NS Interview - John Monks

The head of the TUC speaks out against war in Iraq and issues a veiled warning to Blair that he face

It's no coincidence that John Monks is off to Brussels. From next year he'll be taking over the trade union movement for the whole of the European Union. He likes the way they do things there - the way workers are consulted, the way bosses have to think twice before laying people off, the way they're not scared of countries pooling resources . . . and the way they don't kowtow to the Americans.

He predicts, without any prompting, that this month's TUC conference will be difficult, especially on Iraq and the euro. As head of the TUC, Monks has gone out of his way during the government's first five years to cause as little trouble as possible. He is a very European conciliator and negotiator. It pains him to attack Tony Blair, but he is convinced that the Prime Minister has boxed himself into a corner over his support for the US administration's warmongering on Iraq.

"It's been the cornerstone of British foreign policy since the [Second World] War to support the US in public and to make our reservations in private," Monks says. "We've always believed that gets us more influence. The evidence of the past week suggests that's not the case."

He says union members, and the public at large, need quickly to see the so-called dossier that Blair says he has, to demonstrate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Blair has agreed to make the dossier public within the next few weeks - and Monks sets out the proof required: "evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and of delivery systems, and intelligence about what he intends to do with them". He continues: "At the moment, I haven't seen enough evidence that will convince the British people that a big military adventure is the right way to deal with this issue."

This is just the start of what will be an extremely trying month for Blair: two conferences, TUC and Labour, both in Blackpool, two potentially explosive outings. Meanwhile, in the background, we have the first firemen's strike in 25 years - for a 40 per cent pay increase. Monks gives the impression of being relaxed about the increase in strike action over the past six months and the prospect of more to come. From the mid-1990s until this year, the figures were "phenomenally low", he says. "People have been reminded that strikes do happen."

The Prime Minister is due to address the union gathering on 10 September. His reception is likely to be polite, but not cordial. Each and every word he says on Iraq will be listened to intently. But by the time delegates get to debate the subject, he'll be far away. Poignantly, but according to Monks purely coincidentally, this will take place on 11 September. The TUC, he says, likes its rituals, and ritual dictates that international matters are always discussed on the Wednesday of the conference.

Everyone at the TUC remembers 11 September last year. The planes hit the World Trade Center just as Blair was preparing his speech. The conference was quickly abandoned. The Prime Minister never got the roasting the delegates had been eager to give him over his plans for public-private partnerships.

The domestic wrangles have again this year been put into perspective. I ask Monks how far he will be prepared to go on Iraq. He says he would support a critical motion calling on the government to provide more evidence of Saddam's malign intent and to follow the UN route rigorously. Given his reluctance to score points off the government, that won't be easy for him.

Still, he reminds me that twice in our recent history the US and British paths have diverged - over Suez and Vietnam. He likens George Bush's Iraqi adventure to the fiasco of Indo-China, and recalls with pride Harold Wilson's refusal to be part of it.

I ask Monks what would happen if Blair falls into line with the White House and commits British troops without the Americans exhausting diplomatic channels or providing appropriate evidence. Our boys, he says, would get public sympathy - after all, they would not be the ones at fault - but there would be a "significant anti-war movement" in the UK. The more the Americans pursue the UN route as a precursor to war, the more support they would get, he says. But, either way, "we in the union movement would be split, as would the Labour Party".

We turn to Blair's other great dilemma - the euro. Straightaway, Monks offers me a wager. "I say it's odds-on a referendum next year." He says he wouldn't put a lot of money on it but, knowing Blair as he does, he predicts a positive assessment early next spring. He accepts that Gordon Brown is more cautious, but is confident that he, too, will go for it.

"For the government to stand up and say it's not ready to join the euro is such a difficult thing to do without widespread accusations of cowardice." And those accusations, Monks goes on, would be justified, although he inserts two important caveats - any military action against Iraq or a dramatic economic downturn.

"I don't blame them for being a bit nervous. It is a big decision. But the 'ducking it' option will render the government liable to fairly widespread ridicule, from those who want us to go in as well as those who don't."

Compare that to remarks from Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, warning Blair that unless he delays the referendum he risks losing the next election. The divisions in the union movement on Europe have never been more stark.

I remind Monks that polls show support for membership hovering at just over the 40 per cent mark - within winning distance if the campaign were convincing, but with victory by no means guaranteed. Monks prefers to throw in that other statistic - more than 60 per cent of voters believe that at some stage British membership is inevitable.

His frustration now is palpable. If only the Yes campaign could step up a gear. He calls Blair to arms against the enemy within. "It cannot be Murdoch who takes the decision for Britain. This is a decision that gets harder. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it gets. After the next election, the caravan will have moved on and there will be a whole new set of hurdles."

For Monks, membership of a single currency is a natural part of a broader European project. It's a mission to change our culture, and he will be in a good position to do it. At 57, and after ten years at the helm in Congress House, it is time to move on, he says.

He was asked earlier this year by the head of the European Trade Union Confederation, Emilio Gabaglio, if he wanted to be his successor. Monks still has to be formally elected, at the ETUC congress in Prague next May, but that is a formality. For a few months he'll do both jobs, before - he hopes - handing over at Congress House to his deputy, Brendan Barber.

With EU enlargement looming and with the forces of globalisation preying on Europe's more benign social market, the new job will be challenging. "My task is to keep the social momentum of Europe going, against all sorts of forces, including the British government, ranged against it. I also want to help the spread of trade unionism, respected as opposed to despised, in central and eastern Europe," he says. "Over there, it's a completely different corporate culture, it's a pro-union culture which I'd like to build on."

Across Europe, union membership is stagnating. In Britain, after a brief upswing in the late 1990s, it seems to have stalled again. Social trends are working against it. The single, mobile professional is now the fastest-growing section of the workforce, with little apparent interest in or need for union representation. But the economics also work in the unions' favour. With unemployment at its lowest for years, with job vacancies at their highest level, Monks says the balance of forces has shifted, leading to a new assertiveness among workers. Hence the firemen's strike, and the Underground workers' vote to strike.

Then there is the anticipated growth in public sector jobs, thanks to the injection of billions of pounds by the government in public services. This has increased the confidence of members in pay bargaining - from the lowest-paid council workers to the firemen. Monks does not subscribe to the view that the new generation of union leaders is more militant. He tries to play down the political significance of Sir Ken Jackson's defeat at Amicus, but in the same breath adds: "I don't think too many people will be running as overt Blairites."

He is keen to give praise where he thinks it's due. All sides, he says, have underestimated the importance of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Last month, as local government workers were preparing for industrial action, Monks wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer congratulating him publicly on the huge investment in public services. He was equally pleased by the increase in employers' National Insurance contributions announced in the Budget, not just for freeing up money, but for the political signals it sent. For the first time, the government had taken on corporate Britain and the business bosses had been left "squealing" and "moaning like buggery".

And yet Monks sees no shift in the boardroom towards the more consensual European approach - rather the reverse. Quarterly reporting to shareholders and the increased emphasis on "shareholder value", he says, has led to an even more aggressive management style, with directors awarding themselves "football star wages for fairly anonymous performances", while abandoning final salary pension schemes even after employees agreed to a "pensions holiday" during the good times a couple of years ago.

"The number of companies that I admire for their corporate culture and ethical approach has definitely decreased," Monks says. Under a Labour Prime Minister? Surely not.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, In the name of the law