the last five to eight years. The Uber test case on workers’ status and the case on the rights of Deliveroo riders to seek recognition for collective bargaining have been co-ordinated by a union of just 5,000 members. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, mentioned also by my noble friend, began as the cleaners’ branch of UNISON at the University of London. It remains in dispute with the university, calling for its security guards, cleaning and catering members to be brought in-house. United Voices of the World is a union of just 2,500 migrant cleaners and hospitality workers. The growth of these small, grass-roots trade unions should be supported by the trade union movement; they should not be “put in their place” in the way that we in the movement have been apt to do. They should be encouraged.

What are they doing? They are embracing the digital opportunities available to them. I share the view of others who have spoken, particularly my noble friend Lord Whitty, that much more has to be done by the trade union movement to embrace the opportunities of IT. Artificial intelligence and other technological changes present big, new challenges to employers and jobs, but they also present opportunities. The trade unions must try to move these to their workers’ advantage, for recruiting, training, communicating with and involving workers in better controlling their lives, so that together we can reduce the inequalities that we see in our society. In particular, we need to raise low-paid workers out of in-work poverty, which is a modern scourge and the source of so much discontent in UK workplaces.

If Brexit exacerbates this—we hear all the talk of moving, as some want, to a Singapore-style economy—do not be surprised if the anger around us becomes uncontrolled and we start to see reactions that none of us would wish to encounter. There are concerns here that have to be worked through. I conclude by congratulating the ILO on its last century of work and looking forward to another century of that work.