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Friday, 6 December, 2002, 16:34 GMT
Unions: Ask outgoing GMB boss John Edmonds
John Edmonds

  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here for transcript.

    John Edmonds, the boss of the GMB trade union which represents workers across many sectors, is to step down early.

    Elected with a mandate to modernise his union, Mr Edmonds has become a strong opponent of the Labour government's plans to privatise the public services by introducing schemes like the Private Finance Initiaitive.

    He is also highly critical of the govenrment's handling of the fire service dispute.

    He is a strong supporter of the UK joining the euro, the single currency used by 12 other European countries since 1999.

    John Edmonds is standing down at a time when the union movement is at a crossroads, with many new leaders who are have distanced themselves from Labour.

    Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), said Labour was creating a "dangerous divide" between the party and its natural supporters

    What does Mr Edmonds think of about relations between the unions and the government? Have unions modernised? And should they push for euro membership?

    You put your questions to John Edmonds in a live interactive forum.

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online interactive forum, I'm Dharshini David. With the relations between the unions and the government at a low ebb our guest today is the general secretary of the giant GMB union John Edmonds. Mr Edmonds, who stands down next year, has been one of the most severe critics of the government - backing the firefighters in their pay dispute and criticising Labour's plan for more private involvement in public services. But Mr Edmonds is also a strong supporter of British entry into the euro, the single currency used by 12 European countries. However, some of his colleagues are more sceptical. And there's a new generation of leaders coming into power in key unions who have a more militant approach to industrial action.

    Well Mr Edmonds thank you for joining us, we've had a huge response in answer to our plea for questions for you, so let's get cracking straightaway. Fabian Breckels from Bristol says: "Why do we seem to be heading towards another winter of discontent, what with the firefighters and now possibly the gas workers too, why are unions apparently hell bent on bringing down a Labour government?" Fabian doesn't remember these kind of strikes happening under a Tory government.

    John Edmonds:
    Well I remember some very big strikes happening under the Tory government, I remember a massive water industry dispute, a massive health service dispute and so on. I mean I'm afraid memories dim a bit. But there is going to be no winter of discontent - the firefighters have just called off their planned eight day stoppage next week, as far as the gas workers are concerned there's a very big argument about shift patterns but that's going to now go to ACAS and the planned industrial action has been called off. These are local, important but local, issues arising from particular problems and we hope that most of them are going to be settled by negotiation but the idea that there is going to be some massive outbreak of industrial action is, I'm afraid, very far from the truth. No I'm glad it's very far from the truth.

    But judging by what our viewers are telling us there seems to be a general feeling out there that industrial unrest is on the rise and that is threatening the way that people can live their day-to-day lives really.

    John Edmonds:
    I think there are lot of problems that have to be resolved and I think that during the period of very high unemployment a number of problems and grievances built up which now have to be dealt with. I mean the issue of shift patterns in the gas industry, which I know a great deal about, this is about how you amend an agreement that was reached a very long time ago. And of course the firefighters' issue is about the pay formula that was introduced in 1977. So there's a backlog of issues here that really need to be dealt with. But the idea that there's some overwhelming and widespread and comprehensive rise in industrial action is just nonsense.

    One of the things the government says is that the firefighters' dispute might run on into other parts of the public services, well this again is nonsense, I mean the local government workers, which is a very large group, they settled a little while ago, there's a new health service agreement on the stocks which is going to last for two to three years, called Agenda for Change. So people are settling their own problems and their own issues in their own way and mostly by negotiations. And I think there's a great deal of exaggeration, some of it perhaps for a little bit of political advantage which is going on about how many strikes are taking place.

    Very good. Let's look at this question from Phil Beverly in Northants. He says: "Why do a wide range of unions seem to currently consider that they should receive annual pay rises significantly in excess of inflation, given that the current economic environment isn't the best, isn't that a little bit greedy? Employees in the private sector can merely expect inflation year-on-year at the moment. Of course striking is not a luxury that the private sector often has."

