THE AWARD of a knighthood to outgoing TGWU union general secretary Bill Morris might have caught many people by surprise. He has never been identified as being inside the Blair camp.
In practice the role played by Morris was not dissimilar to those of his right wing counterparts in other unions. The 1991 TGWU general secretary election to replace the outgoing Ron Todd sparked a wave of interest. The election was seen as heralding a ‘wind of change’ inside the TGWU, and reports were rife that the union hierarchy were combining against the ‘left’ candidate, Bill Morris.
His opponent George Wright was backed by most regional secretaries, the right wing press and the Labour leadership. Morris won handsomely. He became the first black man to achieve such a position in the trade union movement.
The initial indications were promising. There was a threat to cut the funding to sponsored MPs if they didn’t give full backing to the union. The TGWU opposed the move by Blair to ditch Clause Four, the sole remaining commitment by the Labour Party to support for public ownership. Blair organised a leadership challenge to Morris in 1995, getting behind his opponent Jack Dromey, a staunch Blair supporter.
Once again Morris prevailed. The focus turned to what that meant in practice for TGWU workers engaged in struggle. Bus drivers in Chelmsford working for Badgerline, one of the biggest operators in the country, struck in November 1994.
Morris took direct control of the dispute. He set up a rival bus service, crewed by strikers, to compete with the scab service run by Badgerline. The tactic was an abject failure with the dispute going down to defeat and 96 drivers sacked. Landmark dispute
In 1999 catering workers employed by LFG Sky Chefs at Heathrow, a subsidiary of the airline Lufthansa, were locked out and sacked. This was seen as a landmark dispute by the union. Lufthansa were vulnerable – they had similar operations at other airports. An all-out dispute with Lufthansa nationally could have brought the strike to a successful conclusion.
Morris insisted action be confined to Heathrow in spite of clear indications of support from other groups of airport workers. A glossy ‘Don’t fly Lufthansa’ campaign was counterposed to solidarity action. It was a failure.
The only dispute that Morris was unable to gain a stranglehold on was the Liverpool dockers’ fight. In 1995 some 500 dockers were sacked for taking solidarity action with workers employed by a minor dockyard contractor. They refused to toe the Morris line, continuing their support for the strike in spite of an instruction by the union to return to work. Morris refused to make the strike official, award strike pay or call solidarity action.
He prevented the dockers from addressing the union’s conference in 1997 and refused to intercede on their behalf with the newly elected Labour government. This last outpost of dockers’ organisation was eliminated. The blame can be laid at the feet of Bill Morris.
Credit has to be given to Morris for taking on the Blair government over issues such as the persecution of asylum seekers. He was prepared to speak against the government’s policies on the health service and privatisation.
He was always careful to separate his personal intervention from the position of the union on these issues. The union never moved to confront the government. The award of the knighthood is almost certainly an acknowledgement of Morris’s role in this.
Morris has always been a machine man, concentrating on the needs of the union structure and administration, and putting that before the needs of the members. He has been a loyal servant to the union. He has done a grave disservice to those prepared to stand up to the bosses.
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