The City DebateThe "New Reality" and New Unionism, by Bill Morris

An edited version of the address by Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union, given in St Peter’s on 23 October 1997 under the title: ‘Do Trade Unions have a Future?’

After ‘New Labour’

Some of you may be wondering, what’s a trade union like the T&G doing addressing a Church audience? Why aren’t we out there trying to bring down the government and causing a few strikes? You would be forgiven for asking these questions because after 18 years of being told that trade unions are the enemy within - that’s the popular view of trade unions. Well, let me tell you that my Union represents nearly one million members and their families. They are drawn from a variety of faiths, and they are all quite ordinary men and women like you and me.

Today, I have been asked to share my thoughts on the future of trade unions, and I shall attempt to do so within the context of what I see as the New Reality.

  • I will start by looking at the broad role and function of trade unions.
  • Next, I will consider how the world of work is changing.
  • And finally, I will describe the response of my Union, the T&G.

But first a word about our traditional values. Trade unions are often identified as politically to the left; their members are thought of as dissidents; people not unafraid to question the status quo. There are many examples in history where the Church and the trade union movement have worked side by side in support of the same causes. Let me remind you of a few of them, from the time when Cardinal Manning intervened in the 1889 dock dispute:

  • we have campaigned for democracy in Poland
  • we have marched together for civil rights in America
  • we have campaigned together for justice in South Africa
  • we have stood together for human rights in Latin America
  • we have worked together for the eradication of poverty and deprivation here in the UK.

As you will no doubt be aware, last month the Archbishop of Canterbury visited the Trade Union Congress in Brighton. He spoke on the same day as the Prime Minister. And the joke going around the Conference was that the Archbishop gave the politics, while the Prime Minister gave the sermon. But, in what was a well received address, the Archbishop identified some of the values shared by the Christian Church and the British trade union movement. He spoke about "Faith in the City", the report which highlighted the grave social and economic divisions which were widening during the 1980s. He talked of how Christianity and trade unionism shared the same antipathy towards prejudice - and our proud history fighting against racism and discrimination. And he also spoke about employers’ moral responsibility, as he put it, "to recognise the chosen representatives of their employees". The Archbishop ended with a call for us to "keep working together on the many causes that unite us". A call that I echo.

The Role of Unions

Colleagues, we must respond to that call in the knowledge that we live in a changing world. Recently, several social commentators have suggested that trade unions have completed their historical mission. I naturally disagree. In my opinion trade unions are on the verge of a new renaissance as we seek to shape tomorrow’s world. Trade unions remain the largest voluntary bodies for social integration and by definition have a moral purpose for their existence as well as representing the best guarantee for security and equality in the workplace.

The fundamental purpose of trade unions remains the same, which is to act as the collective voice of working people; to organise and represent the interests of our members at work. With the integration of the world economy there is a growing fragmentation of the world’s society into winners and losers; those who are sharing in the fruits of the vast wealth creation process, and those who are being marginalised and left behind.

Poverty is not only co-existing side by side with great advances in technology, it is actually increasing, with 30% of the world’s workforce now unemployed. The question now, is how to make the trade union role relevant to the new situation on the edge of a new century.

I do not want to offer you a new T&G, but I would like to offer the T&G’s response to a changing world. We say that this debate must start with a recognition of the key factors which are the driving forces for change. These are:

  • a global economy where the success or failure of any country will hinge upon economic growth
  • this world will be driven by information, not money
  • intellectual capital will be the most important asset of an organisation
  • customers will be better informed and more educated
  • an estimated one billion people will work from home via the Internet
  • the workforce will become even more empowered and managerial philosophies will have to incorporate this new reality
  • business will have to be even more aware of environmental issues.
The World of Work: Flexibility

