Contributor: Victor Amokeodo, James Ogunleye
"I do not support Positive Discrimination"
Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Trade and General Workers? Union, was born in Jamaica in 1938. At the age of 16, he came to join his widowed mother in Birmingham?s Handsworth district and started work at the Engineering company, Hardy Spicers. He Joined the union in 1958 and was appointed shop steward in 1963. He was appointed a full time T&G officer in 1973, as Nottingham/Derby district organiser and has since held a wide range of positions within the union. He has also served on a number of other bodies including the General Advisory Boards of the BBC, as Chairman of the Labour Party?s Conference arrangement committee, and a member of the Commission for Racial Equality and Princes Youth Business Trust. He is currently a sitting member of the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the ACAS council.
BP: The Labour party has promised a quota of its safe seats to women. Don?t you think that such a quota should also be available to Black people?
MORRIS: I think that the push for equality for women has got to be seen in its historical context if we are to make a comparison with Black members of the Labour party. The fact of the matter is that the women?s movement is much more co- ordinated, much more integrated and has a longer historical perspective and to that extent they have in place a whole range of structures that the Black members have not got. Therefore you cannot just generalise. The Black members would have to create the same sort of alliances, with the same sort of structures to get a headway on the issue of quotas. But then, you have seen the political pressure that has descended on the Labour party because the whole question of quota has been challenged from a legal perspective and I wont like to see Black people become fodder or political football, and being jerked into the subject of quota. I think what the Labour party has to do is to create conditions so that the Black people and women can be elected through a system which is fair and involves the proper opportunity so that we can get a much better representation for women and Black people.
BP: So you do not agree with the issue of reserving safe seats for women and members of the ethnic minority?
MORRIS: No. That probably leaves the Labour party with a lot of work to do, to create confidence..... I don?t want my MP to be imposed on me on the basis of colour or gender. I want to have a field of women and Black people making the selection process making the shortlisting process which gives me the opportunity as a constituent to influence the final choice.
BP: Workers? unions have traditionally fought for the rights of ethnic minorities, but a recent study shows that 62% of Black men have no visible means of income. Those who have jobs tend to get worse jobs than their equally qualified white counterparts. If at - the end of the 20th century - despite decades of union support for Black people, we still have this appalling employment record, can the union boast of having done enough - if anything - for Black people?
MORRIS: Let me say that as an ironical act of fate, it was the trade unions - the TUC - who brought up the recent study looking at the position of Black people in the labour market. And on your question as to whether the trade unions have done enough for Black workers to change society - of course they haven?t. They have a lot more to do in bringing Black people into the work place, to get employment opportunities, to get training, to get promotion and to get equality.
BP: As one of the most influential unionists in the UK, how can you reassure Black people that you are undertaking measures to help reverse this situation?
MORRIS: There are three issues on which we work within my union. First of all, we employ a lot of people, so we view the issue from the perspective of the employer which means that we must promote employment practices which are fair. We are subject to scrutiny of law as regards our employment practices. If we discriminate against people in our employment practices, we would be subject to the force of the law. Secondly, we are in the business of delivering a service. When a member joins us, he or she has entered into a contract with us and again it is a matter of practice and morality and legality that we?ve got to deliver a non- discriminatory service to the person. The third point is that the structure which governs the union in terms of delivering service has to reflect widely the composition of our membership. The way we have set about this is that we have adopted a whole range of approaches. Firstly, we believe we must have a relevant agenda and the agenda that we have put together basically addresses those issues which are an impediment to Black people in the society and in our own union. But an Agenda itself is not enough and I don?t believe that white people necessarily or any one else can create our own agenda. I start from the basis that the victim of discrimination has a crucial role to play in terms of finding a solution. It was true in the South Africa liberation struggle, it is true for women, it is true wherever you go, if you are a victim. Somebody said seeing is believing, feeling is experiencing. If you have experienced this, you know best, so you must be brought into the Process - not just of liberating - but also the process of determining the method and what?s required.
The other point that is important, having created a structure to deliver, having created an agenda, and having involved the people, is that it is important that the organisation reflects the culture of what it is that you are trying to achieve and you can only do that by giving responsibility for that agenda, for the structure, for that ethos, at the highest level within the organisation. Within the T&G the people who are responsible for the agenda, so to speak, report directly to me. I can assure myself that proper resources are being allocated to that agenda and make sure that when we talk about equality I don?t delegated it to someone down the line who hasn?t got the authority. So in summary what I am saying is that first, you have to involve the victims, second, there must be a relevant agenda and third you?ve got to make sure that there is a structure to deliver it as well. That is why we have got advisory committees, Black workers? seminars, people?s representative, education system. In all that, it is the victims who evolve the solutions and then we fit these solutions into the mainstream of our work.
