The immense poverty that Tony Woodley saw as a teenager while he worked around the world on a steam ship spurred him on to join and reach the top of the workers’ rights movement.
“Becoming leader of a fantastic union like the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) was beyond belief,” said Woodley, who left his Merseyside home and school at 15 to work for the Ocean Steam Ship Company.
“That was one of the best things I ever did. I made nine deep-sea trips, mainly to the Far East. You could not help but notice the deprivation, the starvation, and the child prostitution. I thought there had to be a better life for people like them in their countries and for people like me in my country.”
After enduring sea sickness throughout his three-year stint at sea, Woodley took a job on land at Vauxhall Motors’ Ellesmere Port factory on Merseyside. His father George was works convenor for the National Union of Vehicle Builders and, within a week of starting work there, Woodley junior had joined up.
Eventually, he became the convenor himself, and found himself at the forefront of industrial relations at the peak period of confrontations in the 1970s.
“In one 12-month period we didn’t have a single full week’s work,” he said. “You would be 20 minutes into a night shift and be sent home. You had been asleep all day and now you had nothing to do all night and one-fifth of your pay had gone.”
Woodley called a five-week strike in 1986, and won workers the right to be paid for a full shift once they had clocked in. It was his first major victory.
In 1997, he campaigned hard for the Labour Party in the election that made Tony Blair prime minister, and in 2000 he fought to secure the Phoenix consortium’s temporary rescue of the Rover car factory at Longbridge.
Now, Woodley believes he is playing his part in the rejuvenation of the union movement. “The unions had become too close to the gaffer [employers] and the government,” he said.
“People were asking what the point was of being in a trade union. This can only be down to union inactivity, as the problems workers are facing are worse than yesteryear. But there is no doubt that the election of leaders like me has made a big difference,” he added.
Woodley is now leading T&G into a merger with Amicus, to form a so-called super-union with two million members. “This will go down in the history of the union movement,” he said.
“It will remove concerns about trade union competitiveness, where the gaffer can use one against the other. There are also economies of scale, and we will have more industrial muscle.”
Not that Woodley is waiting for the merger – set for May – before he takes his fight to employers. He was instrumental in the headline-dominating British Airways (BA) cabin crew dispute, spending hours locked away with the airline’s chief executive Willie Walsh to secure “more respect” for members, before calling off the planned strikes at the 11th hour.
He blamed BA’s HR team for the conflict, claiming they had allowed employee resentment to fester. “If they were professional, they would have solved these issues one by one,” he said.
BA will hope that dispute is now in the past. One matter firmly in Woodley’s sights for the immediate future is boosting pay levels. He has just written to 250 of his negotiating officers instructing them to “raise their sights” on pay settlements, and not to settle for inflation-level rises.
“Our members from all walks of life have never worked harder than they are doing today – but their productivity is not being rewarded,” he said. “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. My big push for 2007 is to get all our people fighting to bridge the wealth gap that is obscenely growing to get people a fair reward for the wealth they are creating.”
He added that the adult minimum wage should rise from £5.35 to £7.50 an hour. “That is the least people can live on,” he insisted.
Woodley has as much passion for working-class rights now as he did as a teenager working in the Far East. But he recognises that the past does not hold all the answers to today’s problems.
He is confident in the ability of HR professionals to fulfil this role. “In the main, HR people are more competent than yesteryear,” he said. “They are using common sense and being more considerate. We all need to pull together, because the world we work in is changing.”