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Sir William "Bill" Morris Biography

union secretary trade british

1938—

British trade union leader

Morris, Bill, photograph. Julian Herbert/Getty Images

Arguably the most influential black Briton in history, labor leader Bill Morris moved to England in 1954 from Jamaica. He joined the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1958 and became one of the union's full-time officials in 1973, rising through the ranks to become its leader in 1991. A moderate and a supporter of Tony Blair at a time when the Labour Party and the British trade union movement were battling with their radical tendencies, Morris was not popular at first. But he was reelected in 1995 and served a total of 12 years as general secretary. As the leader of Britain's biggest and most powerful trade union, Morris had great influence over the Labour Party and indirectly, from 1997, government policy. He later became a critic of the Blair administration.

Morris's quiet but authoritative leadership helped rein in the more militant elements of the union during the 1980s and 1990s and ushered in a period of modernization. It was also significant in regaining respect for trade unionism in British public life after decades of conflict and decline. His ability as a leader has also been recognized outside trade unionism and he has been an adviser for various public bodies, including universities and the BBC. In 1998 he became a non-executive director of the Bank of England, a remarkable achievement for a first-generation immigrant with almost no formal education beyond the age of 16. He received a knighthood, Britain's highest civil honor, in 2003.

Morris was born in Bombay, Jamaica, on October 19, 1938, the son of William Morris, a part-time policeman, and Una Morris, a domestic science teacher. He grew up in Manchester, Jamaica, and attended Mizpah school, where he excelled at cricket and hoped one day to play for the West Indies. He was also intending to go to agricultural college, but when his father died he moved to Birmingham, England, in 1954 to live with his mother. Like many immigrants from the Caribbean, Morris found it difficult to adjust to life in Britain at first, not least because the cold, wet weather was unlike anything he had ever experienced. But he found a job at Hardy Spicers, an engineering company based in Birmingham, and began studying at Handsworth Technical College, near to his home. He married Minetta in 1957 and they had two sons, Garry, and Clyde; Minetta died in 1990.

In 1958 Morris joined the Transport and General Workers' Union. Now known simply as the T&G, the union dates back to 1922, the date that fourteen unions representing workers from heavy industry, transport, and general trades merged. At its founding the T&G became one of the largest and most powerful unions; its first general secretary was Ernest Bevin, one of the founders of the British welfare state after World War II. Morris joined at a time when union membership was rising quickly and when the political climate in Britain was favorable to union lobbying. He quickly became involved with the day-to-day running of the union branch at Hardy Spicers and in 1963 was elected shop steward, representing a group of employees to the company's management.

Morris became a full-time union official in 1973, when he took the post of organizer for the Nottingham and Derby District; he later became the Northampton District secretary. His first national role came in 1979, when he was appointed national secretary for the Passenger Services Trade Group, negotiating pay and conditions in the bus industry. In 1986 he became deputy general secretary of the union at a time when the Thatcher government was introducing legislation to limit union power. Under new laws union leaders had to be elected and in 1990 his appointment was confirmed by a postal ballot. As deputy general secretary he held responsibility for managing union activities in four transport sectors, in the energy sector, in engineering, as well as representing many white collar workers. Morris had benefited personally from the T&G's educational services and he used his position to champion worker education and training as a factor in promoting equal opportunities.

Morris took over the leadership of the union when he was elected to the position of General Secretary in 1991. At the time of his election he insisted that he did not see himself as the black candidate, saying: "I am not the black candidate, rather the candidate who is black." As a moderate in the British trade union movement, Morris was an ally of the Labour Party, then struggling to regain credibility as a political force. Part of that struggle was its desire to control the extreme left wing of the party, known as the "militant tendency," and Morris himself took steps to control militants in his union. Despite becoming unpopular with many members as a result, he was re-elected in 1995.

