Magazine article Management Today

THE MT INTERVIEW: Derek Simpson

Magazine article Management Today

THE MT INTERVIEW: Derek Simpson

Article excerpt

The new hard-left head of Amicus is girding his loins to take the hitherto Blair-friendly union - Britain's second-biggest - into battle. No more cosy deals with Government or bosses, no truck with the euro, no PFI, and reform of employee laws. A dinosaur or what?

The first time we agree to meet, Derek Simpson, general secretary elect of Amicus and long-time workers' representative, doesn't turn up. Shame, he says later, foul-up with the diary. That left me waiting for him in the lobby of his West End hotel at 10am, shouting down the phone at his office in Sheffield while he was waltzing off to a union meeting in Bromley.

The next day, same place, similar time, I am 30 minutes late. He can't complain, can he? Well, not about me, but he's had it with the swish hotel. He bustles up, thick-set, grey suit, blue shirt, toning tie, looking like a burly bookie in a fug of tobacco and after-shave. Sorry, this is crap, he says in his gravelly Yorkshire brogue, they'd been trying to page him and he'd been eating breakfast and they're so hopeless, many of the staff don't seem to speak English, all the guests are tourists, despite the glossy facade no-one would ever return twice (except those of us forced to). He can't remember who recommended him the place. Why are the hotels down here all so expensive and so terrible?

Welcome to London, Mr Simpson. The man who is shortly to take over Britain's second-largest union, who has knocked Sir Ken Jackson, one of of Tony Blair's most loyal allies, off his cushioned perch and who promises a new, more militant form of union leadership, smiles gruffly and flashes grey eyes that give little away.

More amenable is his partner Freda Knight, who emerges suddenly from behind him, short, blonde, good-looking in shirt and skirt, an instantly engaging bundle of chat. While Simpson goes off to make a phone call, she tells me how they've spent all their lives in Sheffield, now they have to find a home in London, no-one warned them about the prices, the union has a new head office opening in Covent Garden (Covent Garden!), and she's got her animals to look after, she needs space, where should she be looking?

Simpson returns and stands listening. Fred - as he affectionately calls her - is his first wife with whom he's now back together after splitting from his second. They have three children each by separate marriages but, oh, let's leave the complications till later. Simpson out-talks Knight only in the field of politics where, like many ex-Communist Party members, he has a lot to say and the experience of a thousand arguments to sharpen his dialectic skills.

And you can bet you'll be hearing him a lot from now on. The rumblings of discontent with the current Government are rolling through the union movement. Simpson's toppling of Jackson in a bitterly contested and controversial election to head Amicus AEEU, the combined electricians' and engineers' union, is just one of many indicators that a new mood of militancy has taken hold. The effects are rippling through to British business. Simpson has promised that Amicus, once the most business-friendly of unions, is to become decidedly more hostile. First off, he pledges, there will be no more 'sweetheart deals' with employers, with their promise of no strikes in return for exclusive worker representation.

'No strikes?' he says to me incredulously. 'It's like us opening a pub and then refusing to sell beer!' How, he asks, can a union operate like that? He also wants to withdraw Amicus's support for entry into the eurozone, increase the minimum wage, change employment laws, cut out the cosy relations with Government, stop PFI - heck, he wants to renationalise just about everything.

Is he a dinosaur or what? No, just a socialist who believes Tony Blair's Labour has deserted its socialist principles. Likewise his union. He took on Jackson - resigning his pounds 30,000-a-year job as regional convenor to do so - because he felt Amicus no longer represented the views of its members and was being run undemocratically as a personal fiefdom by its leader. …

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