Sitting Whitty

From the glory days of two million members to the doldrums of the Thatcher years, Fergus Whitty has seen it all during his time as T&G legal director. Steve Hoare finds out where it’s at now

Fergus Whitty has worked at the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) since 1974. He has experienced the rise and rise of employment law through the winter of discontent, Margaret Thatcher’s attack on unionism and Tony Blair’s rise from lowly barrister to Prime Minister. “Blair was instructed by us when he was a barrister in a dispute concerning equal pay for women machinists in the Ford Motor Company,” says Whitty. (He neglects to say who won.)

Whitty was an active trade unionist before that, but it was not until he joined the T&G that he realised the great range of legal services that unions provide. In the early 1980s Whitty began his legal career in earnest when he took his solicitors’ exams.

The T&G legal department has a panel of 60 firms of solicitors across the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and Gibraltar. If union members have a personal injury (PI) at work or travelling to and from work, then the union provides them with legal assistance. Ninety-five per cent of the T&G’s legal expenditure is taken up with instructing solicitors on PI claims. “We administer the provision of this service. It’s like the Legal Aid Board but on a smaller scale,” says Whitty.

It is an almighty administration job but one that has been made easier. The panel did consist of nearly 100 firms, although that number was reduced to make it more manageable, but by then Thatcher had already struck a blow. “Our membership used to be two million before Margaret Thatcher took the throne,” laments Whitty.

Labour laws were introduced to make it much harder to retain members. The laws made deductions of fee contributions subject to an election by the members. “So we had to go to every single member and get them to sign a document saying that they wanted their union dues taken off their wages, which is a huge logistical exercise,” says Whitty, wincing at the memory.

The union’s main base was in manufacturing, which has also been severely hit in the last 16 years; but membership, which now stands at 850,000, is rising slightly, and one of the reasons for this is the new labour laws introduced by the Labour Government to gain recognition from employers. While it has become commonplace for union leaders to berate the Labour Government, Whitty’s words of support would sound like manna from heaven to Blair.

“I’d say that the Labour Government has done tremendous things,” states Whitty. “Immediately when it came, it said you didn’t have to re-sign with members for this check-off provision. That reduced a complete administrative burden from us. The unfair dismissal was dropped from two years to one year, they introduced the right to accompany any member in a grievance or disciplinary matter at the workplace and it introduced these recognition laws, which have proved so helpful to the union. And, of course, it introduced the collective conditional fee agreement, which is a very helpful way of funding the personal injury claims.

“Although one can say that there are always disagreements with the Labour Party in terms of the law, they’ve been very helpful to trade unions.”

Administering those PI claims takes up most of the legal team’s time. Ninety per cent of the department’s £5m expenditure is spent on pursuing these claims. Last year Whitty, his team and its 60 law firms supported around 15,000 claims and recovered £74m for people injured in the course of employment.

“We have eight regions and I have meetings with the solicitors once a year, and then it’s manageable. We try and decentralise as much as possible. We don’t want a big, heavy bureaucracy at central office,” says Whitty.
Although Whitty has got to know many of the firms throughout his long service, he has inherited many of these relationships. Some of the firms have worked with the T&G since before World War II. Now the 60-firm panel is quite settled. “We haven’t changed it for three years,” he says. “We’re quite happy with the range we have now, it’s quite manageable.”

The pre-eminent firm on the panel is Pattison & Brewer, which has been used since the union was founded in 1922. In addition to PI claims, the firm also advises on labour law, trade disputes and some property issues. Liverpool firm John A Behn Twyford & Co has been around even longer, advising various T&G branches since the turn of the century.

The T&G also supports members at employment tribunals. Generally, the local union official will give the member advice about the tribunal and take the matter to the employment tribunal. If the local official
is overloaded with claims, or a claim is particularly complex, the department has an arrangement to use local solicitors. Last year, £5m was recovered for members through employment tribunal claims.

Other issues that Whitty faces include legal challenges to the way the union’s rulebook is interpreted from solicitors acting for disgruntled members. The rulebook was written in 1922, when the T&G was founded, and has slowly evolved to reflect changes in the law. Discrimination laws, for example, are taking up an increasing amount of Whitty’s time.

The most important legislation for the T&G is the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. Within the act are specific provisions as to how you can have a lawful trade dispute. The legal department’s job is to ensure that the union respects all the requirements of the law.

“We give guidance to officials and deal with any challenges to the union. If there’s a trade dispute, then we may have challenges to our procedures in how we ballot members for a trade dispute. There’s quite a lot of work in that area and we’ve managed to beat off all the challenges so far,” says Whitty.

Any litigation the union is involved with will generally revolve around the act and whether a trade dispute is lawful. Whitty used Pattison & Brewer for a dispute that went to the Court of Appeal. The union won the case, which legitimised the strike of pilots on the River Humber.

Whitty himself will represent members at the employment tribunal. If he is unsuccessful, the union will lobby Parliament to try to change the law. That has previously been done through Margaret Beckett: when she was in the Shadow Cabinet she managed to get a change in the law on industrial injuries benefits. “We’d see our role as organising the information to put forward to our panel of MPs. We hope to influence how law develops,” states Whitty. It is not the legal department’s sole responsibility, though, as the union also has a department that deals specifically with policy and providing information to the T&G’s panel of MPs.

While this is a minor part of Whitty’s job, it is one of the most satisfying. He says: “We had a case where a member received £2m compensation. You can imagine that this person was in a very sad state. Nobody would want to swap places with him. We’ve recovered £74m, but that’s £74m worth of pain and suffering all caused by negligence. A lot of it could have been prevented. So it is the development of health and safety standards that is the most satisfying thing.”

Fergus Whitty
Legal director
The Transport and General Workers’ Union

Organisation The Transport and General Workers’ Union
Legal director Fergus Whitty
Reporting to General secretary Bill Morris
Annual legal spend £5m
Main law firms John A Behn Twyford & Co, Pattison & Brewer and 60 other law firms