    John Edmonds:
    Well I think it depends on the circumstances very much. I mean it's right that in many parts of manufacturing industry our members are under tremendous pressure because of the high value pound and the difficulty of being able to put out competitive prices because of the difficulties with the exchange rate. So it's tremendous pressure there and our members are having to accept low increases, that's not the right thing to do but in the interests of survival that's what we're all doing. In parts of the public services, of course, the increases have been very close to inflation as well. But there are particular problems, I mean this particular problem in local authorities - people who work for local government where in the middle of this year the unions, GMB and two others, made really a major case for saying that we should try to eliminate some of the low pay that's in our public services and we set a target of saying well look people who work for local government, for local authorities, should not be paid less than ?5 an hour. Now that may have looked quite big in percentage terms but it was a fairly modest target. And I'm glad to say that most of GMB members in manufacturing industry have rates of pay of more than ?5 an hour.

    Okay, well let's move on to the unions relationship with the Labour party and Judy from Twickenham asks: "Do you feel that the Labour party is the best political vehicle to represent the trade union movement's ideals or should the move begin to force links with other political parties which more closely represent trade union views? If so which parties and what sort of links?

    John Edmonds:
    There are no such parties. Whenever I worry about the policies of the Labour party I summon up to my mind the policies of the Tory party or the policies of some Liberal Democrat councils, which have gone hell for leather really for privatisation, of the use of private contractors, sometimes providing a bit of a rip off service, there is really no alternative for the trade union movement to the Labour party. And, as a matter of fact, in spite of the arguments, we agree on more than we disagree. I think the problem is not so much some of the policies of the Labour government, many of which we strongly support - I mean more money into the public services, more than a million jobs have been created since the '97 Election victory, trade union rights, workers' rights in particular, the national minimum wage - all of these things are good things. I think one of the difficulties and what is causing some of the anguish at the moment is the fact that so many times Labour government spokespersons, ministers, don't talk about these things in terms that we understand, they seem to be rather apologetic about any changes that do good for our members and they sort of talk in some rhetorical flourish that sounds a bit more like the Tory party than the Labour party. I'd like to see Labour ministers, when they're doing something substantial that helps people at work, boast about it, make a fuss about it, express themselves very clearly in an upbeat way - don't be apologetic, don't go on about what it isn't doing, let's tell us where the benefits are. And I think that - the way in which Labour ministers sometimes speak I think gets in the way of the policy.

    So do you think we need an alternative then to New Labour or is it sufficient?

    John Edmonds:
    I think New is a word that might just drop off the agenda, I think this is the Labour party, it's a Labour government. I mean after all New Labour was invented in 1994 and eight years ago, if you had a video recorder and you bought it eight years ago you'd hardly call it new. So I think the New Labour really has run its course, it was a very successful marketing tool to show that the Labour government under Tony Blair was significantly different from Labour governments that had gone before. Now that was helpful in winning certain people over to the Labour cause but of course it did make some people - the core voters who have supported Labour through thick and thin - it made them a little bit nervous.

    I don't see an alternative in the next generation to the Labour party as a close ally of the trade union movement. Of course we don't, in any event, want a change of government, I mean we don't want to go back to those terrible years in the '80s and '90s but we do want, in the trade union movement, some changes in policy. And we also want a change in tone, a different way of talking about people at work and about workers' rights and issues like this. I think less talk about flexibility of the labour force and more talk about giving workers proper rights, they ought to, for instance, at work have the right to proper information about what their company's doing, they should be consulted about issues that arise in the company. Now rights like that are very important to people and the government should stick up for them very strongly.

    Mr Edmonds I just want to change the topic slightly. We've just had an e-mail in from Ron Kane, from Glasgow, who says: "What is the union movement's mandate for attempting to influence government policy outside the union's sphere of influence?"

