The vote by members of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union was thought to be an opportunity for Mr Willis to announce, with a degree of dignity, his intention to retire early after criticism from union leaders, invariably behind his back.
Mr Willis, 60 in January, restricted himself yesterday to congratulating the AEEU on the ballot in which a low turnout produced a 92 per cent vote in favour of TUC affiliation.
There will be a further opportunity for him to announce his early retirement at the TUC's 125th anniversary celebrations in the summer, but critics will become impatient if it seems he wants to soldier on after the annual congress in September. The process of replacing Mr Willis as TUC general secretary would have to be set in train by the ruling general council on 23 June for the annual congress in September to vote on a successor.
Virtually all members of the TUC's ruling council want to see Mr Willis retire, but none have been prepared to 'go public'. They believe that the TUC needs a more charismatic and articulate leader and most favour John Monks, Mr Willis's deputy, as the next TUC leader. During the next two months union leaders will discuss how best to lean on Mr Willis.
Nearly 840,000 ballot papers were distributed in the AEEU's postal ballot and 37 per cent were returned in what was the first major referendum on the value of the TUC among union members.
The vote was prompted by the merger of the engineers' and electricians' unions to form the AEEU. The engineering section of the new union was already a member of the TUC, but the electricians had been expelled in 1988 after rows over single-union agreements. It was thought likely that electricians voted with less enthusiasm for TUC membership, but the new union took care to ensure that the votes could not be separated.
Leaders of the new organisation will now have to negotiate their way through a minefield of membership disputes between the electricians and TUC unions, many of which have arisen while the electricians were outside the movement. However, most union leaders are in a mood to give the affiliation a fair wind.
Announcing the result of the ballot at the AEEU's national committee meeting in Llandudno, Gavin Laird, the union's general secretary, said the the ballot was 'the biggest vote of confidence the trade union movement has ever had'.
Mr Willis welcomed the 'splendid' result saying it showed that rank and file trade unionists backed the unity provided by the TUC.