Now let’s look at one of the most significant influences in the new labour market that will shape the New Agenda - flexibility. In recent years the development of flexibility has been a defining feature of the UK labour market. Tory and Labour governments have seen it as a key factor in managing the economy and achieving great competitiveness. The UK is now the most flexible labour market in Europe. For employers, flexibility allows labour to be managed in order to meet fluctuating demands as well as helping to adapt to technological and other organisational change. For employees it offers the opportunity to balance work with other commitments, particularly in the 24-hour society. Flexibility is seen as the best way to respond to the globalisation of the economy and the technological revolution which has swept our planet. But for thousands of British workers the reality of "flexibility" is very different. Recently, the National Association of Citizen’s Advice Bureaux (NACAB) illustrated the reality, for thousands of working people at the sharp end, in their report Flexibility Abused. For many CAB clients, flexible working means deteriorating working conditions combined with extreme insecurity of employment. Flexibility can mean short-term contracts or even no contracts and unwanted part-time working.

Whilst it is our responsibility to reach out to these workers, it is the responsibility of government to guarantee a legal framework to prevent the worst of these abuses; a framework with rights on the one hand and responsibilities on the other. As European Commissioner Padraigh Flynn, has said, the challenge for us is to "reconcile the flexibility which firms need with the security which workers require".

I believe that the way to do this is through a frame work of minimum standards: job security, minimum rates of pay, training provision and standards, representation at work, partnership between government, unions and employers, and equal opportunities for women workers, black people and the disabled.

The Union response

In responding to the changes described above, the T&G has arrived at a number of conclusions and has redefined its relationships - with members, with government, with employers, and with the community, as well as our role in society.

Some on the left of British politics have said that the last 18 years of Conservative government were wasted years for the trade union movement. I disagree. For us in the T&G they were learning years:

  • we learnt to improve our democracy
  • we reshaped our communications
  • we refocused our campaigning
  • we learnt to understand that public opinion matters.

But while we have developed an efficient and professional administration, our core values remain unchanged. In a nut-shell, we have leaned to turn arrogance into confidence. We leant that our survival as a powerful industrial organisation is not God-given. Instead it depends on what we can deliver to the people we serve - our members. That means organising and negotiating skills, and it means the quality of our benefits and services. But it also means the relationships we build with government, employers and the community as a whole. We are not and cannot be an island.

I believe that our approach is the very essence of New Unionism - a new unionism which recognises that trade unions are an essential part of the industrial and political landscape, a New Unionism which understands that it is up to us to make ourselves relevant to today’s workers, to today’s employers, and to today’s government.

So let me turn to our relationship with employers. Here our objectives are two-fold: to improve competitive performance and to win the best possible conditions for our members.

To achieve these aims we are committed to constructive partnership with employers. The defining culture of this partnership is founded on:

  • the common desire for a company to succeed
  • worker flexibility and employee security
  • company growth through employees’ skills and development
  • delivering quality products and services with quality people
  • skills, training and high rewards.

Our basic message to employers is "Britain cannot compete on the basis of conflict. You can only win with your workers." And so we are committed to working with good employers, but we shall not hesitate to take on the bad. I don’t think that you would expect me to say anything else.

Turning to our relationship with the government. Since the General Election I am regularly asked what the T&G expects from the new government? My reply is simple. The same as everyone else - good education, a good health service, safe communities, and jobs for those without. The T&G has a duty to represent its members’ interests with government - any government. We do not see ourselves as being in power when Labour is in government and in opposition when the Tories are in office. We shall judge the policies of the government against our members’ interests.

So what is the future for industrial relations in Britain as we approach the Millennium? Two roads beckon. The first leads to success in global competitiveness underpinned by a framework of minimum standards, the second is a return to the values of the Victorian industrial age of exploitation and insecurity. To choose the latter would be tantamount to a lock-out of British workers from the social and economic development of our country.

I believe that workers want to engage with change, but they do not want to be exploited by it. I believe that workers will embrace flexibility coupled with security. I believe that workers need training. But they also want respect. I therefore believe that the role and importance of trade unions remains as vital as ever. In the new global order we shall continue to act as a force for change - campaigning for social justice, fairness and decency in the workplace, in our local communities and in society as a whole.
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st December 1997