Tom Jackson

Modest and popular union leader who led the postal workers to a humiliating strike defeat
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The Independent Online

Thomas Jackson, postman, trade unionist and bookseller: born Leeds 9 April 1925; Assistant General Secretary, Union of Post Office Workers (later Union of Communication Workers) 1964-67, General Secretary 1967-82; HM Government director, British Petroleum 1975-83; Chairman, General Council of TUC 1978-79, Chairman, International Committee 1978-82; Chairman, Ilkley Literature Festival 1984-87; married 1947 Norma Burrow (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1982), 1982 Kathleen Tognarelli (one daughter); died Ilkley, West Yorkshire 6 June 2003.

He looked more like a Battle of Britain flying ace than a militant union leader. With his famous handlebar moustache, rotund frame and happy countenance, Tom Jackson was every cartoonists' dream. That moustache adorned one of the most public faces of trade unionism from 1967 to 1982 when the Leeds-born Yorkshireman was General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers. Jackson was also one of best liked, most respected and greatest characters the trade-union movement ever had.

When he retired he had given 43 years' service to his union. He was so popular worldwide that, at his final union conference, the avalanche of goodwill telegrams could not be read out to the delegates. His union newspaper, The Post, summed it up:

It was an emotional moment. Conference was still, the hall packed, everyone waiting late on Friday afternoon to say goodbye to Tom Jackson. He had towered so high over conferences during his 15 years as general secretary, it seemed almost unthinkable that he wouldn't be doing so any more.

He led his 200,000 members to a humiliating strike defeat early in 1971, an experience which left him a bitter man, because he felt the rest of the labour movement could have done much more to help. The strike cut off mail and phone services and cost Britain the equivalent of five million working days. But Jackson was no hot-headed militant. He was not an extreme left-wing agitator and detested the "instant revolutionaries" who were always prepared to charge the barricades without careful planning or strategy. The 47-day strike, although a personal tragedy for the man and his union, could not have been handled better by anybody else.

The public loved him because he was a natural television and media star. The dispute, however, was a failure, and his members suffered weeks of misery while the public did not appear to suffer at all. Although he endured the pain of defeat and the jeers of his militants, he stayed at the helm of the union and became a distinguished international figure. He bowed out at the relatively early age of 57 because of health problems and because he wanted to start a new life with his new love, Kathleen, back in his native Yorkshire.

He would have become a baker if his father and grandfather, both bakers, had given their approval. He recalled: "They said it was too risky." He maintained his love of cooking, however, and throughout his life insisted on making his own bread. His first cookery book was Auguste Escoffier's Ma Cuisine, given to him as a reward for lecturing to the Society of Telecommunication Engineers.

He was so modest that he described himself as "only a postman in a suit", but he was much more than that. His jovial temperament, mixed with socialist ideals, powerful oratory and a commitment to the Labour Party, place him for ever in the TUC's hall of fame.

Tom Jackson was born in 1925, was educated at the Jack Lane elementary school in Leeds and started work as a 10-shillings-a-week telegraph boy with the local GPO at the age of 14. He joined the Royal Navy for wartime service in 1943 before returning to Leeds as a postman and sorter. He had joined the union almost immediately after leaving school and worked his way steadily up the union ladder via various posts within the union and the Labour Party. He became an executive council member in 1955 and nine years later was appointed Assistant General Secretary.

He was a past chairman of the Leeds Labour League of Youth and ward party secretary. On 1 January 1967 he was the youngest man ever to be elected General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers. Because of his dedication to trade unionism it was the proudest day of his life.

Jackson was a natural committee man, the sort of personality to grace any platform, any radio programme, any inquiry, any television show. He could be heard on Any Questions? uttering comfortable common sense, charm and wit in various degrees. He served on the TUC General Council and was Chairman in 1978-79. Typically, when he became a government-appointed director of British Petroleum in 1975, he waived the £1,000 director's fee because it was equivalent to two years' wages for a postman.

His phenomenal work-rate amazed friend and foe alike and caused one MP, Phillip Whitehead, a fellow member of the Annan Committee on the Future of Broadcasting, to say:

I'm honestly astonished at how he does so much. There is a limit to what flesh and blood will take. His problem is that he is almost too indispensable.

His knack of plain speaking, his shrewdness and the fact that he was so easy to get on with made him very much in demand. He had a well- developed sense of public relations and, like many TUC chiefs of his generation, had the media very much under his thumb. His appreciation and healthy contempt for the press persuaded him to become a member of the Press Council, which he told his executive was "less onerous" than working as a BBC governor.

Although he was admired by most journalists and was always approachable he gave little information away and was annoyed when reporters unearthed "scoops" about his union's internal affairs or Post Office business. He believed, somewhat optimistically, that his members should get the facts from their union first. He even cancelled a press conference with the Post Office chairman in a fit of pique because I had revealed the news hours before he had planned.

A succession of Post Office chairmen became his friends and they all trusted him, giving him prior sight of secret documents and information well in advance of publication because they needed his advice. That special relationship, however, did not prevent his criticising Post Office bosses in public. One example was the splitting up of the Post Office into two separate businesses. He accused the chairman, Sir William Barlow, of rushing ahead with the plans a year in advance of parliamentary approval and he deplored the scrapping of the worker-director experiment as "downright bad business".

In an era of left-wing activism in the union movement he managed to keep his militants well in line, although he and his senior colleagues were continually overturned by the rank and file at conference time. He was aware that his activists were ultra-left while the vast bulk of his membership was placid and moderate. Phillip Whitehead said: "He is not an ideologue. He is a party man but not a fanatic."

