Norman Willis: Modernising TUC General Secretary who fought the attacks on the unions by the Thatcher government

 

As General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Norman Willis had a fraught time overseeing the union movement while it lost members, fighting the anti-union legislation perpetrated by the Conservative government and going through a series of bitter inter-union battles that threatened to destroy it.

Willis did much to reorganise the TUC, making it fitter to operate in the modern world, but often had a somewhat tetchy relationship with union leaders, having been parachuted into the organisation as Assistant General Secretary by Jack Jones, his boss at the Transport and General Workers Union. Willis was the first "outsider" to rise to the roles of Deputy General Secretary and then General Secretary.

He was born in Hayes, Middlesex in 1933; his father was a barber while his mother, a working class suffragette, was a laundry worker. He was fiercely proud of them and their achievements in becoming shop stewards; both were members of the TGWU and his father had been sacked frequently for recruiting. One of his proudest memories was of being taken by his father to stand on the platform at a union rally in Trafalgar Square. It was as a child living in poverty that he became interested in writing poetry; one poem was about the fears the family faced when the gas man came. He was eventually vice-president of the Poetry Society.

He was educated at Ashford Grammar School and, except for his time at university, lived in the area for the rest of his life. He also spent most of it working for the TGWU, joining the union as an office boy, originally working for Ernest Bevin. In 1955 he won a union-sponsored scholarship to study philosophy and political science at Ruskin College, Oxford, from where he transferred to Oriel College, Oxford, gaining a degree in 1959.

He returned to the TGWU to become research assistant to the then General Secretary, Frank Cousins. Later, under Jack Jones' leadership in 1970, he became the national secretary in charge of research and education.

In 1974 at the instigation of Jones, then the most influential of union leaders, he joined the TUC as Assistant General Secretary, working with Len Murray. His appointment came over the heads of leaders of TUC departments, and it took some years before he won their acceptance. A larger than life, amiable character and a brilliant after-dinner speaker, who in many ways resembled a teddy bear – his favourite toy – he disliked being unpopular, and often spoke wrily about how he was treated.

His move to the TUC was seen as being an attempt by Jack Jones to take even more control at the union centre, and as a way of cutting out those whose economic policies Jones disagreed with. Murray and Willis had a somewhat uneasy relationship; he became Murray's troubleshooter and was somewhat sidelined into organising campaigns such as United against Racism. In 1976 Murray suffered a heart attack, during discussions with the Labour government over continuing wage restraint and the social contract. Willis was flung into discussions, deputising for Murray and leading the debate at a special congress.

His first speech was written by the economic department, leaving Willis to respond in his own way; he was criticised in some areas for resorting to his usual habit of making jokes to lessen tense situations. But he was also widely praised for his summing-up, which revealed an intellectual understanding of the situation the unions and government found themselves in. His tendency to use humour or songs to diffuse awkward moments were sometimes ill-judged, and harmed his reputation, something newspapers were quick to latch on to.

In 1977 he was appointed TUC Deputy General Secretary and in 1984 became General Secretary when Murray resigned, disillusioned at the way Margaret Thatcher had behaved over GCHQ. He took over at the height of her campaign against the unions, the miners in particular. Relations with the Labour Party were also fraught but Willis was able to maintain a working relationship with Neil Kinnock, for whom his wife Maureen worked.

The union movement was in disarray, with bodies such as the engineers and electricians having defied TUC policy by accepting government subsidies for union ballots. There would also be continuing inter-union conflict over disputes such as that at News International. Union membership of some 12 million in the early 1970s was in decline and by the time Willis left would have dropped to 8 million .

Willis's biggest threat came from the way the miners' strike was handled. By the time he was appointed it was already in jeopardy; Arthur Scargill, determined to do things his own way, rejected Willis's attempts to organise talks. When Willis called upon South Wales miners to accept the latest offer there was a near riot when a noose was dangled over his head.

He was more successful dealing with overseas unions and international affairs. He persuaded the TUC to change its attitude to the EU and open an office in Brussels. He told me he was proudest of all when a message of goodwill from him on behalf of the TUC was read out during the attempted coup in 1991 as Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank in front of the Russian parliament building. That year, Willis was elected president of the European TUC.

Willis won the respect of staff at the TUC who supported him when he began reorganising it, something he had always wanted to do. He was no fool when it came to judging people and was quick to promote John Monks, telling people that he was a future General Secretary. Monks would eventually succeed him. In 1993, Willis retired, having streamlined the TUC machine, making it more efficient in the way it dealt with economic and political changes and operated in present-day society.

In retirement he found new satisfaction in embroidery, becoming a Trustee of the Royal College of Needlework. He turned down all honours. "I've realised that as General Secretary of the TUC I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to reflect the interests and views of those who didn't go to meetings," he said. "I didn't intend to make life difficult for myself by that attitude, I wish it had been applause all the way, but I don't think that would have changed anything."

PETA STEEL

Norman David Willis, trade unionist: born Hayes, Middlesex 21 January 1933; married 1963 Maureen Kenning (one daughter, one son); died 7 June 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A rewarding opportunity to work with an easy-...

Recruitment Genius: National Sales Account Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company leads the market i...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum