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Sunday, 8 September, 2002, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
Morris: Payback time for the unions

Bill Morris turns 65 this autumn and after years as a key player in the British political scene he will soon be off to spend more time with his grandchildren.

Open in new window : Trade unions guide
The big unions at TUC 2002

But when we met ahead of this year's Blackpool conference, beyond admitting he was looking forward to having the opportunity to do other things, there was no suggestion he is slowing down in his role as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).

Good job I'm not running for election given you saying how reasonable and comradely I am or I would probably lost all my votes

Bill Morris
Typically he is focused on a huge range of issues, both national and international.

The possibility of another war with Iraq has Morris worried and he was quick to issue a warning to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He said: "I have to tell you that my union does not support any discussion whatsoever in the absence of any hard evidence that we as a nation should now be prepared to bomb Iraq.

"I want to see, my union wants to see, clear, demonstrable evidence that he is preparing weapons of mass destruction.

"I want our prime minister to concentrate on what's important here and not to sort of drift us off to a position where we are following on the coat-tails of another power."

Unions owed?

The Labour government should also get on with paying back the unions for their support, particularly in the lean, early years of Blair's first administration.

Tony Blair
Morris believes Blair owes the union movement
"My message to the prime minister as he addresses the conference is to recognise that every balance sheet has two sides - there's a credit and a debit," Mr Morris told BBC News Online.

"We [the union movement] have over the last five years of the Labour government significantly addressed the debit side: we've delivered on every single count in terms of days lost through industrial disputes, in terms of the quality of what we do, in terms of the relationship supporting government.

"Now we want the government to address the credit side."

By that he means issues like low pay, the current crisis over pensions, the plight of British manufacturing and working conditions.

The 11 September attack last year postponed the widely-predicted clash between the prime minister and the unions particularly over his determination to use ever greater amounts of private cash in the public sector.

Morris predicts that of the "unfinished business" from last year, reform of public services, will dominate the debate.


"It seems to me that the issue of the private finance initiative (PFI) is or can be a political albatross which will come back to haunt the government if the government doesn't guarantee delivery of transparent and measurable improvement in public services."

He adds: "We're not saying to them that we're going to take to the streets and that workers are going to shut up shop to get them to stop this particular policy.

"What we are saying to them is the cost of these PPPs (public private partnerships) and the PFIs is so horrendous for the next generation because some of the people who are funding the capital up front are taking 30 year profit up front."

Public services could be the issue that decide the next election
Whatever happens with this debate - and the prime minister like many union leaders has shown he is no mood to back off - Morris says that improvements in public services will be hard to achieve unless public sector workers get a better deal.

British workers, he says, have fewer rights than their European counterparts: for example it is "too cheap and too easy to sack British workers".

He also argues that public services make a moral statement about society.

Key debate

"You tell me or show me how you treat your pensioners, the quality of your transport, or how you treat your children and I will tell whether you are a caring society, whether you've got compassion, whether you are concerned and whether you bridge the generation in terms of prosperity of the nation and therefore public services are important."

Public services are also the issue which Morris believes will win or lose Labour the next election and he fears that issues such as UK entry into the single currency will detract from that - although he acknowledges the euro remains a key debate for Britain.

"It's a debate that must be informed by reality and not informed by mad rush and that's why I continue to argue that we should fix our public services - it's on that experience that the next election will be decided."

Morris is at heart a campaigner so when he does eventually retire he wants to travel, spend time with family and read, but he also intends to throw himself into supporting various educational institutions in the UK and Jamaica.

With left-wingers taking control of many of the UK's unions, Morris' days at the head of the TGWU may soon be looked back to with a great deal of nostalgia in Downing Street.

Reasonable comrade?

Asked if he thinks he is now seen as a comparatively moderate trade union leader Morris retorts with a smile: "Good job I'm not running for election given you saying how reasonable and comradely I am or I would probably lose all my votes.

"We all have our approach we all have our style, we all set ourselves our own objectives and approach it in a different way I've made my mistakes using my comradely approach and I have no doubt that tomorrows generation will also make mistakes.

"What is important is that we all learn from them, never to be repeated and use that experience to build something that is more tangible, something more long-lasting, more enduring.

"But at all times what we must do has to be for the common good of our members and for the common good of our society of which we are a part."

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Union voices



See also:

14 Apr 00 | Politics
11 Jan 02 | Politics
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08 Sep 01 | Education
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