The Very Model of Restraint on All Issues Bar One: Union Recognition. on This There Is No Compromise

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), February 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Very Model of Restraint on All Issues Bar One: Union Recognition. on This There Is No Compromise


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


Bill Morris is a quietly spoken and cautious trade unionist. For someone who is often portrayed as part of the "old" Labour tradition it is rare for him to speak a word in public against the party leadership. Indeed Morris's views illustrate that the political shorthand of "new" and "old" is as inadequate as "left", "soft left" and "right" used to be: he backs the government's adherence to Tory spending targets and its commitment to low inflation, as well as its progressive social objectives.

On only one issue does the TGWU's leader raise the stakes. He is uncompromising in his determination to secure an acceptable framework for union recognition: "Trade union recognition is the key. We will judge the government, in terms of its relationship with the trade unions, over how it responds to this issue."

The bone of contention is not the principle, which the government supports, but how recognition should be brought about in the workplace. The CBI says a ballot should require more than half of those eligible to vote to say Yes. The TUC argues it should be more than half of those casting a vote, which is a much lower threshold. The CBI also wants companies with fewer than 50 employees to be exempt. Neither its formula on ballots nor the exemptions would be acceptable to Morris. "The CBI wants a much higher threshold than is required from any other democratic institution. We're looking for recognition based on the democratic principle of a majority of one from those taking part."

On other issues Morris is surprisingly conciliatory, but not on this: "This is a defining issue for trade unionists. There is simply no room for a compromise. The government will not be able to fulfil its commitment to fairness at work by legislating for bad employers, which is what a compromise would mean. It's a straightforward choice: either the government supports the CBI position or the TUC position. I know of no other issue to which working people have a greater expectation and it will be a major disappointment if we weren't treated the same as everyone else. We've accepted the doctrine of 'fairness not favours'. If we weren't to get recognition on the basis of fairness that would be an abdication of what was promised and what was right."

It is not Morris's style to issue threats of industrial disruption casually. But in the event of the trade unions losing this argument, he predicts an outbreak of unrest. At first he chooses his words carefully.

"If we are not treated fairly I suspect shop stewards would see a situation where they are demanding recognition and taking steps to get it, not in the conventional sense of a ballot, but on another basis."

What sort of steps? "To put it bluntly, I can see more industrial disputes arising as a way of securing recognition."

He reiterates that he'll be happy with fairness, provided others are not given favours. "We know that Rupert Murdoch would be upset, to put it mildly, if there was a statutory right of recognition. But it wasn't Mr Murdoch who voted in this government, it was the British people. We only ask for fairness and that Mr Murdoch should get no favours."

In order to grasp the importance Morris attaches to this issue, compare his responses to questions about the level of the minimum wage. He seems relaxed about the prospect of not getting his way on the precise details of its implementation. "We're delighted to have had for the first time the principle of a national minimum wage established. That is the most important development. It's making a statement that the government wants an assault on poverty and won't subsidise low pay. We will have a debate about the level and my members would be disappointed if we had to face a rate below [pounds]4, but the minimum wage is adjustable over time. You have the opportunity to fight another day."

He is opposed, though, to any exemptions on grounds of geography or age. "The idea of regional exemptions is off the agenda, so we can dismiss that, but we are fundamentally opposed to age exemptions. …

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