His first job with Plessey in the '60s showed Monks what he deemed to be the unacceptable face of capitalism. Thirty years on, he has launched the TUC on the road to a new unionism and into battle against Britain's over-emphasis on shareholder returns, says Andrew Davidson.
John Monks, the face of new unionism, has cut himself shaving. 'Oh God, I always do this when a photographer's coming,' says the TUC boss, fingering a plaster running across one side of his jawline. He is pacing in shirtsleeves between his fourth-floor Congress House office and its adjacent boardroom, looking very uneasy. The boardroom, small and wood-panelled with rumbling air conditioning and a big bust of Ernest Bevin, is the original smoke-filled room, venue for all those legendary into-the-night-bang-heads-together talks which typified industrial disputes in times past. Now, festooned with Christmas cards and decorated with photos of Lakeland views, there is something endearingly quaint and shabby about it.
Monks takes time to settle. He shows me in, he walks out, he comes in again, he goes back out, still fingering his plaster. Finally he sits down, one arm resting on the boardroom table, Bevin behind him, and a look of studied concentration playing on his own face. It is an unremarkable face, relatively unlined for its 51 years, featuring a greying helmet of hair cut short, pale grey eyes and a tough, little chin. If you walked past Monks in the street, you would think him an engineer, or maybe a headmaster. You probably wouldn't think he was general secretary of one of the best-known union organisations in the world.
Of course, such is the diminished status of the TUC nowadays that few people outside politics even remember that it has a leader. Previous general secretaries - Vic Feather, Len Murray, even Monks' predecessor Norman Willis - were household names. Monks, it has to be said, is not, even though he is often to be heard on radio and television beavering away on issues such as the European single currency, the Social Chapter and the minimum wage. But then previous general secretaries had big disputes to sort out, guaranteeing extensive coverage on News At Ten, and did not have to operate in a hostile environment, with restrictive legislation, collapsing membership and a good degree of public antipathy towards industrial action.
Now all that may be about to change. The prospect of a Labour victory in this year's general election has led many to predict a reinvigorated role for the TUC, which has matched the successful spawning of New Labour with its own shift in style ('New unionism, the road to growth' was how the strapline put it on last year's TUC General Council report). Its advocates describe its new characteristics thus: pragmatic, effective, working in partnership with employers and government, less embroiled in Labour Party internal politics. It is all fairly blurred - or Blaired - at the moment, but it may come sharply into focus if Labour is elected. For instance, how will the TUC control the predicted upsurge in wage demands from public sector unions? Monks dismisses it. 'Some think the temptation for unrest will be higher but I don't think so. People have got a grip of what's going on.' Everyone, he implies, will be treading very carefully.
Which will suit the Monks style. Despite his low profile, he has a reputation as an effective political operator. It is not just the way in which he has helped distance the TUC from the new Labour Party - some would say Blair gave him no choice - but also the manner in which he has simultaneously developed an agenda for taking the union movement forward. 'Monks is very political, extremely urbane, and very clear about getting where he wants to go and taking his people with him,' sums up one Labour activist.
He has certainly transformed the TUC internally since taking over as general secretary four years ago. His admirers cite the slimming of Congress House's staff, the reduction in TUC bureaucracy and the vast improvement in the quality of its research and publications. It is, ironically, a similar shift to that made by the CBI in recent years, and it is no coincidence that Monks, once a management trainee at Plessey, has forged close links with the CBI's former head, Howard Davies, now deputy governor of the Bank of England, and Adair Turner, the new director general. Last year Monks became the first TUC head to address the CBI's annual conference.
Davies and Monks were both brought up in Blackley, Manchester, a quirk of fate which has, apparently, helped foster a firm friendship.
