Bill Morris – former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers
Union, who retired last week – speaks exclusively to Personnel Today about the
changes the UK workforce has undergone during his time as head of the T&G,
and outlines why he believes trade unions are failing to embrace the workforce,
and what the future holds for UK employees
Q After 12 years as general secretary of the T&G, how has the lot of
the UK worker changed?
A It has changed quite significantly. Now there is a lot more
tolerance, acceptance and maturity in the whole employment debate.
Looking back, a lot of people on the left categorise the Thatcher years as
wasted years; I think they were learning years, because they sent us back into
the workplace to reconnect with our members. They also forced trade unions to
look internally and improve democracy, governance and communication.
The Labour Government has come in and made more of a difference. It was bold
in combating youth unemployment, signing up to the social charter and
establishing the minimum wage.
As trade unions, we have extended the boundaries of bargaining. It is no
longer just about pay and conditions; we bargain about training, the
environment, job security and a diversified workforce.
With work-life balance, time is the new money.
Q Is the emergence of the ‘awkward squad’ a progression or a regression
in industrial relations?
A I don’t indulge in labels. The so-called ‘awkward squad’ are
reflecting the frustration of their members on a whole raft of issues.
People are still not getting due respect in the workplace – for example,
thousands of people have been dismissed by text message. If I was dismissed
under those circumstances, I would be angry and I would be awkward, and I would
expect my representatives to be very angry and awkward.
Q Do the unions really still represent the workplace? The number of union
members has almost halved in the time you have been general secretary – from 13
million to 7 million. Isn’t it true that, these days, employees are in fact
happier, and no longer feel the need to be affiliated with a union?
A We have a problem – it is an expanding labour market and we should
have more members rather than less.
Trade unionism has to re-orientate itself and start speaking for workers in
all sectors, including the ‘sunrise sectors’ of leisure and IT.
Trade unionism has to reclaim the workplace as a legitimate and authentic
voice of all workers, irrespective of whether they are members and whether they
are paying a contribution.
Trade unionism is supposed to be about caring, sharing and supporting. If we
adopt that model, it will be a return to the 1889 model. That was why trade
unions were started up in the first place.
So, rather than people being happier, the new work landscape has
disenfranchised people from the unions.
Q The Department of Trade and Industry has pledged to push on with the
Information and Consultation Directive (ICD). Will it strengthen the unions
through increased consultation, or will it serve to weaken them by bypassing
A The ICD has been categorised as something for the trade unions.
There is no such thing as ‘something for the unions’. They are rights for
workers, and they are mechanisms for the involvement and security of the
employees – the trade unions just happen to be the messengers.
It is so important that we embrace information and consultation on the basis
of what is decent, what is right and what is good for the enterprise and the
people who work in it.
It is the inalienable right for workers to be consulted and properly
informed. On that basis, I think you could begin to create a new culture of
participation and involvement in the workplace.
Q What would you like to see happening and developing in UK organisations
in the future?
A The diversity agenda will impact significantly on the workplace as
different work groups get more confident about how they contribute
economically, politically and socially.
There is a tremendous under-use of human capital and a tremendous business
case in recruitment and skills on the basis of new markets you can develop.
We must recognise that we are all contributors, however menial it may be.
What is just and equitable should be the hallmark of every single workplace in
the UK. If we could establish that, we could add another 20 per cent to our
productivity capacity; we could enhance our skills base to world-class
standards, and then be in a position to deliver what we all want.
I sound like an old man reminiscing for a world that never was and never
will be, but I just wish that Labour and capital could come closer and identify
not what they disagree about, but what they can agree about, then do it and do
By Michael Millar