It is immediately noticeable that Roger Lyons is nothing like his firebrand counterparts at the RMT, FBU or the CWU. At his office in central London, he offers a warm smile and speaks in quiet, measured tones.
It is something he’s known for. David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at manufacturer’s organisation, the EEF, said: “Roger was always someone employers could talk to, engage with and have constructive working arrangements.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking Lyons is a soft touch. He has been instrumental in organising thousands of staff into unions over the past four decades, including those at ICI, Lucas, Unilever, Shell and Ford. He started his union career at the ASSET union, which numbered 36,000. Amicus – from which he recently resigned as general secretary – has more than a million members, including 120 MPs, 22 ministers and four Cabinet members.
Some may argue that the workplace of today wouldn’t have looked the same without Lyons, and at the TUC conference, he intends to leave his mark.
“We are at a crossroads at this TUC Conference,” he said. “It is when we first really reflect the serious way in which people who are involved in the movement, and who will become involved, want their rights and standards guaranteed and taken forward. Not because they have strong muscle power and can close a port or lock the fire engines, but because they want their intelligence to be actively listened to.”
Unlike some of his ‘Awkward Squad’ compatriots, Lyons is a strong believer in non-adversarial industrial relations, and sees it as the future of trade unionism.
“That was unthinkable when I started,” he said. “There are still quite a few people in the movement who are adverse to that kind of approach because they don’t think it’s credible.
“But the information and consultation (I&C) regulations will now underpin that – the desire of working people to be consulted and know what’s happening. No employer should be able to come out with a decision unless all the options have been examined conscientiously and genuinely, taking account of the views of the workforce.
“This means a consensual form of management, which once again dovetails with the whole non-adversarial approach.”
At the TUC conference, Lyons, a firm supporter of the Government, will launch the handbook 300 Gains from our Labour Government, which details Labour’s achievements in the workplace. But don’t they reinforce CBI leader Digby Jones’ assertions that trade unions are becoming ‘increasingly irrelevant every day’?
“The legal rights that people have require trade union membership for them to benefit from them,” according to Lyons. “I sit on the EAT and I see cases coming through on appeal, and people represented by a union are usually settled out of court because they have the case well-organised. People who try to represent themselves or employ local solicitors are not in the same league.
“The legal framework doesn’t say to people: ‘You don’t need unions’. Instead, the trade union movement has to do a convincing job that people have these rights and the only way to enforce them is through trade union membership,” he said.
Working with the Government certainly seems to be working out for Lyons. As Personnel Today revealed a fortnight ago, the Government has agreed to co-fund a trade union learning academy, which will see union reps trained up to university level and better able to compete in business negotiations.
“A university-level academy for trade unions is a big challenge to the world of industrial relations,” Lyons said. “We will be more informed, more professional and more able to cope with the new pressures. I’m not certain if employers put up the kind of people who can handle that.”
While some unions have chosen to withdraw funding from the Government, could this herald a return to closer links between unions and the Government in the future?
“I’ve always believed in working closely with the Government and government departments.,” said Lyons. “Specific changes flow from political influence.
“[Amicus] has political influence. That’s the answer to the GMB or the RMT which claim they don’t have influence – if they don’t have influence, that’s their problem.”
Roger Lyons’ CV
1964 Graduated from University College London
1966 Becomes the Asset union’s first graduate trainee in the field
1970 Becomes national officer for Asset
1989 Elected to TUC General Council
1990 His evidence to the Cullen Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster led to new Offshore Safety Legislation
1992 Becomes general secretary of MSF union, re-elected in 1997
1992 Backer of the Speech Therapists equal pay case, which won £12m in back pay for 1,500 trade union members
1993 Elected to TUC Executive
2002-2004 Joint general secretary of Amicus
Roger Lyons: Up close and personnel
Where and when were you born?
Hammersmith, London, 1942. There were bright lights to the East when I was born… because the Germans had bombed the Port of London!
How do you relax?
Watch Arsenal, go to the cinema and eat takeaways with my wife.
What drives you mad?
Not being able to go to the football because of union meetings.
Why did you join the trade union movement?
Working for the student union, I found myself negotiating with the secretary of state for education. I found I rather liked it and it gave me the opportunity to work for social justice.
Would you consider standing as an MP?
I was elected as a prospective candidate in Liverpool in 1970, but went to be the national officer of ASSET instead.
What is one amazing fact about you?
I went to the Roe Green junior school – the same one as George Michael.