1991 Interview with Bill Morris

“William Manuel Morris, Baron Morris of Handsworth, OJ, DL (born 19 October 1938), generally known as Bill Morris, is a former British trade union leader. He was General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union from 1992 to 2003, and the first black leader of a major British trade union.
“Morris sits in the House of Lords, taking the Labour Party whip.”[A]

Rights and Responsibilities, Challenges and Opportunities

Bill Morris, General-Secretary-elect of the T&GWU, Britain’s largest union, talks to Labour & Trade Union Review about his vision of the agenda for Trade Unionism in the 1990s

L&TUR: We would first of all like to congratulate you on your election as General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, and to ask you what were the distinctive policies promoted by you which led to your becoming General Secretary?4 TGWU

Morris: Thank you for the very kind congratulations from your magazine. In terms of policies, I took the view that we had to sketch out an approach which would be our response to Thatcherism, and that it was also of great importance that we maintain the history, tradition and culture of the T&GWU. I said in the campaign that we must get back to some basic principles. We must put the T&G members first, and build a model of a strong industrial union that is nevertheless alive to change, using modem methods but maintaining its traditional values. We need a union which is absolutely determined to maintain its industrial independence, and one which creates opportunity for all through fairness for all. That was the framework within which my election campaign was fought. I sketched out a whole range of policies on equality, on industry, on ensuring that the members’ rights were protected by a members’ charter and on seeking to develop and maintain the long-established traditions of a lay members’ union.

L&TUR: What is your own priority now? What is the first thing you want to see done?

Morris: I have four priorities. The first is to recognise that the election campaign was robustly fought, and to set about what I call the healing process and the rebuilding of unity. My view is that the T &G is a broad church, and I want to see the skills and talents of all our members (including members of staff as well as actual lay members) brought together in a common sense of purpose. Unity and the reconstruction of unity is therefore my first purpose. The second priority is to ensure that the union’s affairs are managed within the financial constraints imposed by the members’ contribution income. The third priority is to ensure that we rebuild again the numerical strength of our union through organising, recruiting and

campaigning, as well as pursuing a very vigorous strategy on merger and amalgamation. My fourth priority is to commit the union to work for the return of a Labour government. Those are the immediate things that I want to be doing, and have already made a start on doing.

L&TUR: One of the priorities you mentioned was the vigorous strategy on mergers. One that particularly interests us is the proposal to merge the T &G with the NUM. Do you have any plan for bringing the UDM and the NUM together before that should happen?

[The ‘UDM’ was the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, formed in opposition to Scargill’s bungled Coal Strike of 1984-5.  It dwindled after Thatcher allowed most of its mines to close, and there have been financial scandals.[B]]

Morris: There is no chance of the NUM and UDM coming together beforehand. The UDM is a breakaway organisation, and I have no role to play in talking to a breakaway organisation. It is a matter for those two organisations to sort themselves out. I have no specific plans or strategy for the NUM, in particular. What I have got is a strategy for mergers, including the NUM, and it is based on industrial logic: a complementary logic to ensure that the organisational interests of the T&G, the interests of the industry and the interests of the workers are all provided for. In my view, it is absolutely crucial that there is a merger between the T &G and the NUM. It will create what I call a safe haven for the decent men and women in the mining fraternity in the Nottingham coalfield to come back home to where they rightly belong.

I start from the position of looking at Britain’s energy needs. We cannot revive our manufacturing base unless we have a sound, clear strategy for energy into the year 2000 and beyond. So far, our energy policy has been based on cheap Arab oil, and we need tanks and guns to enforce it, as we have seen in the Gulf. That is no part of a T &G strategy, and as far as I am concerned it is immoral anyway. It means, therefore, using our existing resources at home, particularly renewable capacity. I want to see a balanced energy policy. My balanced energy policy would be coal-led, with gas, oil and the 17% nuclear capacity that we have at the moment. I want to see the political case for coal articulated. We are importing coal from South Africa, Colombia, Australia, China, Poland – everywhere but from the North East, Scotland, Wales and the North West. We have to break that, and the T &G is well placed to lead that debate.

