My Biggest Mistake - John Monks: Why my union wars ended
Wednesday 14 April 1999
My biggest mistake was to believe so long in conflict being inevitable in the world of work. I strongly believedunions were there to explain and manage discontent, and that meant there would be a high degree of dispute. That was the general view. There was a lot of conflict in the late 1970s and early 1980s - at least one major strike a year.
It was also philosophical: I believe organisations are pluralist in a social sense and there's a difference of interests, and that was the prevailing philosophy of industrial relations. I didn't take a Marxist view, more a social democratic perspective in the European sense. It seemed to be the way things were.
But there was clearly a decline in the big areas of traditional manufacturing, and there had been three million jobs lost in factories between 1980 and 1983 - so there had been quite a big loss of union membership, and neither the industrial military strategy had worked, nor the political strategy. Labour didn't get elected in 1987, and it was looking long odds that they would ever get elected.
The Damascus experience, for me, was in that year. We conducted a survey of what people wanted from work, and we found most people liked the organisation for which they worked, and they wanted the esteem of the person for whom they worked. What people wanted was to do better, rather than look for dispute.
It led me to think hard about what unions should be doing, and to be a leading advocate for partnership. I thought about how we would translate it into union strategy - and I realised that was the challenge. We had to appeal to people in the changing world, not wish the world was back as it had been in the 1970s. I started to put these things into practice more when I became general secretary of the TUC.
The TUC had to move from being a bureaucratic, process-led organisation to one that was project-dominated, with people measured by outcomes. We wanted to make partnerships with employers the goal, seeking relationships to gain trust, and using that basis to change quickly and smoothly without disputes and disruption.
We have started to evangelise this kind of trade union. Many companies still don't respond positively to the partnership message.
But an increasing number do, including Tesco, Legal & General, Barclays, British Aerospace, Co-op Bank and the Inland Revenue. We aim to double the number by the end of the year.
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