Obituary: Jack Peel
Tuesday 18 May 1993
AS A trade-union leader in the textile industry Jack Peel was a colourful and highly respected character. Aside from the circumstances surrounding his leaving the union for employment with the European Commission, he will be best remembered by the textile workers for his achievements in improving the position of the British wool, textile and dyehouse workforce, including the arrangements for holidays with pay which still exist today, 25 years after they were agreed.
Although Peel's views appear to have changed after he became a full- time official with the National Union of Dyers, Bleachers and Textile Workers, it may be surprising to some to find that he was instrumental and most eloquent in arguing the case for compulsory trade-union membership in the British wool textile industry. At a time when the Heath government was preparing legislation in the form of the Industrial Relations Act - designed to outlaw, or at least make null and void, the closed shops within British industry - Peel was campaigning for a post-entry closed shop within the industry and viewed non-trade-union workers as passengers who did not pay their fares, holding back progress for the rest and weakening the position of all textile workers.
Peel was a railwayman for 11 years, but in 1948, at the age of 27, he went to study at Ruskin College, Oxford, and then to become an official of the National Union of Dyers, Bleachers and Textile Workers. Between 1966 and 1973 he worked as General Secretary of the union and was a leading member of the the TUC General Council, where he was actively involved in seeking a more constructive and co- ordinated approach to the British economy. He was one of the first to advocate the principles of high investment, high productivity and high wages and while some progress has been made, the last of the three principles has not yet been established for workers in the British textile industries.
In his capacity as General Secretary of the Textile Workers' Union, Peel represented textile workers on the NEDO (National Economic Development Organisation) Wool Textile Economic Development Committee, which went some way to put into practice those ideas for a more constructive approach to the economy. The government scheme of assistance under the Wool EDC generated over pounds 125m of investment in the 1970s, making that sector of British textiles one of the most successful in the following decade.
Although circumstances have changed a great deal since Peel was General Secretary of Britain's largest textile union, the industry and much of the rest of British manufacturing could still learn from this co- ordinated approach to regenerating the country's manufacturing sectors, involving government, employers and trade unions together in investing in the future.
For those in the broader trade- union movement, Peel will almost certainly be remembered as the one figure who stood out in favour of Common Market membership while the position of the TUC and that of most trade unions was one of opposition. Even within his own union, Common Market membership was viewed with great suspicion and its final policy position, before Peel's departure to Brussels was an anti-Common Market one.
In the spring of 1973, after 22 years as full-time officer and General Secretary of his union, Peel was out of step with the broad body of opinion within the movement on an issue of fundamental importance. What was memorable of that period was the high level of debate on the European question and the sincere and sometimes passionately held views of all those involved.
That was, as it were, the parting of the ways for Peel from the British trade-union movement as he embarked upon a career as a Eurocrat whose ideas in so many areas run contrary to those held in his earlier years as a trade union activist. He was the first British trade-union leader to take up a full-time EEC Commission post. Peel was appointed Director of Industrial Relations in the Social Affairs Directorate, and was the Commission's chief industrial relations adviser from 1979 to 1981.
In some ways Jack Peel must have lived what seemed to be two careers and two lifetimes. Perhaps he could genuinely see both sides of every issue, and 20 years on from the great European debate of the early Seventies, perhaps it is befitting that the jury is still out on so many aspects of Britain's membership of the European Community.
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