On the eve of the Trades Union Congress, Shirley Skeel looks at a union leader with partners on his mind.
Bill Jordan has just finished Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and is now engrossed in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. A curious contrast maybe, but then Jordan is a curious man. He likes to keep a grip on all the permutations of the human mind. You might even say it is part of his job.
In private, Jordan is a quiet man, with a fondness for Shakespeare and the underdogs in football. But the job he holds makes him a very public figure and so he must understand many differing points of view. Thus he has made it his habit to sieve through events and ideas, patching together a working philosophy which, even if it bends the corners of his ideal, is, if nothing else, practical.
And it is this, more than his good nature, more than his intelligence and more than his inbred political instinct, which has put him at the head of Britain's second biggest union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), formed in May by the merger of the engineering and electricians' unions.
"We from the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) didn't always agree with what he said, but at the same time he was an intelligent negotiator who we could talk with in an intelligent way. He was always a fair person to deal with." That's a typical assessment of Jordan, as put by Bill Brown, EEF West Midlands area director, where as a young trade unionist Jordan fought his earliest battles.
Such flattery coming from the employers - some might say the enemy camp - would hardly seem the sort of thing to incite workers to heave Jordan into the president's chair. But, in the volatile world of British industrial relations, strange events are under way. "I have perhaps rather foolishly said that maybe we have begun to see the end of the British disease," says John Hougham, director of personnel for Ford Britain. "But I think there has been an actual change of attitudes. Last year was by an awful long way the best year we've ever had in terms of hours lost through dispute. And I don't think it has a lot to do with the recession. We saw the beginnings of the changes and the ability to work together well before now."
No one can deny the deafening silence from the unions: Britain is losing fewer hours in strikes than at any time since records began in 1920. What this has to do with Bill Jordan is that in the coming together of the Electrical Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) and the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), a giant union, one million strong, has been created. It dominates manufacturing, electricity supply and the engineering construction industries, and though its membership has been falling, with the engineers alone shrinking by half in 12 years, it is still the workers' voice within thousands of businesses.
The attitude taken by both the engineers and electricians in the past decade has been arguably the most "progressive" of any British union in terms of their emphasis on training and new technology, and their willingness to forge "partnerships" with business through single union deals. Because of this, the merger has been welcomed by industry. But it takes only a short memory to recall the unions' bullying antics in the early '80s or even Bill Jordan's own scourging 37-hour week campaign of 1989, to raise two questions. What exactly is the motive behind the AEEU's conciliatory attitude? And will it last?
The first shock of mild disbelief comes when Bill Jordan, looking far too young for his 56 years, sits down to outline his aims for the AEEU. He is tanned and smart in a dark suit and red tie, and but for his Midlands accent, could himself be a London businessman. "My first priority is a strong and growing ..." - he pauses momentarily, his pen poised to write "union" - "... engineering and manufacturing industry." There is not even a blink to mar the frank gaze. "My second priority is that our union's influence and strength grows within those."
For the members of the AEEU this is not news. It is also probably the most effective single thing any trade unionist could say to win support from a workforce frightened half to death for its future and never more indifferent to the traditional union pursuits.
You could say that Jordan and his like-minded, if more volatile, general secretary on the electricians side, Paul Gallagher, are getting it both ways. By preaching the cause of rebuilding British industry, the AEEU is bit by bit gaining more recognition from employers: it has won single union "beauty contests" at British Airways, Toyota, Nissan and Coca-Cola Schweppes to name but a few. The union also is matching the mood of the workforce and has successfully poached thousands of members from the constructions workers' UCATT and the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union (MSF).
This double-edged strategy is not only smart, it is sincere. Jordan and Gallagher have been called everything from the boss's bed partners to "poodles" by indignant rivals for agreeing generous terms. But whether or not the means is forgiveable, the aim to save industry is only common sense. As Paul Gallagher says, "I see us as a natural partner. I don't mean we're selling out or selling our soul. But the union has to recognise that the company has to be profitable so the workers can have jobs."
Some companies, however, simply do not want unions as "partners"; they are quite happy to deal direct with their workers and leave the unions on the fringes. Jordan glumly acknowledges it: "Many employers don't trust unions, and some will hide behind the trade union's mistakes of the past, whereas in reality they are not prepared to have any sort of partnership. But the trade unions have learned from their mistakes so talks are much more useful now." What trust is merited and what any partnership could hold for the future can only be gleaned from the past.
The personality that is Bill Jordan, trade unionist, sprang out of the sacking of a dozen GKN workers in Birmingham in 1963. Jordan, a young toolmaker, was "volunteered" for the job of shop steward when someone whispered rather loudly at a crowded meeting, "Why don't you do it, Bill? You're always reading." From this reluctant start, Jordan was propelled on to become a full-time West Midlands AUEW (now the AEU) official in 1977 and then to face up to the notorious Red Robbo when then weight of power swung to the union's right wing.
"He was a tenacious guy and stood up to it quite bravely," recalls former AEU executive Jack Whyman. In the opposite camp the employers were equally impressed, particularly when they discovered Jordan was a rare animal for his time. "He had a strong feeling for the employees and put over a strong case, but he had a pragmatic approach and never let party opinion have any bearing on it - and that's not true for everyone," says the EEF's Bill Brown. "One of the great blessings he had was a sense of humour and very often that can diffuse a volatile situation."
