No trade union leader since the second world war had to cope with such a catalogue of disasters, nor become so embroiled in a climate of political and industrial decline, as Norman Willis, the former general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, who has died aged 81.
As TUC general secretary for nine years from 1984 and before that as No 2 to Len Murray for almost 11 years, Willis was at the ringside, and then inside the ring, during what was one of the most traumatic and damaging periods in British trade union history.
The TUC had reached record membership levels of more than 12 million affiliated trade unionists under the leadership successively of George Woodcock, Victor Feather and Murray. The role of leading the TUC then fell to Willis – a jolly, humorous man. It was, however, a poisoned chalice. He presided over a period in which the very phrase "trade union" seemed to evoke ignominious response and even ridicule. When he took over from Murray – in mid-stream of the miners' strike – the decline in TUC membership had already begun. By the time Willis left Congress House in 1993, membership had dropped to below eight million.
Yet even those figures conceal the true depth of the trauma that Willis inherited: he took over from Murray at a time when Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers was already in serious retreat; when Margaret Thatcher was moving to her period of greatest strength and influence after the Falklands; and when public opinion began to see trade union membership as irrelevant.
No fair-minded observer could accuse Willis of being responsible for the debacle he inherited and tried to handle. The brutal truth is that no one could have achieved much better. The trade unions were the principal victims of the Thatcherite thunder, partly because of the developing anti-union legislation; partly due to the return of mass unemployment (it had already risen above three million when Willis took over); and finally because a central feature of Thatcher's political strategy was to slash the public sector, especially the nationalised industries, in which trade union strength was traditionally predominant.
Willis first came to the TUC at the end of 1973, shortly after Murray succeeded Feather to the top post. He began his work as assistant general secretary in the early months of 1974 when the Heath government was tottering under the pressures of a miners' strike, the oil crisis and economic turbulence. The TUC was then a power in the land and the leader of its strongest affiliate, Jack Jones, of the Transport and General Workers' Union, was singled out in opinion polls as holding more sway than prime ministers. Indeed it was Jones who nominated Willis – then a full-time TGWU official – for the TUC post, a move which some saw as Jones's tactical ploy to put his own man inside Congress House, something Willis always denied.
Willis was born in Hayes, then in Middlesex, the son of Jim, a barber and council worker, and Kate, who worked in laundries and canteens and whom Norman described as a "working-class suffragette" and his mentor. Both parents were active trade unionists and socialists. He was the youngest of five children and life was tough – though he never exaggerated the theme of childhood poverty. Even so, all the ingredients were in place for a life committed to trade unionism.
In later years Willis described one of his first introductions to writing poetry: "I wasn't aware of being particularly deprived. No one had very much then and we weren't poverty stricken. But I can remember the anxiety when the gas man was due to come. I wrote a poem about it..." His poetry developed throughout his period as a union official, and when he was TUC general secretary; he later served as vice-president of the Poetry Society. Another interest was embroidery and he wrote a column for CrossStitcher magazine from 1998 until 2009.
He joined the TGWU as a 16-year-old office boy, at its central London headquarters in Transport House, straight from Ashford County grammar school. He was promoted to a clerical job in the union's education department, arranging courses for London busmen. He took some of the courses himself and then, aged 22, went to Ruskin College, Oxford, on a union-sponsored scholarship. He read philosophy and political science, and graduated after two years with a diploma which took him on to Oriel College, Oxford, where he gained a "good second" in 1959.
When he returned to the TGWU, he became research assistant to the general secretary Frank Cousins – at the moment when Cousins was turning round the union from stalwart Labour rightwing orthodoxy to a campaigning leftwing platform. Under Jones, Cousins's successor, Willis's promotion continued and in 1970 he became the union's national secretary in charge of research and education. He also put a gentle foot into the political arena by becoming a member of the Labour group of Staines urban district council; but he carried no serious ambition to go further in the political field.
In 1974 he made the move to the TUC. Willis's appointment had been in the face of stiff competition from David Lea, Ken Graham, Pat Fisher and Alan Hargreaves – all well-established TUC departmental heads with long experience; the fact that Willis won the post of assistant to Murray lent weight to the rumour that it was all the result of Jones's influence. Willis quickly became Murray's troubleshooter at large.
His big break came in 1976 when, in the middle of the crucial debate with the Wilson government over wage restraint, he deputised for Murray, who was recovering from a heart attack. A year later, he was formally appointed Murray's deputy – again coming ahead of Lea and Graham, both of whom became assistant general secretaries. At the annual conference in 1984, Willis succeeded Murray and was immediately thrust into the most difficult part of the miners' strike.
With Scargill at the head of the NUM determined to keep the TUC at arm's length, Willis found negotiating with the miners' leaders no easier than Murray had done. Scargill rejected compromise and was suspicious of any mediation by the TUC. Willis tried to bridge the widening gulf between the NUM leader and the rest of the Labour movement – including advising the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, with whom he was on very close terms and for whom his wife, Maureen, worked. But it was to no avail.
Willis even agreed to speak at a miners' meeting in South Wales, largely to save Kinnock from a possible rough-house. The response to Willis's appeal to them to seek a compromise deal was a hangman's noose that was slowly lowered from the rafters of the meeting hall until it rested close to his head.
One Sunday morning in April 1993, Willis phoned round the senior figures of the TUC general council to announce his decision to retire early; he had just turned 60 and had had enough. He was succeeded by John Monks.
Willis had travelled through the furnace; in his nine years, there had been three new acts of parliament tightening the legal curbs on the unions; the Murdoch print revolution, focused on Wapping, had virtually wiped out one of the traditional strongholds of trade unionism; Thatcher had carried out a ban on unions at GCHQ; the miners' defeat had created the worst climate of union despondency since the 1926 general strike; and membership slumped.
Willis tried to smile through the debacle but he spent more and more time composing poetry. He did become a convinced pro-European and in 1991 was elected president of the European TUC. He turned down a knighthood offered to him by John Major, just as he had turned aside a proposal from the Labour leader John Smith that he might consider going into the House of Lords. Both of these refusals were more than mere token rejections of the baubles of privilege – they were genuine reflections of the modest ambitions of an over-modest man.
Willis is survived by Maureen, whom he married in 1963, and their children, Liz and Andrew.
• Norman David Willis, trade union leader, born 21 January 1933; died 7 June 2014
• Geoffrey Goodman died in 2013
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