Bill Morris: a social conscience

James Ferguson talks to the British trade union leader, Jamaican-born Bill Morris

  • Photograph courtesy Bill Morris
  • Morris marches with some female supporters. Photograph courtesy Transport and General Workers' Union
  • Courtesy Transport and General Workers' Union
  • Morris with catering workers during the campaign to become General Secretary. Photograph courtesy Transport and General Workers' Union
  • The newly-elected General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union faces the media. Photograph by Peter Arhell
  • Morris with Neville Laurence. Photograph courtesy Transport and General Workers' Union

Outside all is chaos and crisis, or so it seems. A one-hour train journey now takes two hours. Global warming is hotting up and it is the wettest autumn since records began. The truckers are angry again at fuel prices, the stock market is depressed, the barbarians are at the gates. Rain teems down over another line of desperate and stationary traffic. These are times when you wonder what is happening to Britain.

But inside all is calm and order. I am sitting in the reception area of the Transport and General Workers Union headquarters in central London, waiting for my interview with its General Secretary, Bill Morris. He is probably the most high-profile individual of Caribbean birth in British public life, instantly identifiable on television or radio, perhaps even more so through his rich Jamaican tones laced with an occasional Brummie twang. It has been hard work getting the interview, for Morris is a phenomenally busy man. Not just leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, he is currently president of the Trade Union Congress, active in reforming the House of Lords, is on the governing body of seven universities, and is involved in a plethora of trade union and political committees. He is even a non-executive director of the Bank of England.

Finally, a time has been found, and I wait, looking at the benign or stern features of previous T&G leaders on the wall of the reception area. Morris follows an illustrious line of predecessors, starting with Ernie Bevin, the union’s founder. Morris, of course, is the only non-white face.

When I am shown into his office at the top of the seven-storey building (the lift has broken, making me think the British malaise has reached here too), Morris is genuinely apologetic. He has had a speaking engagement, is running late (like everyone), has been conferring with staff. But now he turns his attention to the interview. If he is tired, he doesn’t show it. And if he has heard the questions before, he answers them as if for the first time, seriously and sincerely. This is precisely what first strikes you about Morris: a certain gravitas mixed with conviction and openness. His is not the “spin” beloved of the media, nor sound bites churned out for the occasion, but the opinions of someone who really believes in fundamentals, in absolute values.

I ask Morris how and why he became a trade unionist. It was all to do, he says, with his childhood in rural Jamaica, where he was born in 1938. “I think I owe my attachment to the idea of collectivism, of working together, to my experience in the village. It was the natural thing to do in a small place where everyone knew everyone and joys and pains were shared. Adults not only had the right to discipline other people’s children if they were misbehaving, but they also had a duty to protect them.”

Morris’s father was a key figure in the Jamaica Agricultural Society, a body set up to enable small farmers to cooperate and to obtain fertilizers, tools and so on. “Nobody had modern machinery, just basic tools, because lots of people were farming just five acres of corn. So they would get together and on one day work on Mr Brown’s field and then the next on someone else’s, so the work was shared cooperatively and there was mutual support.”

Morris’s childhood obsession was cricket. He was clearly good at school, but couldn’t wait to get out and demonstrate his batting prowess. “I think I only wanted enough maths to be able to work out my batting averages,” he says, “and I took every opportunity to display my in-built ability to open the batting for the West Indies.” His humour is self-deprecating and immediately likable. “I even selected my secondary school entirely on the basis of its cricket pitch.”

But he was not to be a West Indian batsman. In 1954, Morris’s father, who had moved to Britain, died suddenly, and the young Morris found himself living in the Handsworth area of Birmingham with his widowed mother. He had to earn a living, so at 16 he joined a local engineering company, studying on a day-release scheme at Handsworth Technical College. He joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1958, and four years later was elected shop steward at Hardy Spicers, the engineering company.

It wasn’t long before he was involved in his first dispute, a conflict over trade union recognition, from which he emerged with credit. From then on his ascent up the ranks of the union was steady: elected a member of the general executive council in 1972, employed as a district officer in 1973, appointed a district secretary in 1976, and then elected deputy general secretary in 1986.

Those, of course, were the days of Margaret Thatcher, not renowned for her sympathy towards the unions. Life was not easy for those whom the pro-Tory press used to refer to as “union barons”, so legislation was introduced to clip their wings. But Morris was overwhelmingly re-elected as deputy in a secret postal ballot of members in 1990, and in 1991 was elected general secretary. An attempt to unseat him, reportedly by “modernizing” allies of Tony Blair, fell flat in 1995, when he was re-elected by the union membership.

Morris’s challenges in the ten years since leading the union have been, to say the least, significant, as he himself admits. “We have faced hostile government and hostile legislation, but more than that a period of immense structural change. We have had to follow dramatic economic transformations, away from traditional manufacturing towards services, new industries and nowadays e-commerce. Steel mills have largely gone, and instead we’ve got new, high-tech industries that are much less regulated, much more flexible, and as a union we’ve had to react to all this.”

I ask Morris what he thinks his biggest achievement has been. He is disarmingly modest. “Well, I’d like to think we’ve been involved in quite a few debates, on the direction of the Labour Party, on pensions, on the treatment of asylum seekers, for instance. But my main priority has been to encourage a physical and cultural transformation of the union, bringing [it] into the mainstream of British politics. For a while survival was the priority. Now I think we’ve turned the corner and are going from strength to strength.”

