The Trade Union Forum

Former trade union officials, Jim Moher, John Edmonds and Roger Jeary

Jim Moher, John Edmonds and Roger Jeary are former trade union officials and members of the management committee of History & Policy’s Trade Union Forum. Moher, a National Officer of the Communication Workers Union from 1985 to 2006, co-founded the Forum in 2007 with Alastair Reid, an academic labour historian and author of a history of British trade unions. Edmonds was General Secretary of the GMB, one of Britain’s three largest trade unions, from 1986 to 2003. Jeary was Director of Research at Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, before he retired in 2012.   

This case study describes some of the benefits Moher, Edmonds and Jeary have gained from participating in the Forum. It also illustrates the importance of developing a channel of communication between academic historians and active policy makers. Former officials with an interest in history can contribute to the process, through acting as intermediaries. Despite having retired from active positions, Moher, Edmonds and Jeary continue to be interested in a wide range of issues and welcome the freedom to reflect on the past. They have contacts with politicians and serving trade union officials and, where appropriate, invite them to meetings of the Forum and encourage them to consider historical evidence when making decisions on significant policy issues.   

The accompanying case study, Overcoming ideological differences, presents the historian’s perspective, describing why Reid co-founded the Forum with Moher, what he aimed to achieve, and how participating in the Forum has influenced his thinking on the relevance of history to current issues.

A personal interest in history

Moher has a law degree and worked as the national legal officer for his union. His interest in labour history developed in parallel with his work. He studied the history of trade union law since the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, and in his spare time researched and completed a thesis on The London Millwrights and Engineers 1775-1825, for a PhD awarded by the University of London in 1989. As he learnt more about the role of trade unions in British history, he began to think that much of the traditional Marxist view, still predominant among many trade union and Labour Party supporters, of trade unions as a key element of the class war, was ‘a bit like legend’.

‘We are very much into the heroic victories and the dastardly defeats but we rarely examine events coldly and calmly with a view to saying we were wrong, or we made mistakes, and as a result we could learn from that.’

The purpose of the Forum, in his view, was to bring together historians who had a professional knowledge and interest in the subject, with trade union officials who had practical experience and may have been personally involved in significant events in recent trade union history.

‘It’s been a very enriching experience. You meet so many interesting people, who take ideas seriously and who are prepared to have a dialogue and are undogmatic about this.’

Edmonds studied history as an undergraduate at Oxford, before becoming a researcher and then official in GMB. He was General Secretary of the GMB from 1986-2003 and President of the TUC General Council in 1998. When he retired he felt it was important to have time to think about policy and reflect on what had happened in the past:

‘I wanted to mull over, analyse, construct, in fact reconstruct what happened during these very important periods. History & Policy was a space in which I could not only think about it, but I could test ideas against other people who were experienced in trade union affairs.’

He decided to become more deeply involved with the Forum after he was invited to attend one of its first meetings, on the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-9. He felt that too much attention was paid to those at the top of the union hierarchy, and not enough to very strong feelings amongst some groups of union members, who were really driving events.

‘You don’t want to hear what the hierarchy did. You want to know as much as you possibly can about what really happened, and where the engines of these various movements were … So never mind about status, never mind about formal hierarchies, who are the movers and shakers here? And talk to them and make policy about what’s really going on rather than what is being told to you.’

Jeary spent most of his career as a trade union negotiator, before being appointed Director of Research for Amicus, later Unite, from 2004-2012.

‘When you work for a trade union then you do tend to follow the line of that union, because they are employing you, and you see things from what becomes a fairly narrow perspective, so you effectively end up with the answers you want.’

He joined the Forum after his union was sent a circular from History & Policy:

‘I thought it looked interesting and started to come along to meetings. I have learned a fantastic amount of information that I would not have known otherwise.

At the Trade Union Forum, you listen to people who have a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and are not tied to a particular line … As an active director of research that was important to me. I was someone who was giving advice to General Secretaries and senior officials on policy and other issues and I could see my own mind working in a broader perspective … I’m not saying it necessarily changed the direction of the union, but it gave me other arguments to use.’

History as part of the policy-making process

Conferences organised by the Forum to explore past events, such as the Miners’ Strike and Wapping dispute, were fascinating from a historical point of view. But the position of trade unions is now very different, which places a limit on the extent to which any direct conclusions can be drawn for current policy issues from events such as these, however significant they may have been at the time.

Yet although the context may be different, Jeary had learned from his own experience that new ideas were very rarely new. They were just ‘presented in a slightly different way’. Many of the more routine issues that trade unions deal with now, such as flexible working, London or other regional allowances, relocation and organisational restructuring, are the same as when he started working for the union in the 1970s and 1980s.

‘If trade unions reflect on what had happened in the past in similar circumstances, albeit different contexts, then perhaps we wouldn’t make some of the more obvious mistakes that on occasions we do make. And also, we wouldn’t keep trying to reinvent the wheel.’

Some of the smaller meetings organised by the Forum were designed to address specific issues, such as the relationship between the trade unions and the main political parties, changes in the legal rights and obligations of trade unions and the role of trade unions in the First World War. 

A particular focus has been the future of collective bargaining. In the 1970s nationally agreed structures established by the government promoted industry-wide agreements, rather than negotiations with individual employers. In Edmonds’ view allowing such agreements to lapse had been a mistake and had resulted in a decline in trade union influence and membership. Moher agreed that, through organising a meeting to discuss the issue, the Forum was acting as part of the policy making process, rather than just informing it:

‘The Institute of Employment Rights had made the point that collective bargaining has diminished because the activists of the ‘60s had persuaded the union leaderships to abandon national agreements … I think we were part of a process of influencing policy-makers towards restoration of props, legislative props, which would assist unions to get recognition and to get employers round the table on an industry or a national basis.’

