Transport workers’ leader who wielded immense power dies at 96
By Peter Arkell
Jack Jones, who died on 21 April, was the most important trade union leader in Britain during the tumultuous industrial unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. He was probably better known than anyone else in the country except the prime minister – and there were several of them that came and went during his tenure as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) from 1969-1978.
Jones built the TGWU into a massive organisation of over 2 million members and fiercely guarded trade union rights, defying both Labour and Tory governments in their time.
He was christened James Larkin Jones, after the famous Irish republican socialist, but was always known as Jack after he had started work, in the Liverpool docks. He joined the TGWU in 1927, becoming a shop steward and helping to organise a contingent on one of the hunger marches in the 1930s. He became a Labour councillor in Liverpool in 1936, but volunteered to fight in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco’s fascists. He was wounded in 1938 on the Ebro front during a series of critical battles in which a number of his friends and comrades were killed.
On his return, he became a full-time organiser of the TGWU in Coventry and encouraged the shop floor movement in the engineering factories there. By the end of the Second World War, he had built up a powerful shop stewards base in the industries of the town, which later became famous as the area that set the rate for the engineering unions' claims nationally.
In 1956 Frank Cousins, then TGWU general secretary, appointed Jones as engineering secretary of the union in the Midlands, and later brought him to London in 1963 as national executive officer with the clear intention of helping him into the leadership of the union in 1969. Jones quickly established himself as the dominant figure in the TUC and helped defeat the Labour government’s plans for anti-union laws published the same year.
In 1972 the TGWU was fined under new anti-union legislation brought in by the Heath government that held the union responsible for the actions of its members, and which tried to outlaw secondary picketing. The dispute escalated to the point where five dockers, some of them TGWU members, were arrested and jailed for defying an order to stop picketing.
This provoked strikes across the country, which threatened to escalate into a general strike until the government and the courts managed to find a formula for their release. These Tory laws were effectively dead in the water from that point on. Jones went on to work out a compromise formula for a solution to the crisis in the docks brought about by containerisation.
Jones was able to persuade the next Labour government elected in 1974 to create a number of new bodies including ACAS, the arbitration service, the Health and Safety Executive and the Manpower Services commission for training purposes. The importance of these organisations has of course been downgraded by the Thatcher and Blair governments of more recent times in their eagerness to take away basic rights and make the working class pay for the capitalist crises.
Jones was the main trade union figure behind the Social Contract with the Wilson and Callaghan governments in the 1970s, designed to limit wage claims and set out a national formula for negotiating wages. It was partly due to his reputation and prestige that the deal was held in place for so long before collapsing when he retired in 1978. The Winter of Discontent that followed heralded the end of the Callaghan government.
Jack Jones lived out his long retirement as he had the rest of his life, representing the interests of ordinary people, retired workers, for whom he campaigned tirelessly and effectively in their battle to get a living pension. He had no time for any of the state rewards, titles and medals that were offered to him, and which so many trade unions leaders accepted, including Hugh Scanlon, leader of the Engineering workers union, the AUEW.
He rejected them all, with the exception of the title Companion of Honour, which he accepted on behalf of the whole union. He remained a committed socialist all his life and was always a tolerant man. He expressed to the author of this obituary his regret when the News Line, the daily paper of the Workers Revolutionary Party, collapsed in 1985. The labour movement needed a paper like that, he said. By comparison with today’s union leaders, who long ago lost the will to fight and who kowtow before the anti-union laws, Jones was a giant.
29 March 1913 to 21 April 2009