The political parties, including the Labour Party, have been very silent on where they stand on coal. Very little debate takes place these days in the General Council of the TUC on the Plan for Coal, except in the Energy Committee. So I believe that the miners need the T &G and the T &G need the miners, and that is my strategy: industrial logic, not political prejudice.

L&TUR: Could we move on to ask you about the Tories’ trade union laws? The Tory legislation is often referred to as being anti-trade union. Jn what ways do you believe the legislation is detrimental to trade unions and their members?

Morris: I don’t think that my union’s policy has ever bracketed every single piece of Tory legislation as anti-trade union. I don’t regard the members’ right to elect the general secretary by secret ballot as being anti-union. I don’t regard the requirement whereby the union has to put together a national membership list as anti-trade union. So I make a distinction on some of those issues. But save for those issues, and one or two others, in general terms the overwhelming part of the Tory legislation for the last twelve years has undoubtedly been anti-trade union.

I know of no other organisation which, if it fails to pay a fine, for example, finds its organisation closed down, sequestrated and the receiver moving in, causing it to cease to function. When corporate businesses fail to meet their fines, all that happens is that there. is an attachment to the bank account and the government takes what is owed, and that is the end of it. The whole question of ex parte injunctions is, to quote my General Secretary, a matter of waking a judge up in the middle of the night, showing him a copy of the Sun, giving him a drop of brandy and getting him to sign an injunction against a trade union.

And the whole question of trade unions not being allowed to extend solidarity with each other in struggle, can never, ever, be regarded as anything but anti-trade union. The whole principle of this movement is built on solidarity with colleagues and comrades in struggle. Under the Tory Act employers can extend as much solidarity to each other as they want, but the unions are denied that capacity.

So I am not blinding myself by making a blanket declaration that everything is anti-union. But the proposals contained in the latest Green Paper certainly are. For example, there will have to be a ballot for a dispute if there is more than 50 members. Any member will at any stage be able to walk in here and demand the right to inspect all the union’s books. And workers will be able to join any union they like. That is a recipe for destabilising trade unions, where they pay no regard to Bridlington principles in the future. But you have not seen the Tories put anything on the Statute Book which regulates the way the employers behave. It is all about trade unions and over ninety per cent of it is blatantly anti-trade union, and, as far as I am concerned we want to see those bits which are blatantly anti-trade union repealed.

L&TUR: Clearly, you believe that the balance of power has shifted back to the employers. What do you think a Labour government ought to do to redress this?

Morris: Well, I think you have to analyse what the Tories have done. I do not think you can view the anti-trade union laws in isolation from the sort of society they want to create. It is about how you manage the economy; about how you distribute, or don’t distribute, power; who influences the means of production, and so on. The Tory laws, which weaken trade unionism, are therefore one step towards a subservient workforce.

At the same time they are supposed to have liberated industry by removing, for example, trades councils. They have taken away the collective power of the trade unions and the individual rights of working people. They have removed the protection for women afforded by maternity benefit. They have removed the Wages Councils. To take a case to an industrial tribunal now you must have over two years’ service. We have low wages as a result of ending prosecution for employers who do not pay Wages Council rates, and trade unions which haven’t got the industrial strength to do anything about it. All that to create the laissez-faire society in which employers can · do what they like, and trade unions cannot do anything.

I want the Labour government to stand back and ask, “What sort of society do we want to create?” I think it should be a society in which the economy is managed in a way which removes poverty and ensures that where people are employed at the workplace, they have a voice to represent them. So a Labour government should frame legislation to reflect the sort of industrial society that they want to see. That means that we must have statutory recognition. We need a statutory minimum wage. We need to make sure that where there is a proper and related interest, trade unions can give support to their colleagues. We need to make sure that if trade unions don’t pay their fine – of course they have to be fined as per the courts – the whole organisation should not be closed down. That means getting rid of the ex parte injunction, and establishing a fair framework of laws.