Morris is now warming to his subject, as I raise the dreaded G-word. “Of course, globalisation is having an enormous impact on the union and our members. But we can’t say ‘stop the world, I want to get off’. We have to adapt to new conditions and an evolution in working practices. The old-fashioned free collective bargaining approach may have worked on the shop floor, but now more and more people are home workers, on contracts, working part-time. We have to broaden our appeal to all these people, become a legitimate and authentic voice for all workers, not just our traditional members.”

Isn’t the problem, I suggest, that governments have less and less power and multinational corporations more and more? “Absolutely,” says Morris, “and that is where a union like ours has a role to play in protecting its members, in humanizing the process of social change. The problem is one of social exclusion. More and more people are being left behind by globalisation and technology. What you saw in the anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle and Prague was a symptom of that. Of course we condemn the violence, but you can’t afford to ignore the message.”

An image of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, himself the son of Jamaican immigrants, flashes through my mind as I ask Morris about his work on the Commission for Racial Equality. How far, I wonder, does he consider Britain to have become a multicultural society?

“We are a pluralistic society,” says Morris. “Our diversity is both a reality and a virtue. So the multicultural society is succeeding to an extent, but that is probably despite the government rather than because of it. By that I mean the government has put in place a legislative framework, banning discrimination and so on, and of course we welcome that, but it has hardly led by example. Look at the cabinet, for example. Every one of them is white. Look at the police, the judiciary, and you’ll find the same thing. What is required is more than just a qualitative difference in representation in these areas, it’s a shift in the culture itself. I always quote Bill Clinton’s remark, ‘I want my government to look like America’, and he did something to make that happen.”

Bill Morris’s outlook on almost everything seems to be conditioned by a keen sense of justice and a pronounced distaste for prejudice of any sort. He has personally campaigned for the rights of asylum seekers, for instance, arguing that politicians have pandered to the worst instincts of British public opinion by talking in terms of “floods” (as if we hadn’t had enough of real floods) and emphasizing the allegedly bogus at the expense of the genuine refugee. He recently went shopping with an asylum seeker to highlight the routine humiliation of being handed food vouchers with which to eke out the most meagre of existences.

Morris believes that people from the ethnic communities are systematically under-represented in many walks of life. “The only place where black people are over-represented,” he says with grim humour, “is in prison. There you’d be excused for thinking you were in South Africa. There are still racist murders, still acts of humiliation. There is still a long way to go.”

Does Morris think that perhaps some black people do not bother to aim high because they expected to be discriminated against? For the first time, I felt a distinctly sharp tone in the riposte. “Who wants to be repeatedly humiliated? Of course, racism discourages people, but that doesn’t mean it is their fault. Experience of discrimination does blunt the edge.”

So had Morris ever experienced any such discrimination? I ask naively. As Morris answers, he gradually begins to shake with uncontrollable laughter at the stupidity of the question. “Well, let’s say you’d have to be exceptionally privileged to live in the UK for 46 years without experiencing some sort of prejudice.”

Such as what? I ask, somewhat chastened. “When I applied for my first union job in the 70s, I was told that the members ‘weren’t ready for a black officer’. There have been a few names called over the years. On one occasion I wanted to buy a house. I visited it, sent in a cheque as a deposit, and then was surprised to have the cheque sent back. Apparently the owner didn’t want to sell any more. But when I went past the house some time later, the for sale sign was still there. This was the period when somebody had a sign in their window saying no blacks. And something very odd happened just the other day. I was coming into this building, having just parked my car, and a man shouted at me: ‘You black bastard! Why don’t you go home?’ That was the first time I’d heard something like that in 30 years.”

Morris seems genuinely shocked by such crass ignorance, but it does not seem to dent his affection for Britain and its people. “England is my home. I’ve spent two-thirds of my life here. On the whole, I feel quite privileged.” Can he go down to his local supermarket without people recognizing him? He laughs again, but not unkindly. “No, but I don’t mind at all. In fact, people often come and shake my hand, so it’s OK really.”

Since 1999, Morris has been Chancellor of the University of Technology in Kingston, Jamaica, a position that requires his attendance at committee meetings and degree ceremonies. “That’s the minimum I have to do,” he says, “but I like to think I take an interest in the students and I would like to act as an ambassador for the university. In a wild moment I said that it should become the people’s university, and now for my sins I’ve been charged with making that become a reality. It’s a question of building distance learning, like the Open University here in Britain, of making the university come to the people rather than the other way round.”

It’s hard to imagine a man so busy, so much in the public eye, being able to relax, to be at home, but Morris insists he can. He was widowed in 1990 when his wife Minetta died, but he sees a lot of his two grown-up sons and two grandchildren. Home is Hemel Hempstead, and it is there that he tends what he calls his “green postage stamp”, in other words a diminutive but weed-prone garden. “Let’s say that if I was left alone by everyone, I wouldn’t starve,” he says.

He is rarely left alone, it seems, but he can cook good Jamaican food, if required. Reggae music he can take or leave, but his real passion is jazz. “There’s a jazz club I go to near Milton Keynes, owned by Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, and I’ll be there on Friday night listening to Marion Montgomery.” After an hour spent with Morris, you feel you’d like to be there too.

Instinctively on the side of the underdog, opposed to the selfish individualism that marked the Thatcher period, Morris stands for another view of the world, one rooted in trade union values as well as his Jamaican childhood. As I leave Transport House to face another odyssey of delayed trains and disaster-laden headlines, I think that Britain perhaps isn’t all bad if it has people like Morris involved in its public life.

Would he consider returning to Jamaica one day when he retired? I asked. Morris clearly didn’t like the sound of retirement, but said he’d consider the options if and when the time came. That, I think, would be Jamaica’s gain and Britain’s loss, but in any case, Bill Morris still has a great deal more to offer to a country that needs people like him.