On a final point, there is another world out there which does not stop at my union. There is a world out there and we have to get involved in promoting that agenda that I was talking about. We identify with causes of the national race equality officer, we work very closely with the TUC, the Black community ... We give support externally and fight the cause, putting the issues in our political agenda to the Labour party, the Black Socialist Society and the TUC.
BP: Certain prominent Black people have argued for positive discrimination while others think positive discrimination would cast doubt over the ability of Black professionals who have benefitted from it. What is your view on this?
MORRIS: I think this whole question of positive discrimination seeks to divert attention from the real issues. once you start a debate on positive discrimination, then you finish up discussing nothing else. You don?t discuss policy, you don?t discuss action, you just tie yourself up with discussing what positive discrimination means. So I think it is a very narrow route and it is a distraction. I think that - as I was saying earlier - there should be a very positive agenda which enables people, which gets them involved, making them active for themselves not somebody handing something to them and saying that ?we are going to do this for you, we are going to give that to you because we are discriminating positively for you?. If it is education that is needed, they should get it. If it is training that is needed, they should get it. If it is that they need a voice to speak up in an organisation, they should get it. That is not positive discrimination. That is action which enables people, which facilitates people and it engages and develops people. It gives them pride in themselves and a sense of achievement rather than when someone does everything for them. I think we - Black people - have to qualify this term positive discrimination. I don?t want anybody to give me anything. I just want people to give me an opportunity to achieve something for myself.
BP: How would you react to accusations that many successful Black people like yourself do not put enough back into their community?
MORRIS: Well, I can?t speak for anybody else. I can only speak for myself and I don?t set out by saying that I am going to give one tenth amount if my time to this or that cause. I don?t start from there at all. I recognise that if I talk about my union, I have a responsibility to every member in the organisation and I try to address all their needs. I recognise that the union as a force in the society has got to speak out on social and economic issues of the day and when I accept speaking engagements for example, I don?t just accept the ones with glamour. I go to schools and speak to young people and other organisations across the range. My interviews are not just reserved for the Guardian and the Times or even the Caribbean Times...
I was brought up on the frontline in Handsworth and I didn?t see myself as special. I still don?t see myself as special now. I relate to the people. I understand them. When I go back, I speak to my community organisations. I went back to my school to speak to the students there - where 70% of them are Black - and I handed over the awards... It is a community college now it was a technical college then - Handsworth college. I don?t see myself as putting something back into the community I see myself as a very rounded person, with responsibilities, who is doing the job of helping the community. So I don?t feel a conscience because I do it naturally. I could sort of divide my diary and say ?that is for the community, that is for Black people, that is for women, that is for young people?. No, no. That is false. Very very false. I don?t work on that basis. I know where I am coming from, I know where I am at, I know my duties and responsibilities and I do my best to discharge those right across the board. I don?t work on the basis that I have got to put something back because that assumes that I took something out. I just feel that I have a responsibility and I have to do what I can to ensure that the opportunities that I have enjoyed - which are tremendous - are available to as many people as possible within the Black community. I don?t lose touch with my community. My aunt and uncle still live in Handsworth and I go to clubs and the pubs there often and I speak up for them. The last time I was there, the local council wanted to abolish the women?s equality unit in Birmingham. There is a big debate going on there now. I went on the local radio and I did my thing. And I would do the same anywhere else because I think it is the right thing. So I don?t see myself as putting anything back into the community because I am part of it. I haven?t left it
BP: MP Bernie Grant once called for an ?African Reparations bill? aimed at compensating Black people for years of enslavement and colonisation. Can you see any Western government acceding to this demand?
MORRIS: I can in a way because I think the whole issue of making good to the victims of repression and exploitation and other forms of anti- social behaviour is not out of place. We just had the situation recently where the British prisoners of war who suffered in the East called for reparations and nobody is saying that this is outrageous and unreasonable. So why should the call for Black people to have recompense for their enslavement be so outrageous? So I am with Bernie Grant in calling for some form of reparations.