That framework of laws will carry rights as well as responsibilities. My union is not asking for a total reversal of a laissez-faire society where there is no freedom of movement for labour and capital. We are asking for fairness, for justice and for rights, but we believe that that also carries proper obligations. We have got to recognise that when we do take action, people are at the receiving end of it, and therefore whatever action we take, it has to be constructive, considered and within a framework of rights and obligations.

L&TUR: The TUC and the Labour Party appear to favour a national economic assessment, more centralised wage bargaining and fixed-term bargaining. How do you feel about these matters and how they may, or may not, jell together?

Morris: Each and every one of those issues is separate, and has its own independent identity within the structure of the debate. There is not much support for coordinated bargaining in my union because we think it has not been properly thought through. We reject the idea that you can synchronise all UK bargaining arrangements on a particular day: one big arrangement whereby national leaders, and the great and the good, determine pay, is not how it should be done. It weakens the shop floor and the shop stewards movement, and it removes the whole basis of pay being determined as near as possible to the point of production, where people know better.

On a national economic assessment my Conference has just said Yes, we have to have a dialogue. We need to be informed how many hospitals and schools the nation can afford; what level pensions ought to be; how we get people out of poverty, and move workers to different jobs through training. In fact, how we deal with the supply side of the economy.

I am not quite sure what you mean by fixed-term bargaining. If you mean a bargaining arrangement which is related to a particular span of employment, that, in fact, happens now. However, we believe that permanent employment is, and must remain, a trade union objective, rather than fixed-term contracts and the fixed-term pay that goes with it. We wouldn’t oppose people having the right to make choices. We are all about opportunity and choice for the future. But in trade union terms we believe that people ought not to be denied the opportunity for permanent employment which gives the sort of stability that a lot of people need and deserve.

L&TUR: Do you approve of incomes policy?

Morris: My union’s Conference has said loudly and clearly that we are not interested in an incomes policy. We will oppose it, and have no part in it.

L&TUR: You mentioned earlier the importance you attached to permanent employment. One of the things that concerns us is that the Labour party does not seem to have a policy for full-employment when it comes to government. How do you think the Labour Party in government could put into effect a policy of full employment?

Morris: I don’t think it is just the Labour Party. Governments throughout the world now seem to have abandoned the notion of a full employment policy. However, we, as a union, are determined to see the question of full employment return to the political agenda, and stay on it.

One of the most important things we have to do is to increase investment in the infrastructure. I don’t understand how, as a society, we can have people sleeping rough in doorways within a short distance of Downing Street, while thousands of construction workers who could build homes for people are out of a job. Public sector infrastructure renewal is the key to that.

But no government is going to solve this problem in one, two or even, perhaps, three Parliaments. We are looking long-term here. Consider what the Labour government will inherit. An almost bankrupt economy, growth at 1.5%, if we are extremely lucky, very limited amounts of oil revenue, privately owned utilities, an education system which is being treated experimentally, and a national health service depleted of resources. And, of course, we will inherit a situation where there has been no real coordinated response to training and re-training in British industry. So the Labour government will inherit a horrendous problem. Nevertheless, I think we have to commit ourselves to a full-employment policy.

Labour have said that they are going to restore the link between pensions and average earnings. That means they are going to put money in peoples’ pockets who are going to spend it. Child benefit will be improved. Re-skilling the nation’s workforce will get priority. Investment, in terms of pump-priming, will get some priority. There will be a regional dimension, making sure that we don’t neglect the North-East, the North-west, Scotland and so on. But the essential thing we want to see is the introduction of a minimum wage, which will help to ensure that the state no longer subsidises low pay and bad employers. So, all those are sign-posts out of poverty, and once the economy starts growing, jobs will be created and the first steps towards full employment will be made. I’m not looking for it in the lifetime of the first Parliament, or of the second, but by the third Parliament there’ll be some questions to answer if we haven’t moved towards it.