    John Edmonds:
    Well in fact we have very little - we make very little attempt to go beyond our issues, our core issues, of industrial issues, employment issues, issues of the economy, issues of training as it affects our people, of course, the education unions, the teaching unions, people who work in schools are very interested in education policy and those things follow through. But in days - the days when the trade union movement tried to talk about the whole of the scope of government policy I think they've gone. Of course there are some very important issues which are going to affect us all and I think it's reasonable for every person in Britain to have a point of view, for instance, about whether we should be part of invasion of Iraq and what the role of the UN should be. But we concentrate on those things that affect our members at work and that's our core business.

    This is just back to the role of trade unions and you and your peers in the union movement make much of the obscene amounts of money boardroom management may make compared with the average pay deal of a worker - it might be sometimes 10 or 15 or 20 times as high. But how hypocritical is it for those in the high echelons of the unions to be earning say five, six or seven times the average? And that question comes from Barry Fell here in the UK.

    John Edmonds:
    Well I earn about two and a half times the average, according to the latest figures. Recently we went in to print, the GMB published an advert, criticising someone who runs a company, drawing money from the public purse to run PFI projects and that person was earning ?600,000 a year. And someone wrote to me and said - Well what right have you got to criticise that? - well I was earning less than 10 per cent of that. But it's a fair point. I think the difference between the poorest paid in our country and the highest paid is far, far too wide but you don't find too many rates of pay in the trade union movement of the sort of level that you see in the - in private industry and in some companies. When you have managing directors and chief executives earning one million, two million pounds a year with share options on top and when they're saying to their people in the company that everybody else can only have two or three per cent, I mean that's where the hypocrisy lies I think.

    Okay, well let's move on to the role of the public sector. "You've gone on record as saying," - this is according to Richard Kamm from Bristol - "as saying that the firefighters should be treated as a special case in the current pay and conditions dispute, does this mean that you're explicitly that members of other public sector unions, such as those dealing with health, education, social work etc., should under no circumstances put in similar wage claims?"

    John Edmonds:
    It's extremely unlikely that anyone else will put in that sort of wage claim, I mean the fire brigades' union put in a claim that was related to their own pay formula and how it was out of date. No one else has the opportunity of making that sort of claim because they don't have that sort of pay formula. In any event, as I've already mentioned a few moments ago, the local authority workers, one of the biggest groups in the public sector, have already settled, the health service workers are settling on a two and three year pay deal. So those are not going to follow the fire brigades' union and I think there is very little chance of any increase for the fire brigades' union running, as the government say, like wild fire through the public sector - that isn't the way it works. And I think that had the government come to the trade unions early on in this dispute and said we want an explicit undertaking that this settlement, whatever it was, would not be used as a stalking horse for other groups we would have given that because every group has to negotiate on the basis of its own concerns, its own productivity and frankly its own changes in working practices. So I don't think - I think this is a special case, I think the fire brigades' union have had a formula which was set up in 1977, it worked very well for the first 10 or 12 years it's now - and everybody knows is out of date and the question is what should replace it?

    You could argue a lot of other public sector agreements are also out of date. Now if they did come to an agreement could that be used as a benchmark in years to come though?

    John Edmonds:
    I don't think so, I think it's just a question of what the priorities are. You see local authority priorities for local authority workers, as I said, a major priority was to get the lowest paid above ?5 an hour, which is a modest enough target. In the health service a major problem is the inadequacy of the training and promotional opportunities and we want to put that right, that's the sort of aim and objective in that negotiation. For the fire brigades' union their feeling is that they're at the wrong point in the earnings league table, they were at a particular set in '77, they've fallen down the earnings league table recently and that needs to be put right. And I think everybody agrees that they have a case, the argument is how strong that case is. But the idea that if the fire brigades' union gets 16 per cent over two years, which is what the draft agreement would have produced, before the government scuppered it, the idea that everybody else will put in for 16 per cent over two years, well, I think that's frankly nonsense.

