A workers’ man

As partnerships between employers and employees become increasingly important, T&G leader Bill Morris sees scope for a union renaissance. Arlene Foster reports

Bill Morris, general secretary of British industry’s biggest union, the Transport & General Workers (T&G), says his entry into industrial relations in 1963 was entirely accidental.

Born in Jamaica in 1938, Morris followed his parents to Birmingham in 1954. His first job was with local engineering firm Hardy Spicer, now part of GKN, where he studied engineering skills on day release at Handsworth college, and joined the T&G union.

`Originally, I had aspirations of making my way up the managerial ladder,’ he says. But fate had other ideas. In the absence of the firm’s shop steward, Morris led a deputation to ask for protective clothing for some workers. When the shop steward returned, he decided to relinquish his duties and Morris was put forward for the job by his colleagues.

`I was very reluctant but decided to give it a go for a short time.’ A firm believer in honouring one’s responsibilities, Morris has certainly stuck to his task, and has been at the forefront of protecting workers’ rights ever since.

Appointed a full-time officer of the T&G in 1973, he has held many positions within the union, as well as being a member of the TUC general council and its executive committee. He has served on external national bodies including the General Advisory Boards of the BBC and IBA. For 10 years he was a member of the Commission for Racial Equality and a member of the Prince of Wales Youth Business Trust. In 1986 he became deputy general secretary of the T&G. He took up the leadership in 1992 on the retirement of Ron Todd, and was re-elected in June 1995.

Since the 1970s union membership in Britain has fallen from around 12.5m to about 7m but Morris is confident that the T&G has come out of Mrs Thatcher’s union-busting years leaner and fitter.

`During the 1980s our membership faced a double squeeze,’ says Morris. `Loss in our traditional area of manufacturing and a failure to take advantage of the growth in information technology and service sectors because we didn’t fully understand the culture.’ The Thatcher years were not entirely wasted, he says. They enabled the union to learn many useful lessons.

`We’ve improved communication within the union and with employers, streamlined our internal operations and improved the democratic process within our membership.’ As with other unions, the T&G has reassessed its role and devised new services to attract members. This includes a 24-hour helpline which is even open on Christmas Day.

`The real achievement is that despite all of the changes and a government that was overtly hostile to the principles of trade unionism, we’re still here. We’re still bargaining and a force to be reckoned with industrially and politically.’

In the future, the T&G looks set to become an even bigger force through collaborations or mergers with other unions. Indeed, the T&G has its origins through the merger of 17 different unions and has recently been linked as a possible partner for the GMB. Morris does not rule out a merger with any union where there is suitable industrial logic.

`Such a merger would unleash a new force in British industry with joint resources to develop our recruitment. We have to eliminate the competitive element among unions to make a serious impact on the workplace environment.’ Increasing the money spent on recruitment is one of Morris’ prime objectives for the future, and one which, he says, will increase membership.

Partnership has also become a key issue between unions and employers in seeking better industrial relations. To Morris this means ensuring that improvements in productivity are matched with job security.

The T&G and GMB recently signed a ground-breaking five-year deal with cement producer Blue Circle which guarantees job security in return for pay restraint and flexible working practices. Such deals will become more common in the future, says Morris.

`We have to break out of the short-termism that shows up throughout British industry, from investment to training. Our new agreement gives us a lead in ensuring that productivity and job security go hand-in-hand.’ Nor does he believe that pay will become secondary to job security as a result of such deals. `If you improve productivity, profitability also rises, bringing better conditions and job security.’

But there was little evidence of partnership when Ford decided to stop Escort production at Halewood by 2000, with the loss of 1,300 jobs – most of which are held by T&G members. Morris contends that with overcapacity in Europe, a plant closure was no surprise. `Where we took issue with Ford was that a European problem manifested itself by way of a solution in Britain.’

In subsequent negotiations with Ford and unions, redundancies were scaled back to 980 and the future of Halewood assured after 2000.

No doubt the threat from the T&G of a ballot on industrial action had some influence. Morris had contacted his bankers about accessing the £30m worth of funds the union has to support its workers during industrial action. And although he believes that Government should be the scene-setter for economic and industrial growth, he was no doubt relieved that the present Government offered unspecified subsidies to Ford to keep Halewood open.

Building alliances with more progressive employers may be easier however. Such an employer he defines in simple terms as one that works with its employees to solve problems. Morris believes that employers in Britain have some way to go, particularly in meeting social obligations to the community in which they operate. He cites the example of Chrysler in the US which, as part of its social responsibility, trains staff facing redundancy in other skills and professions.

A much travelled union leader, Morris has good relations with the automotive unions in the US and is always keen to learn from the experience of unions in different countries. He hit upon the idea for minimum standards at work, covering workers’ rights on such matters as redundancy, pensions, and health and safety, after visiting Scandinavia. It became a central plank on which he led his re-election campaign. What proved a vote winner for Morris has had far reaching consequences, being taken up by the TUC, the Labour Party and on a global scale by the International Labour Organisation.

Morris sees core standards as a new way to break down barriers to change in working practices. `I do not believe that people have an in-built resistance to change but rather to the consequences of change. Building in a framework of minimum standards provides the way for cooperation and improved productivity.’

As a member of the European Commission economic and social affairs committee, Morris is pro-European. He shares the view recently expressed by the chief of Toyota that Britain’s membership of the single currency is vital in securing future jobs. `I can think of no other issue that is of such importance than the single currency. We have three trading blocks in the world today. We’ve lost our Commonwealth market and the only long-term solution for Britain’s economic development is in Europe.’

Relations between unions and Labour is another area that has undergone profound change over the past two decades. Morris insists that the T&G is today an independent organisation.

`I fought and won my campaign for office on the basis of preserving this independence. We do not see ourselves as being in power when Labour is in government or out of power when the Tories are in.’ He reciprocates Tony Blair’s stance on this issue: `We will ask no favours and will offer no favours. It’s fairness not favours we’re after.’ But there’s little disguising the fact that a Labour government offers the best way forward for the union movement.

`The political climate will change,’ says Morris. `Labour is committed to a minimum wage and the social chapter, and we believe that workers’ rights and job security are the critical issues that Labour will address.’

Looking to the future, Morris believes that trade unionism is on the verge of a renaissance in the UK. `Having learned the hard lessons of the past, we’re now standing at the summit, ready for the new challenges.’ These will be on an international scale – globalisation of manufacturing, the rapid development of information technology, fragmentation of the labour market and the evolution of Europe.

`All are major forces which will impact on how unions work just as much as Government policy.’