Yet running the TUC, set up over 120 years ago as the Trades Union Congress, is not an easy business. Funded by affiliation fees from member unions (current total 73, up from 67 three years ago), the organisation has to act as research co-ordinator, talking shop and spokesman representing the widest possible range of views. It is, perhaps inevitably, a famously windy organisation. Until recently, it ran its affairs via monthly General Council meetings which featured 50-odd union chiefs discussing the state of the world before Monks shifted power over to a smaller (26-strong) executive committee. It is not flush with cash, either. Last year it managed to spend nearly £1.3 million more than its £12.6 million income. Half its expenditure goes on staff costs (there are around 120 staff, down from 145 when Monks took over as general secretary), and a good chunk also goes on TUC affiliation to overseas labour organisations. But membership has nosedived from a peak of nearly 13 million to a 50-year-low of less than seven million, while the trend towards union amalgamation threatens to reduce its pivotal role.
And a lot of people still have to be convinced that there is a role for unions as we enter the 21st century. This, more than anything, has been the dilemma that Monks has tried to address, not just by modernising the TUC internally, but also by stressing what unions can do in today's info-tech-led, contract-bound, freelance workplace. His message is that the old confrontational approach of unions versus management in Britain must go, to be replaced by a new sense of partnership on the European model. That requires a bit of give on both sides: British unions must be flexible, and British managers must take a more holistic approach to business. In particular, Monks has thrown the TUC's propaganda weight behind the stakeholding lobby. He wants to convince managers that shareholder value should not be the corporate Holy Grail; that there have to be other aims more important than just maximising revenue for investors.
'I meet a lot of good people in British management,' says Monks, 'but I'm conscious of how vulnerable they are to the ever-strengthening demand for high returns to shareholders. The demand is that they return a 15% per year improvement. Now, unless you are in a fast-growth industry like mobile phones or fitness machines, hitting that kind of target by organic means is impossible.' The upshot, he says, is the cult of cost-cutting, and specifically job-cutting, as short-term solutions designed to keep the City happy. 'I'll give you a good example,' he continues. 'When I addressed the CBI conference in November, Marks & Spencer announced it was creating 2,000 new jobs and its share price went down. KwikSave announced the closure of 120 stores and its share price was marked up.' This trend is not, he says, just the result of globalisation or technological advance, it is simply because cutting costs is easier than raising income. Too much is being paid out by companies to shareholders, not enough is being retained. It is, he concludes, the economic problem of our age, and one which he acknowledges is intimately bound up in bigger issues such as wider share ownership and personal pensions.
Monks' solution is a 'redressing of the balance' back in favour of the employee: signing Britain into the Social Chapter, introducing a minimum wage, bringing in public policy in favour of worker rights and collective bargaining. It is an argument that won a lukewarm reception from British bosses at the CBI conference. Won't it make UK firms less competitive?
'No,' he says, 'it means they will have to take some other things into account by law other than the duty of the company directors to maximise shareholder value.' Isn't that avoiding the question, though? No, he says, such moves will simply force British companies to think long-term, like some of their rivals on the Continent.
Easier said than done, of course, but, with a general election imminent, Monks appears quietly confident that this time, if Labour gets elected, the problem might actually get addressed. Even so, he is sure to choose his words carefully. 'We're in an era of no deals, no backstairs understandings of what will go on (if Labour wins). We strongly support what Tony Blair has said - that he will legislate early on a minimum wage, on rights of representation for individuals, on bringing Britain into the Social Chapter, on the right for collective bargaining where the majority want it. Add to that, proportionate rights for part-time workers and we say, "Fine, we welcome that, it will start to redress the balance".'
But does Monks think Blair will do everything he has promised? 'Yes,' he says, deadpan, 'I take no heed of the scare stories.' Does he have Blair's personal commitment that he will? Monks' expression doesn't change.
'I take no heed of the scare stories,' he repeats, slowly. A silence hangs between us for a moment. Monks is not, by nature, a warm, demonstrative man - years of arbitrating on TUC committees has doubtless moulded his softly-softly manner - and it takes time to get him relaxed. Then again, according to those who know him well, he is very congenial company, sharp, with a wry sense of humour. I try a seasonal change of tack. Did he get a Christmas card from Tony Blair? Monks' stern countenance cracks into a broad smile. No, he laughs, he didn't, he had to make do with one from John Prescott. But funnily enough, he adds, he used to get a card from Blair in his pre-Labour-leader days. I can make of that what I will.