    Well obviously there's not very much we can do about the fire dispute right now it's going to run and run, so let's move on to the area of the euro where Dan Humphrey from Bishop's Stortford says: "There have been comments recently that joining the euro would get in the way of vital spending needed for Britain's public services. As someone who's known to care passionately about both can you explain why this argument does not make sense?"

    John Edmonds:
    Well I think the best way of dealing with that is to ask the people who make this silly argument what they're talking about. You see many of us now have a chance of travelling on holidays and other occasions to parts of the continent and when you go through very many continental countries the thing that strikes you is how good the public services are, not how bad they are. So the idea that we are somehow, in Britain, going to have our public service quality reduced because we're going to line up with what goes on in France or Germany or Holland or Belgium or Scandinavia is just nonsense. I mean if we frankly had the public services that exist in some other European countries I would be absolutely delighted. I mean if our health service was as good as the French health service, if our transport system was as good as the Fins, if some of our local services were as good as the Germans I'd be absolutely delighted. Most of these countries spend more money already on their public services than we do. And one of the things that Gordon Brown is trying to do with his spending plans is to close the gap. So the idea that becoming part of the single currency and linking up with these countries will mean that we'll have to cut our spending on the public services I think is just absolute nonsense. And I think there's a lot of politics that's come into the euro debate and some of it is, if I can say so, based on a few invented arguments - there is really no problem in this area at all. Right, once we start spending twice as much as the Germans we might be in trouble but very few of us will be alive to see that day.

    Well we'll have to wait and see. Now let's switch over to the other side of the Atlantic, we've got an e-mail here from Michael Allen from Washington who says: "It was said recently of unions in the US that the leaders were "male, pale and stale". When will British union leaders start to reflect the diversity of their members, particularly in unions like the GMB which actually has a lot of women members?"

    John Edmonds:
    Well we have about 40 per cent of our members are women, as you said in your introduction I, together with my deputy, are retiring next year, we'll have an election in the spring, I have no doubt there will be a large number of candidates that reflect the diversity of GMB membership and the members will decide in that election. But gradually, but strongly, the number of senior people in the British trade unions is increasing, I think you'll see some changes soon, not only in individual unions but in the TUC, the British trade union centre, and that's a good thing, we need to see those changes, we need to see the faces on television and the voices on the radio reflecting the widespread of union membership and I think that that day is coming very rapidly and I welcome it.

    You're talking about you stepping down next year, on that subject, now a new generation of leaders has come into the fore, both in your union and others, do you think they're a little bit more militant, is this a good or bad thing and have you got any advice to give them after all your experience?

    John Edmonds:
    I wouldn't presume to give advice to people who represent other groups of members - of trade union members but I think some of these statements are really exaggerated to a point which is - departs from the truth entirely. We've got a series of disputes going on at the moment, most of them are affecting relatively small numbers of people and everybody, I think, who has examined those particular industries and sections say that they are real problems that need to be resolved. Certainly there is no great tide of militancy and industrial action that I can see.

    And take the fire situation, since it's on everybody's lips at the moment, the union worked out that in order to restore their position that they lost in '77 they'd need a 40 per cent increase, that was immediately translated into 40 per cent immediately, which is what the fire brigade union never said. Subsequently they compromised, first of all to 16 per cent and then to 16 per cent over two years. Now this doesn't suggest to me that the fire brigades' union is led by an executive and a general secretary who are closing their mind to negotiation and compromise, in fact the FBU has compromised, the employers have compromised, the only people who haven't compromised in that dispute at the moment is the government - the sooner they compromise and get down to proper negotiations the better. So some of these things are just labels applied. I mean Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the FBU, was described as Scargillite by a very senior member of the government. Now I know Arthur Scargill and there is not a lot of similarity between Andy and Arthur.

    John Edmonds I'm afraid we've run out of time. So all we've got time to say is my thanks to you, our guest, John Edmonds and the best wishes for your plans next year and to you for your many questions. I'm Dharshini David goodbye.

    Listen to Mr Edmonds' answers to your questions

    Public pay battles

    Leadership battles

    Labour and the unions


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