Jack Jones 1913-2009

Below are obituaries from Geoffrey Goodman and Unite.

James Larkin (Jack) Jones, trade unionist, born 29 March 1913, died 21 April 2009 – by Geoffrey Goodman

The remarkable story of Jack Jones, who has died aged 96, has to open with his achievements as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union for nine crucial years, 1969-78. It was under his leadership that the TGWU, already Britain’s biggest trade union, reached a membership of more than 2 million – the first British union to achieve that figure, making it, at the time, the largest in the non-communist world.

This phenomenal state of affairs led to him being described by his foes and critics as “Emperor Jones”, a ruthless labour leader, but by his many admirers, including Gordon Brown (a TGWU member), as “one of the world’s greatest trade union leaders”.

The truth lies with both descriptions. His power and influence, in trade union politics and throughout the labour movement, was unique. It can be compared with that of Ernest Bevin (founder of the TGWU) during the second world war as minister of labour. Indeed, Jones’s impact on the national scene was so great that an opinion poll taken during the early days of James Callaghan’s government in the mid-1970s reflected a popular, if misplaced, view that he had more power than the prime minister – hence the “Emperor Jones” label.

It was Jones more than any other figure in the labour movement who was responsible for the “social contract” on wages (1975-79) and a partnership between the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Callaghan and the TUC, which collapsed after Jones’s retirement in 1978. Even so, it represented an extraordinary period of cooperation between government, employers and unions in pre-Margaret Thatcher days, and almost certainly sustained the life of the Callaghan government through to 1979.

In fact, Callaghan invited Jones to join his cabinet and offered him a peerage to allow his entry into the government. Characteristically, Jones refused both. He had no time for the House of Lords.

Jones was born in Garston, Merseyside. His father was a Liverpool docker who christened his youngest son James Larkin in honour of the Irish republican socialist and trade union leader of that name. But once he began working at the docks, James Larkin became Jack.

He left school at 14 to take a job as an engineering apprentice at five shillings a week but soon left, cutting his political teeth in the docks. He joined the TGWU in 1927, becoming shop steward, and by 1930 was a member of the docks branch committee. In 1934 he helped organise a Merseyside contingent for one of the hunger marches on London.

From 1936 to 1939 he served as a Labour councillor in Liverpool, even though in 1937 he volunteered to fight for the International Brigade against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war. Towards the end of 1938, he was badly wounded in the shoulder while fighting on the Ebro front – one of the critical battles of the war in which many of his closest friends and comrades were killed, including George Brown, the first husband of his future wife, Evelyn. In fact, it was when Jones returned to England that he met Evelyn, herself an active and one-time militant socialist, to deliver her husband’s last words. He had pledged to his dying friend to report back personally, and the encounter led to a marriage lasting 60 years.

At the outbreak of the second world war, Jones applied for a job as a full-time TGWU organiser and was appointed to the Coventry district – a posting personally approved by Bevin. It was in that role that he established himself as a union official of exceptional ability. He developed a policy that was later to become his trademark – “shop-floor power”. That agenda was based on encouraging shop stewards to in effect assume the role and influence of factory floor managers – giving greater authority to the trade unions. Local employers at first fiercely resisted his plea to give the shop floor more influence.

But Jones used the argument of the war effort to persuade them that such a move would boost production and was therefore in the national interest. His success in that campaign laid the foundation of his later reputation. By the end of the war, he had established a powerful union base in Coventry, as well as a national reputation, which became the forerunner of a powerful shop stewards movement across the car industry. It also provoked envy and opposition from his union’s national leaders, notably the then general secretary, Arthur Deakin, who effectively blacklisted Jones as a near-communist. It was Deakin who effectively blocked his promotion within the union because of his radical politics and his commitment to shop steward power – a policy fiercely rejected not only by Deakin but many other national union leaders. Deakin was convinced that Jones was indeed an undercover communist – something Jones always denied.

Jones remained in Coventry as a district official until the leftwinger Frank Cousins was surprisingly elected TGWU general secretary in 1956, soon after Deakin’s death, leading to a dramatic change of scene. One of Cousins’ first moves was to promote his old friend Jones, appointing him Midland region engineering secretary and then secretary of region 5. It was Cousins who picked him out as his eventual successor and inheritor of his own radical policies. Jones was brought to London in 1963 to fill a newly created post of executive national officer – effectively third in the union hierarchy after Harry Nicholas, who was nominally Cousins’s deputy – with the clear intention of succeeding to the top job.

Jones was then elected to the Labour party’s national executive and when Cousins joined the Wilson cabinet (in 1964), Jones became deputy to Nicholas, who took the role of acting general secretary. When Cousins resigned from the cabinet in July 1966 (in opposition to Wilson’s wages policy) and returned to his former TGWU role, he then ensured Jones’s succession on his retirement in 1969.

