Jack Jones: Formidable trade union leader who spent his life fighting for workers and pensioners

The title of his autobiography was Union Man, and it summed him up perfectly. Jack Jones, former General Secretary of the giant Transport and General Workers' Union, was a staunch trade unionist through and through and a rare breed of genuine socialist. Born James Larkin Jones, he earned the love and the respect of just about everybody who ever met him inside and outside the trade-union movement. In his later years he was described as the "pensioners' champion" but in reality he was everybody's hero, whether they were dockers, taxi drivers, bus drivers or Joe Public. He simply wanted a better and just world for us all to inhabit, with a society free of war, hunger, poverty, homelessness, unemployment and repression.

He was prepared to fight for those ideals and in his youth came close to dying for them. The trade union movement and his beloved TGWU, in particular, was a natural home for him. It is impossible, with the benefit of hindsight, to imagine him ever doing any other job. Even the right-wing press found it difficult, though not impossible, to brand him as a dangerous militant determined to destroy the capitalist system as we know it. He and Hugh Scanlon, then the engineering union leader, were nicknamed the "terrible twins" by the media and Jones was frequently referred to as a man more powerful than the Prime Minister. It was not true, of course, but such a myth made good copy.

Born in Garston, Liverpool in 1913, he left school at 14 and worked as an engineering apprentice, then as a dockworker. During the General Strike of 1926 he ran messages between union offices when his father, a docker, and his two brothers, footplatemen, were on strike. At 15 he was already secretary of the local Labour Party and by 21 was elected to the T & G branch committee. At 22 he was on the union's National Docks Committee and the following year became Councillor Jones in Liverpool.

His hatred of fascism encouraged him to serve with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and he was wounded at the battle of Ebro in 1938. He fought because, he said: "It was my belief that this was a great challenge to trade unionism, to the Labour Party and democracy. So many friends were killed out there that I thought I could not stand aside."

After returning wounded from the war he married Evelyn Taylor. Eventually they moved to Coventry with baby Jack, experienced the suffering of that city, and were bombed out of both home and office. But by the time Jones left Coventry in 1954 he had built up the union membership from 4,000 to almost 40,000. Under his leadership membership eventually rose to more than two million, a great personal triumph. However, because of the recession and anti-union laws he lived to see his membership halved within 15 years of his retirement.

The union's burgeoning power in the car industry was exemplified by a trailblazing reduction in working hours to 421/2 per week at Standard Motors. His eight-year spell as Midlands Regional Secretary ended in 1963 when he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the formidable "Big Frank" Cousins. Many leading TGWU men, in fact, rose from the ranks of the car workers, but Jones was exceptional. He was elected General Secretary in 1968 and led the union for a decade.

Early doubters said he would never follow in the footsteps of Cousins but he quickly proved them all wrong. He had an ambience all of his own and commanded loyalty and attention. During those hectic and historical years he held many prominent positions in the TUC and was a principal spokesman on international and economic matters. He called on workers to strike on behalf of pensioners if necessary and said from the rostrum in 1972: "To be old in Britain today is to be poor." It was compelling oratory. He preferred basic economics when explaining his point. Example: "You can't hold down wages if you can't hold down prices".

Largely credited as being the "architect" of Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, he was joint chairman of the Special Committee on the Ports in 1972 and a member of the National Economic Development Council from 1959 to 1978. In 1977 he gave the BBC Dimbleby Lecture: "The Human Face of Labour".

His sincerity in everything he achieved or attempted to do shone through his life, and retirement in 1978 did not diminish his energies. He stayed active as vice-president of the International Transport Workers' Federation, as well as spokesman for the pensioners' lobby. He accepted the title of Companion of Honour but refused a knighthood, preferring a life outside the Houses of Parliament. He wore his famous cloth cap with pride and boarded a Blackpool tram to the Labour Party Conference rather than be taken in the union's chauffeur-driven limousine. He could never imagine himself rubbing shoulders with the droves of former socialists in the Commons or the Lords and was clearly uncomfortable in the presence of affluence.

Except for that seven-month period when he fought with the International Brigade he devoted his entire life to bettering the lot of his fellow working men and women. He began his working life against a background of unemployment and bitter poverty, a past he was never to forget. After leaving school he continued studying by night, and his determination, intelligence, oratory, and passionate rejection of injustice brought him to maturity at a relatively young age. Like many trade-union activists of his generation he fought not only his employers but also the forces of reaction in the labour movement. The TGWU quickly became his life and more than anyone else he was responsible for building it into the largest and most important grouping of workers anywhere in the world.

Selected by a Gallup poll in 1977 as "the most powerful man in Britain", he was nicknamed "Emperor Jones". He and Hugh Scanlon, the leader of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, bestrode industrial Britain like two colossi – an image he did not enjoy. He said: "Some people have described me as an emperor and a king but I have never been either. All I have ever been is a soldier in a great army of labour and I will remain that. I have been proud to serve the union of working people. There is no greater calling than that." He was not ashamed of being described as a militant, claiming, "I subscribe to the divine right of discontent to see improvements and to have a better way of life."

