Moss Evans

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Arthur Mostyn Evans, trade unionist: born Cefn Coed, Glamorgan 13 July 1925; National Secretary (Automotive Section), Transport and General Workers' Union 1969-73, National Organiser 1973-78, General Secretary 1978-85; Member, TUC General Council 1977-85; Councillor (Labour), Borough of King's Lynn and West Norfolk 1991-2001, Mayor 1996-97; married 1947 Laura Bigglestone (two sons, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Heacham, Norfolk 12 January 2002.

Moss Evans looked a most unlikely candidate for the title of "most powerful man in Britain" – an accolade which had regularly been awarded by a hostile media to his predecessor as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Jack Jones.

Because of his Welsh background, Evans was known as "Evans the Tongue", a man who had developed the art of speaking with a permanent smile on his face. He was not the obvious successor to Jones when the great man retired in 1978. The union's national executive preferred Harry Urwin, Jones's able deputy. Urwin, however, was within two years of retirement and said he would only be a "caretaker" until Evans took over. Urwin also accepted that Evans's track record and trade union credentials were impeccable. Evans was a first class behind-the-scenes "fixer" and had won his spurs on the national scene by negotiating for Ford car workers.

Jones was no tyrant but he ruled the union with a rod of iron and was used to getting his own way. It was unthinkable, therefore, that Evans could have landed the top job without Jones's nod of approval. In any case, Evans had the backing of the shop floor in a host of industries and was a popular, real-ale-drinking figure who identified with the common man.

Arthur Mostyn Evans, to give him his full name, had the unenviable task of following a legendary figure. Jones was a hard act to follow but Evans did his best because it was a job he had always coveted. Evans put it simply: "Even Elizabeth Taylor had to have an understudy." He confided that his biggest worry was whether he would ever live up to the success of his predecessors, including Jones, Frank Cousins, Arthur Deakin and Ernest Bevin.

Although he had been in the union for a lifetime and was greatly respected, Evans knew from bitter experience that he would not be everybody's cup of tea. He also forecast that everybody would point a finger and say: "He's no Jack Jones." But he recalled, accurately, that the same critics used to look at Jones and say: "He is no Frank Cousins."

In his 1986 autobiography, Union Man, Jones did not devote a single word to Evans, an omission seen by union observers as a snub of monumental proportions. This, of course, was typical of the TGWU, a union in permanent internal conflict, an organisation of many loyalties, petty jealousies, back-stabbings and political persuasions.

Evans preferred a relatively low profile compared with his celebrated predecessor and that was wrongly judged by many to be a sign of weakness. It did not detract from his standing in the labour movement, where he was generally regarded as a nice, shy, amiable personality who did not have a bad word to say about anybody but Conservatives.

Behind the docile exterior, however, there was a mean streak and employers who met him across the negotiating table said he "had a smile like a razor blade". Union leaders also discovered that he had a tough side. During the coal strike of 1984/85, Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, passed him a note under the table at the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress. It said: "Could you lend my union a million pounds?" Evans smiled across the table at Scargill and slowly penned a response. Any hopes Scargill may have entertained were dashed at the reply: "Bugger off." Evans asked me later: "Do I look that stupid?"

Small, round and dapper, he could have been taken for a City business man when he left his home in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, for a day in the office with his briefcase. Evans was a man of punctuality and kept to a strict routine, leaving home every day at 6.45am to beat the London rush-hour. His wife, Laura, always left his breakfast ready for him the night before: a bowl of branflakes.

Evans was no extremist. Militants, Marxists, Trotskyists and other assorted leftists would have been sorely disappointed if they had attempted to recruit him to their ranks. His approach was more avuncular than revolutionary and his chummy accent, which he often contorted and even strangled when unnecessarily trying to "talk posh" on radio and television, made him appear more of a Sunday School teacher than a left-wing union chief about to confront a government.

He admitted, while commuting to Smith Square in his union-owned Cortina, that he did not feel like a man on whom the nation's economy depended. With his endearing humour he confessed to friends: "When I look at myself in the mirror first thing in the morning, I do not feel like a threat to the capitalist system." He retained, however, a working-class fire and passion for social justice and those close to him knew he had never lost his pioneering zeal for righting wrongs and securing workers a decent standard of living. The fact that he was not a media superstar did not worry his supporters in the slightest and many thought he provided a welcome contrast to Jones.

Evans was a relative unknown when he took over from Jones, but that was not his fault. Because the general secretary was traditionally the union's mouthpiece, the rest of the union's frustrated hierarchy and national executive were mere underlings who were seen and never heard. Evans tried to change that system, and one of his first tasks was to organise a press briefing for industrial correspondents to meet his senior colleagues over drinks.

He was committed to the principle of nationalisation – "of industry owned by the people and run by the people in the interests of the community generally". He was a passionate opponent of government- enforced pay policy, detested "norms" and fought to retain free-collective bargaining. His implacable stance against the prime minister Jim Callaghan's pay policy in the winter of 1979 led to weeks of strike agony and the return of a Tory government.

Shortly after taking office he spoke of his socialist philosophy:

My experience, during my formative years, was of living in a society which, quite frankly, believed in the law of the jungle, that the strongest survive. There were those who lived in the epitome of luxury and those who literally had nothing. There was the Waldorf and the Savoy and Park Lane; and there was parish relief and back street slums where kids had no shoes and malnutrition and rickets.