He once revealed that he had been offered the job of Post Office chairman but had turned it down, preferring to remain on the union side of the fence. He would have been a terrible poacher turned gamekeeper and he obviously made the right decision to stay put.

That famous moustache was a cultivated asset. He claimed he grew it to make him appear older so that fellow trade unionists would listen to him. It became a symbol of his good nature and proved that he did not take himself as seriously as some of the humourless old guard on the TUC General Council.

His worst experience was undoubtedly the 1971 strike and a friend remarked: "Few union leaders can have been so publicly humiliated." His members lodged a claim for 15 per cent but the employers offered only 8 per cent. After the strike collapsed an inquiry awarded just 9 per cent. He had rallied his troops in a manner befitting a leader of the miners, winning sympathy but precious little financial support. Even the Post Office telephonists let him down and the union was forced into surrender because it had debts of £750,000 and could not continue.

At a meeting in Hyde Park in London he was booed and cheered and said: "Last week they were for me. Now they are against me. It is part of the job." Later he admitted it was the saddest moment of his life when his union's executive realised it could not longer afford to finance the dispute. Other unions had contributed interest-free loans but he made no secret of the fact that their generosity had not lived up to his expectations.

A friend observed that he had made two fundamental errors. One was to put too much faith in fraternal solidarity and the second was that he failed to realise that public relations do not win strikes. It was also a period of industrial strife on the British industrial landscape - and most unions won the battles in those days if they had muscle. Jackson's members, however, were not miners, dockers or car workers and the employers were able to crush them with ease.

His successor, Alan Tuffin, praised his courage and determination and the pride he had for his union. Tuffin said:

With his ability we went forward to rebuild the union and indeed reclaim many of the issues we fought over. His care and dedication to individual members of the public were first-class.

You only had to sit at his desk for a few days to see the type of letters that came in from people who wrote to Tom on all sorts of issues ranging from complaints about the Post Office to personal and private requests for help. Tom dealt with and answered those in a way that was a credit to the union. His own personal problems, his own health, when in 1979 over Christmas Tom suffered the loss of an eye, would have demoralised other men.

One of his triumphs was the abolition of incremental pay scales and his obsession swept most of them away, giving his lowly paid members healthy rises. He was also a fighter for pensions and reprimanded fellow TUC chiefs regularly for putting short-term wage increases before pensions. He said that workers should not have to rely on the State in their old age and criticised some trade unions - not his own - for being bad employers. He was proud of the number of fringe benefits he won for his members, saying: "I don't regard obtaining fringe benefits in addition to more modest pay settlements as being a sell-out."

He was an opponent of pay restraint, even from a Labour government, pointing out that ordinary workers took the brunt. He said: "We haven't been able to be regraded, promoted or shifted sideways to circumvent pay policy." He believed that no government, Labour or Tory, could rule without the involvement of both trade unionists and employers in formulating and implementing economic policy.

His loathing of the far left was demonstrated in a Tribune article in 1973 when he justified his union's decision for failing to join a nationwide one-day strike. He said that the ultra-leftists would dish out the same treatment to a Labour government and said that

co-ordinated action must have an achievable end, otherwise it degenerates into a lemming-like dash to destruction. It is bad enough not to win a strike but it is criminal to lead men and women into battle which it is known beforehand cannot be won. That way lies the destruction of militancy, the end of unity and co-ordination dies before it is born.

He added:

Leadership does not consist entirely of leaping over trench parapets with swords at the ready. Sometimes it means sitting and thinking, working out a plan, developing unity of purpose, arguing out a common policy and deciding on a strategy. Sometimes it means saying unpopular things because they are believed to be right, not urging popular slogans, knowing them to be wrong.

Any fool can shout "Charge". Our military history is padded out with worthy be-medalled, eccentric generals whose main claim to fame are the war cemeteries filled with the huddled working-class dead. It is this "Charge of the Light Brigade" mentality which appals me.

His hatred of fanatics was best demonstrated when IRA terrorists killed a male telephonist during a bombing outrage in December 1974 in London. He called them

fanatical, murdering bastards. They are not people. I've seen a few things in my time, but this was cruel.

His bitterness at the failure of the 1971 postal strike was evident when he said:

This brings me to the worst feature of British trade unionism. I have no doubt that it will be possible to weld together an army of the weak. But will the industrially strong sink their identity into such an alliance? Or will the prosecution of power-backed, sectional, self-interest be more attractive? The TUC is no stronger than the unions allow it to be. We must learn the lesson that, without a united movement, only a few of us can make advances. Some of us have learned this the hard way.

In a magazine article in 1978 he said he would not retire before 60

because I love the job. But there comes a time for every trade-union official when he has been used up.

Jackson eventually declared "time" from his £500-a-week job when he was only 57. His departure was a blow to his union but he worked hard in "retirement" running an antiquarian book business in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, sounding almost like a capitalist with the quote: "When there is a profit to be had, take it." Naturally, he specialised in cookery books, mixing business with pleasure.

Chefs, food writers, home cooks and rare-book collectors all scoured his lists for ancient editions and one writer, Theodora FitzGibbon, needed his help to trace one of her own books. The heated cellar of his home housed 4,000 volumes and he published tens of catalogues. He said:

Whenever I get the opportunity I do the shopping on Saturday morning and do the cooking over the weekend. That's why I am so fat!

Years after retiring he still maintained that the British postal service was the best in the world, although he bemoaned the passing of the telegraph service and the splitting of the Post Office.

Retirement Jackson-style in 1982 was still hard work and he gave up smoking. With it came divorce from his wife of 35 years, a second marriage within the year and two years later a new daughter. Outside home, he took to service with the Yorkshire Water Authority and a variety of civic duties.

Terry Pattinson