L&TUR: You have mentioned some of the advantages of having a national minimum wage. Do you see any problems involved in this?

Morris: Yes, of course. There are always problems if you introduce a new and radical step. One of the first problems that comes to mind is how you square the circle between the low-paid, who will in some instances require a fairly substantial percentage increase, and the so-called differential between the artisan and those who have actually worked for their qualification and make a major contribution to industry. That is a political problem and it will have to be addressed.

There are lots of scare stories coming from Michael Howard’s department about the level of the minimum wage. We have to destroy that, expose the policy for what it is and get back to the real debate. In California they have a statutory minimum wage, and they have just increased it by 25%, and they will tell you that they have not lost any jobs. Similarly, in France, and elsewhere. So I am not seduced by that. But we will have to win the political argument to make sure people understand that it is a myth that a minimum wage will cost jobs. It will, in fact, create opportunities and will stop the subsidy of low pay.

L&TUR: You spoke earlier about the union having a sense of obligation as well as demanding its rights. One of the things we believe in is the trade unions having a sense of public service, which should pervade all sectors of the economy. Have you given any thought to this, and is it something you will promote when you become General Secretary?

Morris: We haven’t only given thought to it, we have been practising it. You have to understand that privatisation has changed the culture as between public service workers and those they serve. Transport, for example, is no longer a service, it is all about a profit-related organisation.

People don’t serve nowadays, they just work. It is like the police, the big debate that is moving us from a police service to a police force. Public service workers fall into that category.

But we are not deterred by that because we understand that it is only through recognising that that we will take with us those who are on the receiving end of the service we provide and win, and hold, public support and understanding. And we are also conscious that when we talk about ‘holding the public’ we are talking about our members, our brothers, our sisters, our neighbours, our sons and daughters. The public are not divorced from trade unions. We are the public, so there is a vested interest here.

So, yes, we have been trying to promote a public service culture for a long time, based on quality service. That is why some of the experiments going on in local authority services like New York, for example, are making the notion of the ‘citizens’ charter’ a reality. John Major is a latecomer to the idea. The T &G has been right at the forefront in giving support to this and making sure it happens. But there needs to be a national debate. We have to raise again the status of public service workers.

Look at the teachers. When Kenneth Baker became Secretary of State for Education, the first thing he did was to set about demoralising teachers. He sapped their morale, he devalued them, he ridiculed them, he took away their bargaining rights and forced them into dispute after dispute, and tried to tum the public and parents against them. Now, late in the day, he is making noises about raising the status of teachers in society and rewarding them better.

I believe there should be a national debate about the role of our public servants. But that doesn’t mean that because public service is public service, we don’t strive for quality, efficiency, delivery and cost competitiveness. We have to raise the status of public service, and make sure that where less than the proper standard is delivered, then there is some sort of recompense, some port of call to which the aggrieved ratepayer can go. We have to build some redress into the system. So, yes, we want this debate, and I do agree with you that it is a debate that we need to have in our own organisation, and it is a debate we have to push outwards. It started in the T &G and we have to give it further momentum, and create the public service culture.

L&TUR: In the mid-70s, under the leadership of Jack Jones, the T&G was in the very forefront of the industrial democracy movement. Does the T &G have a policy on industrial democracy at the moment, and do you have any opinions about it?

Morris: Yes. I am keen to see the debate get going again, and I read the Jack Jones interview in your magazine, and what he had to say about that. However, I think events have moved on. We cannot retrace those particular steps. There is no more Bullock to be had. I think we have to shift the emphasis and the cultural debate, and not talk about industrial democracy so much in the context of trade unions. I think we have to talk about it more in the context of workers.

