Lords Diary: Baroness O'Grady
London, 16 January 2023: Protestors demonstrate in Whitehall as the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill receives its second reading | Alamy
4 min read
My first week in the Lords after standing down as TUC general secretary
It’s great to hear peers of every stripe praise the superb professionalism of House of Lords staff. And to know that so many of those brilliant staff are proud trade unionists. Jim [Lord] Knight kindly offers Labour Lords’ new starters a tour of Parliament. I sign up, needing all the help I can get to navigate the maze that is the Palace of Westminster. We end at the broom cupboard where suffragette Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census, so she could truthfully register her address as the House of Commons. The long campaign to win genuinely universal suffrage is an inspiring reminder that our model of parliamentary democracy isn’t set in stone. It can be changed – and for the better.
The following week I travel to the Museum of Free Derry to speak at an event on the future of trade unions. The city is synonymous with the campaign for civil rights, and for workplace justice. At the meeting I hear all too familiar stories of sky-high household bills and shrinking pay packets. Many argue for profit – not wage – restraint, and that the wealthy should pay a fairer share of tax. Health staff tell us they are striking to save the NHS. Unless ministers put more money on the table and negotiate, staff vacancies will grow which means waiting lists soar. I am left in no doubt that working people – once deemed pandemic heroes – have reached the end of their tether.
I’m reading the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) – or, as some dub it, the “sack striking nurses” – Bill. Ministers say they need more powers to set minimum service levels (MSLs), sue unions and dismiss staff who refuse to comply. Peers will take a more considered view. Where safety is at risk, unions already voluntarily negotiate “life and limb” staff cover agreements, and it would be unwise to squander that goodwill. Ministers cite other European countries that operate MSLs. But on closer examination, they do so through negotiated agreement – not imposition. Here in Britain, another round of anti-union laws would only serve to poison industrial relations. I hope peers across the House will see that this legislation is unfair, unworkable and, almost certainly in breach of international law.
Working people have reached the end of their tether
For all the focus on strikes, they are just the symptom of a problem – not the cause. The root cause is that too often hard work doesn’t pay. Rejecting a 50p an hour pay “rise”, GMB members at Amazon took strike action for the first time. They want more than better pay. They demand dignity and a voice at work. In 1889, at the request of the dockers’ union, Cardinal [Henry] Manning famously helped bring reluctant employers to the bargaining table. I’m wondering if a modern-day Cardinal Manning (albeit of a different denomination) could emerge from the red benches.
I am also working on my maiden speech, which I hope to make during the second reading debate on the Retained EU Law Bill. From better paid maternity leave to safe limits on working hours, important rights that we take for granted are derived from EU law. Now more than ever, the government should be focused on boosting fair trade and investment for greener growth. The UK-EU trade treaty enshrines International Labour Organisation conventions on rights at work, to help guarantee a level playing field. Any suggestion that fundamental rights could be ripped up or watered down, undercutting our nearest neighbour and most important trading partner, would be a massive own goal.
Weekends are filled with trepidation. My football club, Arsenal, currently tops the league and, to stay there, every game counts. Gunners have learned the hard way never to take success for granted. But hope springs eternal. As the coach, players and fans unite, victory is surely within our grasp.
Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway is a Labour Peer
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