Tribune, 5 July 1991
What’s it like to be Britain’s first black trade union leader? Paul Anderson talks to Bill Morris, who has just been elected head honcho of the Transport and General Workers’ Union
“Coming in as a new general secretary, you have to have a sense of your priorities,” says Bill Morris, who last month won the election to take over from Ron Todd at the head of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Britain’s largest union.
Morris is in no doubt about the most urgent task facing him before he takes over from Todd in March 1992. “Priority number one is to unite the TGWU,” he says.
His battle for the general secretaryship against George Wright, the TGWU’s Welsh regional secretary, was one of the hardest-fought union elections in recent memory and, although Morris won clearly with 118,206 votes to Wright’s 83,059, the union remains divided as it meets for its biennial conference in Blackpool next week.
The next challenge is to do something about the TGWU’s finances. Since the Tories came to office in 1979, the TGWU’s membership has fallen by 40 per cent, from more than 2 million to just over 1,200,000. Last year, the union’s income of £54 million fell short of its expenditure by £12 million.
“It is essential that the union’s finances are brought within credible bounds,” Morris says. “We have a deficit, which was planned insofar as, when the first recession of the early eighties came, we took a very conscious decision that we would not pursue a policy of retrenchment, sacking officers and staff and closing premises, because it would give the wrong signals to the Labour movement. A lot of people – and not just TGWU members – rely on the union. We would have been letting all of them down if we had said we weren’t going to give any more voluntary support.
“Unfortunately, we did not see that the recession was going to last as long as it did and that we were going to have two recessions in a decade. Nor did we foresee that there would be a major shift from manufacturing into the service sector. We suffered from a double squeeze, a big shake-out where we were strong, while our organisation in the service sector was not well developed. We’ve spent the last five years repositioning the union to cope with this change.”
Morris has been closely associated with the “Link-Up” campaign to recruit part-time, casual and temporary workers, particularly women, which has been central to this re-positioning. Since the campaign started in 1985, TGWU recruitment has risen from 220,000 to 285,000 a year.
“But ‘Link-Up’ wasn’t simply a matter of recruiting a few temporary and part-time workers,” he says. “It was about giving trade unionism back to the exploited, the oppressed, those who need it most. It involved consolidating in our existing strongholds to take account of changes in the workplace, using modern methods to promote our values, and making structural changes in the union, for example to encourage women to get involved. There had to be a cultural revolution here so that, when we spoke, people knew that we meant it.”
Morris says he wants to build on the success of “Link-Up”. “We need to rebuild the union’s numerical strength. Along with robust recruiting and organising in the areas of the economy where we are already established, we need to pursue a strategy of mergers and joint ventures with other unions.
“The only criterion for mergers is the industrial logic of what we do,” he says. Among the prime candidates for merger is the National Union of Mineworkers, also meeting in Blackpool next week. “We have spoken to the miners,” says Morris. “Coal has to be at the heart of Britain’s future energy strategy. I want to see a balanced energy policy. We believe we can facilitate that process with a united energy organisation and yes, there is a home for the miners in the Transport and General Workers’ Union, ni be pursuing that vigorously.”
Transport is another area for possible mergers, he says, and there are plenty of other ways that the TGWU under his leadership will be open to co-operation, particularly Europe, on which, he says, no single union has the resources to operate effectively on its own.
“I see the Europeanisation of labour and capital and the monetary and political developments as key issues which have to be addressed by trade unions working together. It’s a big challenge, the Europeanisation of trade unionism, but we’ve got to pick it up.”
In the shorter term, Morris says, the main political challenge is closer to home: the election of a Labour government. He pledges full support for Labour’s campaign from his union. “We are not going to wake up the morning after a general election with a healthy political fund and John Major still in Number Ten Downing Street. We will put the political resources to work to ensure the election of a Labour government. The TGWU will be playing its usual special role in Labour’s campaign.”
Morris is keen on Labour’s plans for a statutory minimum wage and critical of the leaders of craft unions who have attacked it for eroding differentials. “We’re now convinced that there’s no good reason that the state should continue to subsidise bad employers who underpay their workers. That essentially is what is happening. People on low wages have to ask for income support handouts from the state. A statutory minimum wage is the way forward. But we’ve got to do more than make statements of intention. If the statutory minimum is going to work, it will need proper enforcement.
“Of course people have to be rewarded for skills and for effort but, if we are serious about tackling low pay, to denounce the minimum wage at this stage, almost on the basis of greed in some instances, doesn’t seem to me to be the best way of getting the debate going.”
He is similarly enthusiastic about Labour’s plans for trade union law reform. “We need a new framework of labour law,” he says. “What Labour has proposed so far is a major extension of rights. I’ve always been a supporter of the closed shop, but we are in a new ball game. The unions’ big problem today is riot maintaining the closed shop, it’s getting recognition. If I have to choose between a closed shop and statutory recognition, I’ll choose statutory recognition.”
Morris remains a firm opponent of incomes policy and rejects the idea that Labour’s proposed National Economic Assessment would effectively be one. “If the National Economic Assessment is about incomes policy then frankly the TGWU is not interested. I can’t put it any clearer than that. If it’s about informing bargaining, if it’s about looking to see how we can influence priorities, seeking to develop a whole new debate about creating economic prosperity, we want to be part of the process.”
“Whatever happens,” he says, “we will be right at the sharp end attempting to influence developments in the workplace. We will be very aggressive in maintaining living standards and in promoting training. We’ll be pushing very strongly for a diversification strategy for the defence industries and for infrastructural investment in the regions. And we do not accept that there is inevitability about unemployment. We must restore the goal of full employment.”
Morris is, of course, Britain’s first black trade union secretary and, according to the Financial Times, the most powerful black man in Britain. But he plays down the importance of his colour. “We live in a society where people are judged not by their personality or their character but by their colour, which I find abhorrent. Because I am black, I think I’m best placed – I won’t make any concession of modesty here – to understand the problems of racism and discrimination.
“But I said throughout my campaign that I was not the black candidate, I was a candidate who was black, and I was elected on my policies. My position is quite clear. I’m not a representative of the black community, I’m a professional trade unionist. My union of opportunity will be a union of opportunity for all. No favours, no privileges, just sheer merit.”