One of the things that I know employers recoiled against was when we talked about workers having a say in the decision-making process – whether it was the board, the supervisory or management levels, or whatever. The employers had visions of trade union bureaucrats, like trade union general secretaries, storming in and sitting on their pension fund boards and sending all the money to the Soviet Union. That is nonsense. But we did not do anything in the 1970s to clarify the debate, distil it and give it a qualitative edge. I think we can resuscitate that debate, but giving it that qualitative edge, to make it clear that when we talk about industrial democracy, we are talking about workers’ democracy: the people in their own enterprises having a say in the decisions affecting their lives.

I don’t think we should prescribe one single method. What we have to do is lay down a minimum. Then we say that any organisation with x numbers of employees which does not provide information about the corporate strategy, about adjustment, about training and re-training, about the environment, about health and safety, about relocation plans, and so on, should face some sort of sanction, such as a higher level of corporation tax.

We ought to have this debate. I am keen to see workers have a voice in decisions affecting them, particularly in the context of the debate about Europe. We have a great debate going on about Europe: about economic and political union, whether it is about ‘federalism’ or not. But at the moment the debate is confined to institutions. Nobody is talking about the workers of Europe, or about a peoples’ democracy within Europe. So the trade unions have a major task in putting that issue on the agenda for debate. But we must do it in a way which does not increase the power of the bureaucrats. It must be done in a way which ensures we are talking about the workers in a particular plant or enterprise – not necessarily the trade union officials.

L&TUR: Have you given any thought to trade unions merging across national boundaries within a wider Europe?

Morris: Well, I have obviously given it some thought, but I believe before we get to that position there is a lot we need to sort out. I have just mentioned the differences of approach to industrial democracy. You have the German system, with its two-tier boards – a supervisory board and a management board – the trade unions having a voice at supervisory board level. You have the whole system of works councils. We had the whole debate about the Berlin directives, what that means, and the opposition from the CBI and elsewhere. This indicates the differences in terms of the different stages of development.

There are cultural differences too. We have one national trade union centre here. In many parts of Europe there is more than one trade union centre. Some of it is structured on religious lines. In Italy, for example you have more than one trade union centre, and it is divided on religious lines. It is the same in a number of other countries.

I don’t, therefore, see a merger tomorrow, but what I do see is a clearer sense of what the agenda should be. I think there is tremendous scope for the improvement of bilateral relations, and we have always done that, but the key, in terms of the individual workplace, which is where a merger will be in fact, is for workers to be closer together, either on a combine basis or some other basis. I see nothing wrong in Ford workers in Europe coming together and working out a common strategy on investment, health and safety and the environment.

I don’t see them all sitting down together arguing about the bonus scheme, because the bonus schemes and pay structures differ very much between the different countries. There cannot be any pay claim that is common to the whole of Europe. But unless we get together and say to Ford’s of Europe, “We want your corporate strategy for the next five years; we want to know where you are planning your next European investment”, what you will have is a recycling of the amount available for investment.

The best example of that was when Ford decided that they wanted to increase their engine capacity in Bridgend. They had laid the floor for the factory, when suddenly the Berlin wall came down, and they relocated it in Cologne. You don’t have to be a magician to work out the reason for that. There was a reservoir of cheap labour coming across from what was the GDR into the Federal Republic, and Ford saw its chance to reduce its labour costs.

It seems to me that what will happen in the future is that workers will have to bid for their own jobs, because the company will say, “We are planning to locate in Europe. These are our conditions for the investment going in Merseyside, or Scotland, or elsewhere, and unless you meet those conditions, you are not going to get it”. You have a recycling process, and therefore there is a need for workers to get together to work out a common response.

So this whole question of mergers and amalgamation is, I think, a little bit down the line. But that does not mean that, in the meantime, there is not scope for cooperation on specific issues, such as I have already mentioned, so that we can form a common position and push towards getting a common understanding from government.


This article appeared in September 1991, in Issue 25 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.

[A] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Morris,_Baron_Morris_of_Handsworth

[B] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_of_Democratic_Mineworkers