He was never the power-hungry ogre portrayed by Tory mythologists and humility and genuine goodwill were his hallmark. Jack Jones was a true democrat and was always determined to win by reason instead of coercion. If he had a fault it was a tendency to autocracy within his union structure. He spoke, almost ex-cathedra, on behalf of the union on all issues and was well briefed on all of those issues at all times. His senior officers were not expected to talk publicly and nor did they do so during his reign. Strangers could be forgiven for thinking that the TGWU was Jack Jones, but his style bred efficiency within TGWU ranks – never fear.

His political and economic judgements may have been open to question but his decency and generosity were beyond debate. His affection for his fellow working man did not blur his views on their obvious imperfections and he was not slow to criticise them if their behaviour merited his wrath. On one occasion he called East End dockers "thugs" when they gave him a hard time. During the 1972 docks strike he was shocked and angry at violent scenes outside Transport House in London, when moderate delegates and journalists were assaulted by strikers.

He was a little prudish and Victorian in some of his views and made it clear to colleagues and officials that he did not condone infidelity. Smutty jokes were forbidden, even in typical, male, working-class company. At least one aspiring career in the union ended abruptly when he learned of the man's nocturnal activities with someone who was not his wife. He had a sense of humour but preferred intellectual conversations on serious matters to the trite and the trivial. Anyone talking too much football, for instance, would soon discover that they were back on the subject of pensions. Idle chatter about good beer quickly returned to an analysis of Tory policies.

During a trip down memory lane in Spain in the 1970s with TUC colleagues, he noticed that the police were harassing British press men in a following car. He told the police chief: "Gentlemen, if you ever reach a stage in your society when the press are a bigger pest than the police you know you have arrived in a democracy."

He loved a joke against himself and never forgot the day he visited the Royal Family as a TUC guest at Windsor Castle. While the Duke of Edinburgh was proudly showing him some magnificent works of art Jones observed: "That painting on the wall over there is a load of rubbish." Prince Philip replied: "That, Mr Jones, is one of mine."

After his farewell speech at the TUC in Brighton in 1978 he accepted the praise and the accolades with typical humility and posed for the cameras one last time as TGWU leader. With the television cameras and photographers out of sight and out of mind he then put on his famous cloth cap, walked along the promenade, and lunched on a bag of chips while other union chiefs were whisked away in their executive cars.

In his later years he could be seen at countless pensioners' meetings, steadfastly demanding a fair deal on pensions, heating allowances and bus passes. He and Evelyn remained at their flat in Denmark Hill, South London, and never lost touch with the lives and problems of the people he represented so long and so well. His colleagues have described him as one of the most remarkable and influential men of the 20th century. He once described himself simply as an "idealist", and no historian should search for a more fitting epitaph.

Terry Pattinson

A myth has been regurgitated in the wake of Jack Jones death that his over-mightiness was a contributory factor to bringing Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979, writes Tam Dalyell. The implication has been that Jones was a bully. He was not. Some other trade-union leaders of the time may have been bullies; Jones was not among them. I had experience of him at close quarters over a period of a year and a half in the mid-1960s, when he represented the TGWU on the Mikardo Committee on the Docks, and from 1974 to 1976 as a member of the Labour Party's TUC liaison committee (I was serving in my capacity as vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party).

His huge authority was derived not only from the TGWU's more than two million members: it sprang from his personal behaviour on the committee. He listened intently and politely to what his colleagues were saying. And in the face of that direct, often steely, look, his colleagues learnt not to indulge in ill-considered blithering. Even the generally loquacious Richard Crossman, the cabinet minister and diarist, who had known Jones well in Coventry from 1937, said that he was always careful with his words in Jones's presence.

While a formidable interrogator, he was ever constructive. Had the report of the Mikardo Committee on the Docks, for which Jones was massively responsible, been implemented, I believe that there would have been no seamen's strike, and the history of the 1966-70 Wilson administration, with its chronic balance of payment problems, caused in part by the strike, would have been different. On the TUC's Labour Party liaison committee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Denis Healey hung on his every word – because he never spoke unnecessarily and had always read his papers.

Only on one occasion did I see Jones disdainful. "If Allen Fisher and Bernard Dicks of Nupe [the National Union of Public Employees] had bothered to turn up at our meetings," he said, "we would have been spared the consequences of grave- diggers in Liverpool not burying the dead, and much of the winter of discontent – which brought down the Labour government."

James Larkin (Jack) Jones, trade union leader: born Liverpool 29 March 1913; Liverpool City Councillor, 1936–39; Coventry District Secretary, Transport and General Workers' Union, 1939–55; MBE 1950; Midlands Regional Secretary, TGWU, 1955–63, Executive Officer, 1963–69, General Secretary, 1969–78; Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, 1964–67; Chairman, Labour Party Working Party on Industrial Democracy, 1967; Member, Trades Union Congress General Council, 1968–78; Member, National Economic Development Council, 1969–78; President, European Free Trade Association Trade Union Council, 1972–73; Council member, Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, 1974–78; Vice-President, International Transport Workers' Federation, 1974–79; Vice-President, Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1976–2009; Companion of Honour, 1978; Vice-President, Age Concern, England, 1978–2009; President, Retired Members Associations, TGWU, 1979–2009; Vice-President, European Federation of Retired and Elderly Persons, 1991–2009; Life President, National Pensioners' Convention, 2000; married 1938 Evelyn Taylor (died 1998, two sons); died London 21 April 2009.

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