Jones quickly became the most prominent and dominant figure on the TUC general council, chairing most of the main committees. When Wilson returned to office in February 1974, Jones was by then the most influential political figure outside the cabinet, able to persuade the government to create various new bodies, including the industrial dispute body, Acas, the Health and Safety Executive and the Manpower Services Commission in charge of work training. Even before Wilson handed over to Callaghan, there was virtually an open invitation to Jones to join the cabinet had he wished, following in the tradition of both Bevin and Cousins.
By the time of his retirement in 1978, Jones was a household name, sometimes referred to with favour, even affection, but in some quarters with irritation or even notoriety. He and Hugh Scanlon, president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, were dubbed by the press the “terrible twins”. No aspect of his reputation seemed to trouble Jones. Nor did public honours, titles or baubles – all of which were on offer, had he chosen to accept. He rejected them all – until offered the Companion of Honour by the Queen, which he accepted, arguing it was bestowed on his union, rather than on him personally.

Jones spent his long retirement years as he had spent all his life – agitating to help improve the lives and conditions of his former union members. He set out to organise the National Pensioners Convention, of which he became president, expanding it from the base of the TGWU’s own pensioners’ organisation. He handed over the running of the convention in 2001 to his friend Rodney Bickerstaffe, the retired leader of Unison.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Jones’s life is how unchanged in character and style it remained from the time he was first appointed an official in Coventry through to his retirement as leader of what was then still Britain’s most powerful trade union. He never shifted from his commitment to socialist ideals, immovably determined, sometimes difficult even with his closest friends, rarely disposed to take criticisms lightly, sometimes lacking charitable humour, but always with unflinching integrity. He was not the easiest companion, yet he was the kind of man anyone would respect.

Evelyn died in 1998. Their two sons, Jack and Michael, survive him.

• James Larkin (Jack) Jones, trade unionist, born 29 March 1913, died 21 April 2009

Unite Statement on Jack Jones:

We have lost the greatest trade unionist of the entire post-war era, a man whose name will be forever associated with the finest achievements and highest values of our movement. Indeed, the entire history of trade unionism in Britain yields few comparable figures.
Our first condolences are of course extended to Jack’s family, above all his sons Jack and Michael. We share their sorrow and also their pride in the life of their remarkable father.

Jack Jones led the T&G to become the strongest working-class organisation our country has ever seen, more than two million men and women united to secure a better life both at work and in the wider society.

When he was our general secretary, no great question of industrial policy or economic management could be addressed without the T&G’s input. Nor did the smallest detail of union organisation or industrial negotiation in any of the industries in which our union represented working people escape his attention.
In all this work he was guided by a profound concern to improve the lot of the ordinary people of this country whose only strength, he understood, lay in collective organisation. From his earliest days as a T&G organiser in Coventry, he placed the organisation of the union in the factories at the heart of his work, developing and promoting the shop stewards movement.

Jack’s greatness as a leader rested above all on his belief in the instincts and outlook of the membership. He was always a partisan of lay democracy, of the union being run by the men and women who joined it, and with authority being devolved to the districts and the workplaces. Building on the achievements of Frank Cousins, he entrenched progressive values and democratic tolerance at the heart of the T&G.

At the same time he led from the front, animating the whole of our union with his broad conception of the role of trade unionism. While a master of industrial detail, he never lost sight of the wider socialist perspective which had motivated him from his earliest days working on the Liverpool docks. This informed his commitment to full equality for working women, his opposition to all forms of racism and injustice, and his unflinching support for workers fighting oppression in all lands.

He was loyal to the Labour Party, knowing that only a Labour government could both protect working people from the worst ravages of capitalism and also work towards that brighter future. He always fought his corner within the Party and always urged it, sometimes most vocally, to remain true to its roots.
Jack will also be forever linked with the struggle for democracy and against fascism. As a young man he put his life on the line to go to Spain to fight in support of the elected government of the Republic against the fascist insurrection, and was wounded in that struggle. The people of Spain and all internationalists across the world have lost a comrade.

Older workers in Britain also have cause to give particular thanks for Jack’s campaigning zeal, since he devoted most of his post-retirement years to championing the case for justice for pensioners and in particular to see the state pension secured at a decent level. Not for Jack a life of cosy retirement. Every breath he gave to the struggle.

Jack strongly supported the formation of Unite, the merger of the T&G and Amicus, as being the best way to carry forward in new circumstances the values of the union he had built. Disappointed, of course, at the setbacks of the last generation, he never lost his optimism and was delighted to see our union recover its organising and fighting back spirit.

For thousands of us still active in the movement, Jack was a friend and a mentor, always ready to offer wise counsel when it was sought, right down to the last months of his life. Always sharp in his understanding of our problems, modest in his lifestyle, uninterested in any honour beyond serving the movement, he embodied everything a trade unionist should be.

Dockers and car workers, bus drivers and engineering workers, white-collar employees and farmworkers, those driving a lorry or working in an aircraft cabin – we are all today bereft. For millions of working people, the comforts we enjoy, such security as we have established and the social gains we have secured, all of these stand on the shoulders of the organisation that Jack Jones developed and of the leadership he gave. As he took forward the work of Bevin and Cousins, so shall we carry forward the legacy of Jack Jones into the future, the unbroken tradition of working-class solidarity and struggle.

Today, with profound emotion, Unite dips its banner in memory of the greatest amongst us. Tomorrow, as Jack Jones would have wished, we shall put our shoulders to the wheel once more, working as he did for justice for workers, for internationalism, peace and socialism.

Tony Woodley
Joint General Secretary, Unite
General Secretary – T&G section