John (Walter) Edmonds
John Edmonds is one of the new style of trade union leaders. Whereas in the past some trade union leaders left themselves open to accusations of being concerned with their own personal fiefdoms, Edmonds and others such as John Monks (General Secretary of the TUC, 1993-) are part of the moves towards 'new unionism'. This took into account the declining membership of the trade unions and their increasing irrelevance in industrial decision-making procedures. The emphasis has been placed upon modernisation - for the trade unions this meant recruitment and partnership (with each other, businesses and all political parties).
Edmonds has been leader of the GMB (formerly the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union) since 1986 and has extended his influence over the trade union movement since then, going on to be a member of the TUC General Council, its Executive Committee and its President in 1998.
Edmonds was born on 28 January 1944 and raised in south London in a trade union dominated family. His father, Walter Edmonds, was a shop steward for the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union), his mother, Rose Edmonds, worked for a local paper company and his grandfather and uncle were both active in the print unions, being FOCs ('Father of the Chapel', the leader of a local union branch). Trade unionism was a fact of life. He recognised the south London in which he was raised was to be differentiated - the affluent workers worked 'in the print' and took holidays. The less well-off worked in the docks and 'went hopping' in the hop fields of Kent as their break during the summer months.
After winning a London County Council scholarship whilst at primary school (Brunswick Park Primary) he went on to attend Christ's Hospital School. The school had an atmosphere of snobbery which affected the young Edmonds as did its ethos of being a minor public school. The school did not allow the young man to develop his personality, instead the home environment allowed him to 'be himself. A further scholarship meant that he was able to pursue his passion for history at Oriel Oxford, College. Not tempted by the more usual political route of studying PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), although taking the economics options available in his course where possible, he took Modern History.
During his latter years at school, Edmonds became determined to become a trade union official and consolidated these ideas at Oxford. After a short time spent with a food company, the only job he could get in the GMWU (as the GMB was called at this time) was as a research assistant in the Research Department, preparing briefs and wage claims. He immediately tried to become a field officer (organiser) and managed it after only a couple of years, which placed him in the role of representing a variety of members in the union's Southern Region. This was a time of particular fulfilment and he loved the job as much as he had always hoped. His success and enthusiasm did not go unrecognised and he was promoted to become the union's youngest National Industrial Officer in 1972. He represented industries such as gas, electricity, nuclear energy, food companies such as Tate and Lyle, timber and packaging, the NHS and he also led on negotiations for Local Government workers. He also campaigned actively on behalf of disabled workers when he represented members at Remploy.
Since taking over as General Secretary Edmonds' greatest strength is seen to be his strategic thinking. His forward planning and ideas for his own union, as well as the movement more generally, have contributed significantly to a growing membership and level of influence. He saw developing an effective amalgamation policy during the unions' 'dark days' of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as essential in sustaining the core membership. This meant shifting the structure of the union to give a greater level of importance to the industrial, as opposed, to the regional, identity. Edmonds was also one of the first union leaders to recognise the growing importance of women in the workplace and seek to provide them with greater opportunities with the GMB. This meant ensuring that women make up the same proportion of the governing body that they do in the membership as a whole. An active recruitment policy, still ongoing, looks to recruit more women, as well as from the service sector. Essentially the union began to push for rights at work and workers' rights as opposed to trade union immunities.
Edmonds describes relations with the Labour Party as a 'candid forum' and his relationship has not always been harmonious. He, along with other leaders, have been at the forefront of the changing relationship between unions and the Party. Edmonds supported the change in Clause IV of the Party's constitution and was an early advocate of One Member One Vote (OMOV). The unions also recognised that they had to reduce to the size of their vote within the Party as it limited their freedom of movement as well as being electorally unhelpful for the Party. Yet this not prevent then leader of the Labour Party, John Smith (who Edmonds had championed for the position very shortly after Neil Kinnock resigned), from nearly losing a vote on OMOV at the hands of the unions. Edmonds, despite his support for OMOV, was wary of the form of the proposals on offer. Part of the 'new unionism' agenda means that whereas total support for the Party was correct during the years of Conservative Party rule in the 1980s and 1990s, following the Labour Party's election in 1997 they feel more able to speak out on behalf of their members and disagree publicly if necessary.
Edmonds is aware of the challenges that still remain for the GMB. The need for better communication techniques and organisation structures which deliver effective support and advice to members in an increasingly fragmented labour force are top of the agenda. Yet leaders such as Edmonds also maintain a very close eye at the European level and the need to influence policy there. The GMB is the only British union to have an office in Brussels, Edmonds helped to launch Trade Unionists for Europe to campaign for early entry into the single European currency and he also a member of the European TUC Executive. His prediction of the growth of the 'super-union', one which the GMB has done much to forward by being the successful merger partner for other unions, may well adopt a similar European dimension.
In addition to his trade union duties, Edmonds is a director of the Unity Trust Bank (1986-), a trade union member of the Forestry Commission (1995-), a Trustee of the NSPCC (1995-), a Trustee of the Institute of Public Policy Research (1988-) and is president of the Full Employment Forum. He has been a council member of ACAS (the Arbitration and Conciliation Service), member of the Consumers' Association council (1991-96), Director of the National Building Agency (1979-82) and a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1979-89). Edmonds was awarded a honorary Doctor of Law Degree by Sussex University in 1994 and was a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford (1986-94). Away from work he is a keen cricketer, playing for a local club and also enjoys carpentry.
Edmonds still lives, with his wife Linden (Callaby) by whom he had two daughters, in South London, an area which did so much to shape his outlook and politics. His undoubted intellectual capabilities and ability to develop an argument have helped to shift the GMB away from being defensive about its position in society to being more concerned about its membership, both in terms of their individual rights and a growth in numbers. To label him a 'dinosaur' or 'old Labour' is too much a simplification and fails to acknowledge the impact he has had on trade union politics.