In this case, members of the Forum had already drawn some broad conclusions from history, and the challenge they faced was how to communicate their ideas to senior officials and policy makers. Through drawing on their personal contacts, they were able to invite a few key individuals to the meeting, including Ray Ellis, National Officer of the Communications Workers Union, who had recently negotiated a legally binding agreement with the Royal Mail, and Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary of Unite.

Edmonds and Moher did not expect instant results, but the Forum was now contributing to the policy-making process, even if its ability to function in this way was still embryonic. In Moher’s view:

‘We’ve broken a lot of ground and seen our limitations and what more could be done. If we could enthuse a larger group of people, both historians and trade union officials, I think there is space for a body such as ours, not a day-to-day lobbying group, but rather a respected body, that’s consulted when someone is in the formative process of thinking about policy.’

Unfinished business

The trade union officials contributing to the Forum lived through a period of decline in trade union influence and membership. Many of the legal rights and privileges gained by the unions since the late nineteenth century were abolished by Conservative governments from the 1980s onwards, and the public perception of trade unions has changed from generally favourable attitudes, to an increasingly negative image of conflict and self-interest.

Moher especially resented the idea that the unions were, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, ‘the enemy within’, when trade unions had contributed to achieving radical social advances throughout much of the twentieth century, such as the formation of the National Health Service, and union leaders such as Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine had played key roles during the Second World War and the Labour Government of 1945-51.

‘People have a very weak knowledge of their history; not just the nuts and bolts, but that sweep of when the unions were strong, when they influenced the 1945 Labour Government … Unions are seen as conflict organisations, strikes, pugilism, aggressive, all that image. And in fact that’s there, but it’s a very small part of day-to-day union affairs and union activities, most of which is about mediation between ordinary workers and management and resolving disputes, and it’s 99% successful. I think unions play a very positive role. A lot of managers, a lot of employers welcome that role, that collective wisdom that they bring to the workforce.’

He sees his contribution to the Forum as a job not finished, after retiring as a full-time union official. Unions are voluntary organisations formed, not by the State, but by groups of people coming together, to improve the lot of themselves and their colleagues. In his view, this is ‘a very precious commodity in a modern society, when people are often isolated through technology, through the Internet, and very much adrift.’

‘I served throughout the period of Thatcher and her governments and whilst I saw that we had issues, I think it was most unfair, the destruction of the trade unions, and I felt that anything I could do to restore the balance would be beneficial.’

Jeary similarly hopes that:

‘If we can illustrate through history the role the trade unions played in achieving advances for working people, then people may start to build up a slightly different perspective of what trade unions actually do, 95% of the time.’

While working as a National Officer for the union, he completed a degree in industrial relations, writing a dissertation on parents working from home, investigating the extent to which employers were prepared to be flexible in their treatment of mothers with young children:

‘So I did a number of case studies and proper research across some employers. Again it was something picked up by the union afterwards and a lot more work was done on it by other people. It’s little things like that where you can be pro-active with something and start a debate going and start to do things.’

History, in Jeary’s view, and that of the other former trade union officials on the Forum, can help inform policy. If the Forum continues to grow, it could develop further to become part of the policy making process, providing historical background and context on employment-related issues and policies.

They also hoped that a better understanding of history would help the public appreciate what trade unions actually do, most of the time, rather than being misled by inaccurate versions of history. While those on the right of politics might consider unions to be a disruptive influence on the individual, rather than a positive influence helping to resolve disputes, the attitudes of many of those on the left were equally dispiriting. As Edmonds said:

‘The senior people in the Labour Party no longer understand about trade unions. They just don’t understand the tribal loyalties, they don’t understand what holds the trade unions together and they don’t even understand what trade unions actually do in the workplace.’ 

Conclusion

Based on their experience as former trade union officials and members of the History & Policy Trade Union Forum, Moher, Edmonds and Jeary suggest that:

  • Trade unions are diverse organisations and officials and members may hold differing views on a wide range of issues. History can help bridge ideological divides and promote dialogue and understanding.
     
  • There is a lack of understanding of employment issues among many politicians. Historians could usefully contribute to the debate by providing historical background and context.
     
  • Research undertaken by historians and industrial relations academics over many years has generated a vast amount of knowledge which is not generally accessible to trade unionists. The Forum provides a catalyst for trade union officials to explore some of this and understand better what has gone before them.
     
  • Establishing an effective channel of communication with politicians, through the media, special advisers, or direct personal contacts, can be challenging for both trade union officials and academic historians, but may be essential for creating an impact on policy.
     
  • Trade unions are an important part of British history; if viewed historically they were a positive influence on the workplace and on society generally; not ‘the enemy within’.

Further Reading


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Biography

  • Jim Moher retired as a National Officer of the Communication Workers Union in 2006. He co-founded the Trade Union Forum in 2007 with the labour historian, Alastair Reid.

    John Edmonds was General Secretary of GMB from 1986 to 2003 and President of the TUC General Council in 1998.

    Roger Jeary was a negotiating officer for ASTMS and MSF from 1979 to 2004, and Director of Research for Amicus and subsequently Unite from 2004 to 2012.  

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