Willis, troubadour of the TUC, bows to popular demand: The clown prince of the union movement retires after nine years at the helm. Barrie Clement reports

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The Independent Online
HAVING endlessly regaled union leaders with rhyming couplets and riddles, Norman Willis finally told them what they wanted to hear yesterday.

This year's annual congress in Brighton is to be his last as general secretary of the TUC. At the age of 60, the tubby troubadour with a low centre of gravitas has finally announced his early retirement after nine years.

'Sometimes it has felt as if I've been nine days in the job, sometimes it seems like 90 years,' he said yesterday. His detractors would concur with the latter.

Mr Willis was seen by many as the comedian on the Titanic. He presided over a period when union membership declined from around 10 million to 6 million. The movement cried out for an articulate champion rather than an affable comic.

Mr Willis has found that there are no prizes for being a nice guy or for being a 'character'. He showed character in another sense when he went to South Wales in the middle of the coal strike and denounced picket-line violence. A noose was lowered over his head from the rafters by militant pitmen.

He was made general secretary during the pits strike and has lived through a series of disasters for the movement, including the Wapping dispute and GCHQ.

Mr Willis, married with two children, was born in Middlesex in 1933, the son of a barber and a laundry worker. He trained as an economist at Ruskin and later Oriel College in Oxford before becoming a speech writer to Frank Cousins and then Jack Jones at the Transport and General Workers' Union.

He became assistant general secretary at the TUC in 1974 - the only 'outsider' to move into Congress House at such a senior level.

The abiding memory will be of Norman 'Ramblo' Willis: the only time he remotely approached 'subject, verb and object' in his pronouncements was when he was telling a joke.

He will also be remembered for his public bar sense of fun. In a particularly gauche performance he once serenaded bemused Soviet officials to a rendering of 'Maybe it's because I'm Ukrainian' in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.

Trade unionists were seriously concerned that he might delay his retirement after the successful campaign to fan public anger over the pit closures. One union leader, who was preparing to 'have a word in his shell-like' over the possibility of retiring gracefully, said that his performance during the Government's pit fiasco was a one- off. 'Where was he when Britain came out of the ERM, for instance?' Radio and television producers need soundbites, not the desultory nibbles of Mr Willis.

He decided to reveal his plans yesterday following the announcement last week that members of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union had voted to affiliate to the TUC. That was a 'vote of confidence' and a show of unity for which he had worked, he said.

In a statement, Mr Willis said that he was making his decision known now so that nominations could be received to elect his successor at the annual congress in September. Under the traditional 'Buggin's Turn' principle, his most likely successor in the pounds 50,000-a-year job is John Monks, Mr Willis's deputy.

Mr Monks is chalk to Mr Willis's cheese. A graduate of Nottingham University with a love for rugby league, Mr Monks is able to speak on equal terms with ministers, senior civil servants and business leaders. Despite the deep freeze imposed on the TUC by the Government, Mr Monks enjoys ministerial contacts.

Senior union leaders have mentioned such names as Brenda Dean, the former print union leader; John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union; and Jack Dromey, national TGWU officer, as potential successors.

But the present deputy TUC leader fits the bill as far as most are concerned. He is intelligent and articulate, a bureaucrat with a safe pair of hands and not over-colourful.

The new No 1 at Congress House will have a tough time ahead. In the short term there is the Employment Bill that will give workers the right to join the union of their choice. That severely undermines the TUC's role as an adjudicator in membership disputes under the so- called 'Bridlington' procedure.

Then there is the creation of new mega-unions such as the 1.4 million-strong Unison, which call into question the need for a trade union centre. When those problems have been tackled, he or she will have to address themselves to the decline of union membership.

(Photograph omitted)