In 1986 Jordan was elected as president of the AUEW, a vote that confirmed the supremacy of the broad right of the union. Today Jordan's supporters speak of him as a "natural leader", while his opponents scoff that he is "a bit pedestrian and lacking the experience to carry things off in the same way as Gavin Laird". Laird is the AEEU general secretary and a long-standing rival of Jordan. But Jordan's popularity is no guarantee that he can control his troops. He, Laird and Gallagher all happily admit that it is not they, but the membership who determine events. While once this was token talk, it is now reality. Says Gallagher, "I think for too long, far too many union leaders have believed we're back in the '50s. The general secretaries are secretaries, not generals: troops aren't theirs to command. This union is owned by the members and is for making gains for the members."
And today the members know it well: there is a growing sense of independence among them vis-a-vis their leaders, a shift which was apparent in Jordan's first big campaign as president. In 1989 Jordan, representing the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, led a targeted strike campaign for a 37-hour week. Having failed to convince his less conciliatory peers to settle for a 37.5 hour deal offered by the employers, he threw himself into the strike campaign, targeting companies like British Aerospace, Dowty, Lucas and Rolls-Royce. The hard fought campaign was a success: today a majority of engineers are on a 37-hour week.
But the success came for one key reason: the unions pulled together a sizeable strike fund and were largely able to compensate strikers for lost pay. Even with this incentive, there were factories where workers refused to participate. Nonetheless, Jordan did succeed and it is this that makes him a formidable foe: his canny ability to organise and work a strategy tactically. With one win under his belt, his members will have more confidence of victory in any second round.
This suggests that the merger to create a single large union is more significant than many employers acknowledge. Peter Ball, deputy director-general of the EEF, says he is pleased to see the merger. "We have been complaining for many many years about the number of unions we have to deal with ... it's hopeless. So it is a good thing that a great many more of our companies will have only one union". But Dr Tim Morris, assistant professor in labour relations at London Business School, is more wary. With the resources of the two unions united - more shop stewards out in the field and more organisers at the top - employers are all the more likely to be put on the defensive, the says. Whereas the two unions may have sometimes acted in concert in the past, now they always would." And if they try to expand into non-unionised companies or new companies they present a pretty powerful force."
This, it would appear, is exactly what the AEEU has in mind. Jordan, lounging in a leather chair at the Imperial Hotel after the AEEU's third executive meeting, says the membership crusade is now on. Three targets top the list: companies that are unionised but not wholly so; new non-unionised companies "where the union's absence is beginning to be felt"; and the thousands of small companies "where poor pay and working conditions prevail". The union needs to recruit 50,000 members this year just to stand still and also faces the prospect of losing more members if the Government passes new laws barring automatic deduction of union fees from wage packets.
One well-publicised means by which both the engineers and electricians have been shoring up their membership has been the single union deals. Their success highlights clearly just what kind of partner the AEEU can be. At Nissan, in Sunderland, Peter Wickens, director of personnel, explains that negotiations on pay and conditions at the plant are conducted every two years by a company council, made up of five managers and 10 elected staff. If agreement cannot be reached, there is the option of going to conciliation, or ultimately to arbitration. Alternatively, "if the union called people out on strike, it would be constitutional". Significantly, the staff representatives are not there as union delegates, though agreements are scrutinised by the local AEEU.
Rival unions have called such deals a sell-out, condemning terms like the 39-hour week and compulsory overtime, which are agreed before a single worker is hired. "They're sweetheart deals with disgraceful terms," says the MSF's general secretary designate, Roger Lyons. "Once they started offering employers a blank sheet they put pressure on other unions who refused to go along with it."
Whether established British employers are likely to win similar terms from the AEEU is a moot point. In 1987 Ford attempted to seal a single union deal with the engineers for a new plant in Dundee. In the end the plant went instead to Spain because of threats of blacklisting from the TGWU, who refused to allow more stringent employment terms than exiting Ford workers enjoyed. Early this year British Airways Maintenance Cardiff signed a single union deal with the AEEU. Like Nissan's, the deal involves a company council with staff rather than union representatives, team working, a 37.5 hour week, college training courses for apprentices and a new wage structure. Other firms like Ford Britain, PowerGen and Rover have also negotiated new working conditions.
Luckily for all concerned, at this point in time Jordan's loyalties all lie in the same direction: he sincerely wants industry's success; he clearly needs it for his own union's success; and, in any case, he is powerless to bargain hard while his members are desperate for jobs. The question that remains is what will happen when recovery comes.
"Jordan's got an affable front and a view to the future, but that doesn't mean he's going to roll over and let people walk all over him," notes LBS's Morris. "When it comes to meeting his members' aspirations he's as tough as anyone." Paul Gallagher, who is much more the hard taskmaster, is described similarly by a colleague. "At our conference he was at pains to try and state clearly that he was more anti-employer than pro-employer. He's more interested in being close to the members and I've no doubt if he was to lead a campaign people would fall in behind him."
The AEEU still has a lot of problems to sort out - not least to try and reconcile the electricians with the TUC which threw them out in 1988. But Jordan has not yet forgotten his aims to achieve a 35-hour week, and he cannot quite let go of his infatuation with the giant industry-based unions in Germany - the four-million-member engineering union, IG Metall, for example.
Ask Jordan himself about the prospects for a more peaceful future and he replies, "If I have my way we will see fewer strikes. But it's no good employers praising the initiatives of moderate trade unions unless they are prepared to stand up and reach out the hand of partnership."
True, Jordan is no radical like Arthur Scargill, but nor is he quite as willing to collaborate with employers as Eric Hammond appeared to be. Should his partnership aspirations be frustrated, we'll no doubt discover that Bill Jordan is indeed a practical man. His backing is now one million strong.