We just had the Heads of Commonwealth conference and I gave a speech where I said that within the commonwealth, the Black people will get the common and the white people will get the wealth. I went to South Africa this year and that is what is happening. We even have to fight for the common, you know! So Bernie Grant is right here and I may disagree with some of the things that Bernie says from time to time but I will agree that there is nothing wrong with asking for reparations. If it is right for the British prisoners of war to seek reparations from the Japanese, then it is right for Afro- Caribbean peoples to seek compensation for their enslavement.
BP: Still on Bernie Grant, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, is reported to be considering talks with Bernie Grant about the latter?s suggestion that Black people who would like to return to the Caribbean or Africa should be given financial aid to help in this resettlement. What is your opinion on this?
MORRIS: I think that we have to put the emotions out of such debates and discussions and the way to that is to have a dialogue in the community because the best motives can be misrepresented. In this society that we live in, there are always those who are looking for every opportunity to exploit and misrepresent our words. It is important that we take out some insurance through communication, through dialogue, through understanding, and if it is clear that we are to be spokespersons of our community, then we have to legitimise what we say by seeking the community?s mandate.
It is not so much what Bernie said that is wrong and has caused a problem, but the fact that a lot of people now are saying that Bernie is calling for repatriation. I don?t think he is calling for any such thing. He is not calling for repatriation but the racists and also the media as well easily exploit it. So I think it is absolutely vital that we communicate with our community which has given us the mandate and when we speak, we take some of the risk out of what we say on their behalf so that we don?t leave them worse off at the end of the debate that when we started. It seems, on the basis of the press?s representation, we are now giving legitimacy to repatriation. And that is very unfortunate.
There is a scheme at the moment where people who are going home, if they haven?t got the means, they are given aid for resettlement. We used to have a similar scheme where people used to get paid to go to Australia. But we have to be extremely careful as to how we promote this. I think that it might be better turning the system around so that when people do go home, the governments of Jamaica, or Trinidad or wherever have some way of helping people to resettle. We have seen it recently where the Irish government announced that any Irish nationals who are prepared to come back to Ireland to create jobs would get so much for coming back and so much for creating jobs. So I think that we should turn the system on its head.
BP: On a more personal level, can you tell our readers how you got involved in union politics?
MORRIS: Well I came to Britain as a 16 year old, went to college in Handsworth, worked in Industry, became a shop steward and - if you like - acquired trade union education as an activist. I applied for the jobs in the union and put myself forward for election when the opportunity arose. That?s it in a nutshell, really.
BP: So it has been part and parcel of your life since you came to the country.
MORRIS: Yes, that is basically true.
BP: Did you face racism while rising?
MORRIS: I think it is impossible to find any Black person in Britain today who has risen to the top of their organisation without experiencing a measure of racism. I have experienced racism. Indeed, When I stood for re- election earlier this year (1995), race was an issue. The last article that the Irish times ran on the election was a picture of myself and a picture of my opponent who is Irish and it says: ?Jamaican and Irishman Slug it out?. They didn?t say ?Morris and Drummey Slug it out?. And this was the Irish Times. If that wasn?t racism, what else is? And so as I said, it is impossible to go through British political life, challenge the existing order, seek to take responsibility for your organisation at the highest level without a liberal sprinkling of racism.
BP: And how did you deal with this racism when you came up against it? For instance after the election did you still hold out the hand of friendship to those who played the race card?
MORRIS: Oh, I have a responsibility to represent our union, and having fought the election and won, I haven?t got any problem, you see. The overall majority of the membership which took part in the election supported me, the results proved that, so the people who indulged themselves and accepted, supported or failed to condemn the racism are the ones who have to live with any guilt. I mean it might not matter to them. Racists never believe that they have done anything wrong. But I haven?t got a problem. So I don?t go to bed and wake up in the middle of the night and say ?oh, these racists are around I can?t sleep.? I sleep. I sleep very well at night. I have confidence in what I am doing, I have peace of mind, I also appreciate that the overwhelming majority of people I have responsibility for are decent people who have confidence in me. So I don?t spend my time letting racism stop me from doing what is right.
BP: What do you consider the high and low points in your career in union politics?
MORRIS: Obviously, there have been a number of high points because everything I have done in the union has been a first. I was the first Black officer, I was elected to the governing body of the union - the Executive Council. I was the first officer, I was the first national officer, I was the first executive officer who was then elected as the Deputy Secretary General, I was the first Black General Secretary. I was the first General secretary who had to seek election and then re- election because of a change in the law.... So they were high points. They were all high points. It was important, nevertheless, the re- election because somebody said once that my achievement might have been an accident of history but I have been bloody good to keep the job. So the re- election was very important because it sends a message. Because there was always this talk about whether Black people could win in the union. When I stood for election, there was a big debate. ?Can Black people win? Can a Black man be elected as General Secretary?? Now that question will never be asked again because it has been answered. Yes! And not only can Black people win, they can hold unto power and not for its own sake because you are judged, second time around on your record. And that was important for me. I won on my record. I actually polled 41,000 votes more on this occasion than I polled in 1991. So I wouldn?t want to point to any one of them because for me, they were all high points.