When the Blair government came to power in 1997 Morris became a powerful friend to the new prime minister, but the relationship soured over policies introduced following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. When the first plane flew into the towers Morris was chairing the annual conference of the Trade Union Congress in Brighton, on the south coast of England, and was looking forward to introducing Tony Blair as a keynote speaker that afternoon. As the news emerged, Blair returned to London immediately and in the days that followed Morris declared his support for the government in the war against terror. But it wasn't long before Morris's relationship with the Blair government turned sour. He told The Guardian newspaper in 2002: "When we said on September 11 that we support our prime minister, we didn't say we would support the government undermining our liberty, our freedom, and our democracy. And we didn't say that we should declare war on Islam as we have seen."

At a Glance...

Born William Morris on October 19, 1938, in Bombay, Jamaica; married Minetta (died 1990); children: Garry, Clyde. Education: Handsworth Technical College.

Career: Joined Hardy Spicers, a Birmingham engineering firm, 1958; Transport and General Workers Union (T&G), became shop steward, 1963; T&G, Nottingham and Derby District, full-time union official, 1973-76; T&G, Northampton District Secretary, 1976-79; T&G, National Secretary for the Passenger Services Trade Group, 1979; T&G, Deputy General Secretary, 1986; T&G, General Secretary (elected), 1991-2003; University of Technology, Jamaica, Chancellor, 1999–.

Memberships: T&G General Executive Council member, 1972-73; Trade Union Congress (TUC) General Council and Executive Committee, 1988-03; Bank of England, non-executive director, 1998–; Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords, 1999-2000; The Prince's Youth Business Trust, advisory committee; Open University Foundation, trustee board member; City and Guilds of London Institute, fellow.

Awards: Order of Jamaica, 2003; Knighthood, November 2003; many honorary degrees.

Perhaps Morris's most bitterly fought dispute, however, was not with the government or with hard-nosed employers, but with his own members. In 1995 the Liverpool-based Mersey Docks and Harbour Company sacked 500 workers for refusing to cross a picket line, an act that triggered an unofficial dispute that lasted 28 months and led to Liverpool-registered ships being turned away by dock workers at ports around the world. Because no ballot was held the T&G could not publicly support the strike and as its leader Morris became a target for vitriolic attacks, including being portrayed as an enemy of the dockers in a 1999 British TV drama, Dockers. It is believed that the T&G gave over £700,000 to support the strikers' families.

During his twelve-year term of office, Morris was involved in many campaigns to improve workers' rights and establish greater equality in the workplace. In the 1980s and 1990s he was a prominent campaigner for a minimum wage in Britain and in fact one of the Blair government's first achievements after the landslide election victory of 1997 was to implement a minimum wage. Morris also fought throughout his career with the union to secure the right of British workers to organize and to have their unions recognized, a right that was fiercely denied by employers' organizations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). After Blair's 1997 victory the debate raged fiercely, but Morris and others stood firm and eventually prevailed.

Alongside his work for the T&G, Morris worked as an adviser to several important national British organizations, including sitting on the advisory councils of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). His reputation as a high-level negotiator with an ability to grasp complex issues and address them in a fair and balanced way also saw him appointed to the Economic and Social Affairs Committee of the European Union. In 1998 he became a non-executive director of the Bank of England and in 1999 he was part of the Royal Commission for Reform of the House of Lords. He was listed for a knighthood, Britain's highest civil honor, in 2003. On hearing of the award Morris said: "I hope that in this recognition today's young black Britons will find some inspiration. I have always held the view that race can be an inspiration, not a barrier."

Sources

Periodicals

The Guardian (London), September 9, 2002; December 16, 2002; February 5, 2003; April 19, 2004.

New African, June, 2002.

New Statesman, February 27, 1998; September 10, 2001; March 10, 2003.

On-line

"Biography of Sir Bill Morris," Transport and General Workers Union, http://www.tgwu.org.uk/Templates/Internal.asp?NodeID=89667&L1=-1&L2=89667 (February 3, 2005).

"Black British Citizens: Sir Bill Morris," The Black Presence in Britain, http://www.blackpresence.co.uk/pages/citizens/morris.htm (February 3, 2005).

"Sir Bill Morris," 100 Great Black Britons, http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/bill_morris.html (February 3, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

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