Monks has been a Labour supporter nearly all his life. He was born and brought up in north Manchester, on the edge of Boggart Hole Clough Park, where his father was district parks supervisor. He didn't have a particularly political upbringing, he says: his mother, a former teacher, always voted Liberal, and his father's voting habits were a mystery. His father did, however, tell his son stories about his time working as an apprentice gardener on the Rothschild estate at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. 'He said that when a klaxon sounded, all the gardeners had to leap into the bushes as it meant the dowager Lady Rothschild was coming past and she couldn't bear to see them,' laughs Monks.
He attended technical school in Moss Side, followed Manchester United on Saturdays (he is still a keen fan) and picked up his political education from Methodist Sunday School. He went on to read economic history at Nottingham University in the mid-'60s and, had all else failed, would probably have become a teacher. But instead, fired with enthusiasm by Harold Wilson's talk of export or die, and 'the white heat of the technological revolution', he hit the graduate milk round and plumped for a management trainee job at Plessey. It was not a happy marriage. He quit two years later, thoroughly disillusioned with what he had seen of British management methods.
What happened? 'My idealism about export or die gave way to a cynicism about the way the management politicked against each other,' says Monks.
'Anything that went wrong, they looked for someone else to blame.' Working on a radar project for the Australian Air Force at Plessey's Weybridge plant, he says he witnessed senior managers deliberately fomenting a strike in order to escape a penalty clause for late delivery in the contract.
'We were behind because a supplier was late, and the only way you could get out of the penalty clause was through an act of God or industrial dispute. So they sacked the convenor of the sheet metal shop, the metal workers went out, the strike lasted two weeks (by which time the part arrived from the supplier), the company settled the dispute and never had to pay the penalty. The convenor didn't get his job back, either.' When Monks complained, he was told that such things had to be done. 'I said, well, that's not the kind of organisation I want to work for.'
So when he saw an ad in the New Statesman for a job at the TUC, he swiftly applied. 'They were looking for someone with experience of production management willing to work for about half the salary that anyone with production management experience could have worked for,' he says. Those were the days when the TUC got about 400 applications for every position it advertised. Monks' experience at Plessey stood him in good stead. He got the job, starting in 1969, and has been at Congress House ever since.
It was a complete change of culture. 'I felt I had stepped into a more virtuous world, one where getting things done was the top priority, rather than finding reasons why things didn't get done when they should have got done.' He was thrown in at the deep end, becoming an expert in industrial relations legislation, mixing with ministers and senior civil servants.
'I was very impressed,' he says. 'A lot of businessmen have this myth that they are at the cutting edge and Whitehall is full of duffers. My experience was that it was much the other way round.'
He does admit though that the pay was lousy and he seriously considered leaving at least two or three times because, once married, he didn't think he could afford a family. 'My wife was a student, I had take-home pay of £19 a week and I was paying £10 a week rent in Wandsworth.' Then in 1976 Len Murray changed the TUC salary scales and Monks stayed. Today he and his family live in a nice place in Lewisham and he earns £56,000 a year as general secretary. Is that a fair rate?
'Yes,' he says, 'it's a good job and a good salary.'
He never expected to become general secretary, he claims. But his expertise in industrial relations law catapulted him into the forefront as Margaret Thatcher attacked the unions in the '80s with a raft of restrictive legislation.
It was a tough time for the TUC. Monks cites the Labour/SDP split, and Arthur Scargill's miners' strike in 1984/5 as the major low points. That strike, in particular, he says, tore the Labour movement down the middle and was a defining moment in TUC history, as the organisation palpably failed to find a role for itself.
To a certain extent, Monks is still picking up the pieces of that debacle today. With union membership declining, it is clear many are still unconvinced that joining a union has anything to offer, and this despite massive job insecurity. Monks argues that, in many cases, employers are threatening employees. 'It's not just a question of people not bothering to join because unions are powerless, but of people putting themselves in a more vulnerable position if they do join one. We're not short of employer examples who give that message out: "You may be insecure now, my boy, but enjoy it because you'll be a lot less secure when you join a union. You'll be first on the redundancy list".'
