Tributes paid to Jack Jones, 'a champion of working people'

Dedicated union leader who bestrode politics in the 1970s dies aged 96

By Jerome Taylor
Tuesday 15 April 2014 05:43

Jack Jones, one of the most influential union leaders of the 1970s, was described as a "true giant of the labour movement" who never forgot about the underdog, as friends and former colleagues paid tribute yesterday.

Mr Jones, who led the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) for nine years, died on Tuesday, aged 96. His son Mick said his father had "passed away very peacefully in a very nice care home in Peckham".

A committed socialist who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, Jack Jones went on to become one of the country's most formidable union leaders and was a regular visitor to Downing Street for marathon negotiation sessions.

From 1969 to 1978 he served as the general secretary of the TGWU, by far the most influential union at the time. The public considered him such an influential politician that during the 1974 election, graffiti often appeared saying: "Vote Jack Jones, cut out the middle man."

After his retirement he went on to become one of the first high-profile campaigners for pensioners' rights.

In a heartfelt tribute to his friend, the former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn said: "I feel a real sense of personal bereavement. I loved Jack Jones. I've known him for years and I went to his 95th birthday last year.

"He was one of the finest men I ever met. Everything he said, he felt, he believed. I just feel really sad that he has died, but 96 is not a bad run."

The TUC general secretary Brendan Barber described Mr Jones as a "true giant of the labour movement" and said he had been "utterly dedicated to delivering respect and social justice for working people".

"He was a passionate internationalist, showing raw courage on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War. After his working life as a trade unionist he became a champion for pensioners, holding ministers to account without fear or favour and urging government to deliver dignity to the elderly," he said.

Mr Jones remained an influential person within the Labour Party long after he had retired from the TGWU and would often be sought out by up and coming potential party leaders.

During the 1990s, he gave his support to Gordon Brown against Tony Blair, for whom he made no secret of his dislike. He had always hoped that a Brown premiership would do more for Britain's working classes.

Speaking yesterday, Gordon Brown described Mr Jones as a "fighter for justice". He added: "From his time in the Spanish Civil War to his work right up to his death for pensioners, Jack Jones was always there to help people in need. He truly was a leader of working people. All of us who were personal friends of Jack will miss his advice, his courage and his inspiration."

Born to a docker father in the slums of Liverpool in 1913, Mr Jones said in his autobiography that he had always been heavily politicised. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a firm that made parts for ships but the company went bust and he was forced to follow his father's footsteps on the docks.

But politics soon came calling. He joined the International Brigade to fight in Spain after coming into contact with foreign sailors while working on the docks and the war against General Franco's nationalists instilled in him a fervent desire to confront and destroy fascism. In 1938 he was forced to pull out of the Spanish Civil War after he was wounded by shrapnel in the shoulder at the battle of Ebro. He returned to Britain and became a TGWU organiser in armaments factories in Coventry during the Second World War.

He rose steadily through the ranks of the union to become its elected leader in 1969. Tony Woodley, the joint leader of Unite, which was formed during a merger which included the TGWU, said workers across Britain would miss him.

"Dockers and car workers, bus drivers and engineering workers, white-collar employees and farm workers, those driving a lorry or working in an aircraft cabin – we are all today bereft," Mr Woodley said. "For millions of working people, the comforts we enjoy, such security as we have established, and the social gains we have secured, all of these stand on the shoulders of the organisation that Jack Jones developed and the leadership he gave."

Another former union leader Rodney Bickerstaffe, who succeeded Mr Jones as president of the National Pensioners Convention, said: "He leaves behind a tremendous legacy for ordinary working people that is second to none.

"Above all, he was a champion of the underdog, because he never forgot that he was born into poverty and worked hard to improve not only his own situation, but that of the people around him. Those struggling against injustice, both here and abroad, have today lost a great friend and ally."

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