I don't believe that the virility of a man is measured by how much he has got in the bank or where he lives or what sort of car he drives. I believe that the virility of a man should be measured in terms of what contribution he is making towards an egalitarian society, to a society where all children, wherever they are, whatever their colour, race or creed, have an equal opportunity; where they have a chance to live in a decent society.

I don't think that a competitive society in the materialistic sense is the sort of society we want to live in. I'm not a member of the Communist Party but I do believe in equality and in a classless society.

Not all his speeches, however, were that eloquent and his maiden speech as TGWU general secretary at the TUC in Blackpool was a disaster. Evans had misjudged the mood of Congress when it came to deal with a small fry pub managers' union called the National Association of Licensed House Managers. The NAHLM general secretary Harry Shindler had had the audacity to take the mighty TGWU through the TUC's complaints procedures after a recognition rumpus. The row concerned the "blacking" of a Midlands pub called the Fox and Goose by TGWU draymen who thought the manager should be a member of their mighty union.

It transpired that the biggest union in the land was horribly in the wrong and the minnow in the right. The conference found in favour of NAHLM and the TGWU was suspended from Congress for one hour until it expressed contrition. The media was overjoyed at the sight of the TGWU delegation sullenly leaving the hall after suspension.

Alex Kitson, a senior TGWU officer at the time, took Evans by the arm and said: "Come on, Moss, let us not stay where we are not wanted." The wily Joe Gormley, the former NUM leader, worked hard behind the scenes during that historic hour to save Evans's face. Jack Jones, by then a humble member of the audience, was shocked and felt that his union had been humiliated. Evans learnt from that mistake and did not take the TUC's good nature for granted ever again, learning fast that might is not always right.

But after that minor setback his natural charm, straight-talking and sincerity won him many friends inside and outside the movement and he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help individuals and fellow trade unions in trouble. He maintained a dry sense of humour throughout the dark days of the "winter of discontent" which flared up in the first year of his new job, but he hated the adverse publicity which resulted.

He did not turn the other cheek when he felt he had suffered a bad press and successfully sued the satirical magazine Private Eye for libel when they called him a "scab". He purchased a caravan in the country with the damages and boasted to colleagues: "The Eye has bought me a second home in the country."

It was inevitable that Evans would grow up to be a fierce socialist. He was born in hard times, 1925, in a one-up, one-down terraced house in the Welsh village of Cefn Coed, near Merthyr Tydfil. His father, a miner, was unemployed for 14 years and his mother had started her working life in a brickyard at the age of 12.

She had been widowed during the First World War, remarried and bore a total of 12 children. Evans remembered that much of his childhood was on parish relief and he recalled sleeping with his brothers and sisters four to a bed, two at the top, two at the bottom.

We shared cups and saucers. One day you would get the cup, the next day the saucer. We used to beg for stale bread from the posh houses and take it home for mother to make bread pudding. Underwear and shoes were for the rich. I wore boots with studs, either handed down or handed out.

It was during the Depression that his parents left Wales for Birmingham. He was only 12 at the time and he recalls that there was work in Birmingham which his father was determined to find. They settled in Small Heath, where his father found a job in a factory and the young Moss landed a "six bob a week" job in a ladies' hairdressers. Later they moved to a house with an inside lavatory and a bathroom – "sheer luxury".

It was the memory of those days which made him say that his true ambition was to improve the quality of life of the under-privileged. "It worries me that so many have privileges but make so little contribution and it really depresses me when I think of all the people in this country who have never had a holiday."

He had an obsession for tidiness and was irritated by colleagues who did not share the same desire. He loved singing – Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael rather than hymns from the Welsh valleys. He admitted that he could not speak or sing Welsh and that music was his one hobby outside the union – "Everything from Bach to The Sound of Music." He could play a variety of musical instruments including guitar, piano accordion, mouth-organ, piano, banjo and ukulele.

He started work with the Joseph Lucas combine in 1940 at the age of 15 and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union, later switching to the TGWU in 1950 when he moved to the Bakelite factory in Birmingham. He became a shop steward the following year and took a six-month unpaid day-release course at Birmingham University.

His original intention was to continue studying, at Ruskin College, Oxford, but in 1956 he applied for, and won, the post of TGWU engineering and chemical officer for the Birmingham East district, where he gained a reputation for being a hard, realistic and honest negotiator. In 1960 he was made regional trade group secretary and in 1966 he was brought to London as engineering national officer.

Three years later an internal dispute at Transport House over negotiating policy during a bitter Ford dispute led to the abrupt departure of the national secretary of the automotive group. Evans was conveniently available to fill the gap. He chaired a group of 19 trade unions representing 57,000 Ford car workers and it was during that spell when he gained respect for his negotiating prowess, winning many battles in the early hours of the morning because employers were too tired to argue. He was credited with bringing two major strikes to an end.

He transformed Ford's negotiating machinery into a model that became of the envy of the industry and rid of the company of its appalling strike record. In 1973 he was appointed the union's national organiser, a move interpreted by many as grooming for the top job. Harry Urwin said of Evans:

It would be dishonest of me to say that he stood out in the same way that Jack Jones stood out when he was a young, energetic shop steward. It was obvious Jack was going to high office. I didn't see anything in Moss like that.

Evans described himself as "an old softie", but admitted: "I've been a tough bastard at times." When asked if he believed in God, he replied: "Only when I'm in trouble."

Terry Pattinson