The point to be made, he says, is that most big successful companies don't try and stamp out their unions, they work hand in hand with them.
He cites statistics: 84 out of the FTSE Top 100 companies are unionised, and 44 out of the Top 50. As an example of best practice, Monks cites the car industry, where long-term deals have virtually removed any threat of industrial strife, and some of the major new utilities. Here he has to declare an interest. Monks himself is vice-president of Scottish Power's Learning Business initiative, which guarantees education and training opportunities for employees and their families.
Yet isn't it wider than that? Unions, searching for a role in modern business, are still saddled with an old image: that they are regressive.
People in Britain just don't associate unions with entrepreneurial flair.
When, for instance, was the last time Richard Branson dropped into Congress House for a chat?
Monks snorts. 'Branson? Oh, he's never been round here, but he's a one-off. When his airline unionised, he went down and cried in front of them: "Have I let you down?" and all that sort of stuff. They all said, "OK we won't push it". But we'll get him one of these days. He says you only get unions when you have bad management, but look at somewhere like Tesco.
It is now the number one supermarket in Britain. It has gone upmarket and it has changed its culture in a way that no other company has managed; it has done it all with union support, and it has stuck by its union ever since.'
The difficulty, he admits, is that Lord MacLaurin, Tesco's boss, isn't as photogenic as Branson. But hang on, wouldn't he have a problem with MacLaurin's £1 million-plus pay-and-perks packet? Monks shifts a bit uneasily.
'Yeah, well, all their salaries are too big, aren't they? I'm happy to see it linked to performance, though, so long as that's not linked to maximising dividends and share value. If it's based on organic growth then I am all in favour of it. I don't mind Eric Cantona earning a lot of money if he scores a lot of goals.' So perhaps Monks should get a bonus linked to attracting new membership? 'I don't think that would assist us,' he says, with a grim smile.
The interview over, Monks shows me Jacob Epstein's famous monument to trade unionists who died in the wars: a twice-life-size statue of a mother cradling a dead son which stands in Congress House's central courtyard.
He tells me that the TUC commissioned the work, approved Epstein's conventional maquette but was horrified when the statue was unveiled. Epstein had remodelled it in a completely different, brutalist style. 'A lot of them didn't want to take the statue, they thought Epstein had made the soldier look like a chimpanzee, but Vic Feather persuaded them to,' says Monks. Bradford-born Feather, it turns out, was something of an art collector, persuading the likes of Epstein and LS Lowry to sell him works at highly reduced rates. He was better known, of course, as the archetypal, streetwise TUC general secretary who always balanced the wilder views of his membership with the political exigencies of the day. A practical man? 'Yeah, he was cute,' says Monks, wandering off to check his plaster in a mirror. The next few years may tell whether he gets cast in the same mould.
1945: Born 5 August, Manchester. Educated Ducie Technical High School, Manchester, and Nottingham University
1967: Plessey management trainee
1969: Joined TUC
1977: Head of organisation and industrial relations department
1987: Deputy general secretary
1993: General secretary
John Monks is also a member of the council of ACAS, a trustee of the National Museum of Labour History, and a governor of Sedgehill School and the LSE.
What People Say
'John is what people want from someone in his position: highly intelligent, constructive, practical, someone with whom they can do business.' - Margaret Beckett MP, shadow secretary of state for trade and industry
'Monks is the first TUC leader to have a clear agenda for the world of business. If you want to project 20 years into the future, it wouldn't surprise me if he'd want to run the TUC and the CBI together.' - A Labour activist
'The thing about John is that he is extremely reliable. If he says he is going to do something, he does it. He has got strong powers of analysis, and he is as tough with his colleagues as he is with those in opposition to the TUC. He is also pretty good company.' - Baroness Liz Symons, former head of the Association of First Division Civil Servants
'He wants to instigate controversial changes but he knows the system well enough to understand that you don't stand up and make a prima donna of yourself.' - Baroness Dean, former general secretary of SOGAT
'John's whole style is non-emotional and non-confrontational. He puts his points of view clearly and he looks for areas of agreement. But there is no attempt to hide the areas of disagreement.' - Adair Turner, director general of the CBI.