On the low points, I have to say that it is that my mother and my wife were not alive to see me elected General Secretary of the union. That was a big disappointment to me because they were the major contributors to and influences in my life. They contributed more than anybody to influence my development and both died before I was elected as General Secretary.
BP: Who would you consider to be is your mentor/inspiration?
MORRIS: Strangely enough, my mentor, the man who influenced my life is not one of the good and the great. The guy is not to be found in ?Who is Who?. He is the guy with whom I worked on the shop floor in Birmingham. He was senior shop steward and we worked together for a number of years and though we had tremendous rows and disagreements, we had respect for each other and we shared a lot of triumphs and disappointments. But his brand of trade unionism was one which was rooted in the importance of looking after the people and winning at work. It is very important that we make great big micro economic speeches; very important that we address the nation with our wisdom but when we are judged about whether we an effective organisation, the judgement won?t be made in the high street down the road where there has been a 2 or 3 percentage reduction in inflation or whatever. It would be if we address the grievances of our members. If we respond to that letter when somebody writes to us with their problem, If we write back and say, ?Sir I am terribly sorry I can?t help you because it is not in my capability but if you ring this telephone number and get onto the national officer....? - the little things. And against that background, I think winning at the place of work, looking after your constituency, remembering where you are coming from, understanding the importance of seeing the people who are in need as a reflection of yourself are very important. So these are the key things that kept me going. and I got my influences from that basis rather than - okay President Mandela, he is a tremendous man. I met him sometime ago.... I met General Colin Powell when he was here some time ago. He was rumoured to be running for president and all that, and I met many of the great but when push comes to the shove and someone says who has influenced your development more as a trade unionist, the guy has just retired from work. He lives in the midlands. He is an ordinary guy who worked on the shop floor, an active trade unionist - a man called Brian Gould. Simple guy. You will never hear about him because he just does his business and looks after his members in the workforce.
BP: Do you intend to get involved in party politics? If not, what would you do after you retire from union politics?
MORRIS: (laughs) No, no, no. I have 8 years of my term left. I have been elected until I am 65 which is the compulsory retirement age and I continue to get great satisfaction from the job that I am doing. I have made a very conscious choice to take the industrial route as a career path within the labour movement and not the political path, because I like to account for my way of progress - ?I?ve done this today, I have done that today?. The structures of party politics is not for me. It is much too constraining. I prefer to go out and help people to achieve simple things. So I am looking forward to my next 8 years in office and in a very practical and positive way when the time comes and I retire and I should reminisce a bit and put a few things on paper about my experiences. And I am looking forward to taking the grandchildren for long, long, long, long walks.
BP: So you do not see yourself getting involved in politics even after you retire?
MORRIS: Oh, no, no, no. I would be too old then. At 65 I couldn?t possibly start a new career in politics... not in party politics. But I would have at that point as I have now a lot to offer in terms of my experience. I have just shared with you how important it was for me to win the election and not for myself alone because it wasn?t an economic necessity. I would still have earned a living here if I had lost. It was important because it made a statement that Black people can win power and when the time of judgement comes, they can be judged positively and there is still a big streak of decency in the average British person who will judge you on merit rather than on colour. I think my election demonstrates that. And I want to share all that. I want to write about it I want to tell people about it. I want to say ?look, young Black people, take advantage of the opportunities. Don?t worry about what people think about you. Just maintain your self esteem. You value yourself. Don?t ask people to love you, just do enough so that they respect you.? This is why I think that economic development is important. Because if you have economic development you can make more choices for yourself. You can decide where you live, and that influences where your children go to school, what sort of community you contribute to and therefore, economic liberation is vital to our success as a people. So we mustn?t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We mustn?t sit around blaming everybody. it is about going out there.... I know it is hard and I know that 60% of Black men between the ages of 16 and 24 - that what the report says - are not economically active, are not getting anything out of the system. We know all about that, but that should also be a motivation for us to take advantage of education; training. If we look around, its there. Its there. We can equip ourselves and that?s the first, basic element of trying to create for ourselves the opportunity to take part in this debate.