When it comes to power and influence, few people can hold a candle to Liverpool-born union leader Jack Jones.
In January 1977, according to a Gallup opinion poll, 54 per cent of the UK population thought Jones was the most powerful person in Britain.
He left Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan trailing in his wake!
It was a time of strikes and social change with Jones at the forefront of a new industrial order.
As leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) from 1968, he was instrumental in the creation of ACAS – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – in 1975.
He was also one of the authors of the Social Contract – the wage restraint deal agreed with Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1970s in return for the repeal of the 1971 Industrial Relations Act.
Along with his broad left ally Hugh Scanlon, president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Jones was staunchly opposed to the Labour Government’s prices and incomes policy.
In 1969, Jones was seen as such a threat that Callaghan, then Home Secretary, and Employment Secretary Barbara Castle discussed ways to thwart him in Cabinet!
Many in the Labour party blamed Jones for fostering the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent which saw widespread strikes and ushered in 18 years of Tory rule.
If this was the case, it was a lingering influence only as Jones had already resigned from the leadership of the TGWU by 1978 to be replaced by Moss Evans.
Born in Garston in March 1913, James Larkin Jones left school at 14 to work as an engineering apprentice. His father was a Liverpool docker.
Jones’ middle name was a tribute to Liverpool-born trade unionist James Larkin who died in 1947. He was one of the founders of the Irish Labour Party and later set up the Irish Worker League.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 forced Jones out of his job, but he found work as a painter before joining his father at the docks.
Jones took his first steps in trade unionism when he became a shop steward of the TGWU and then a delegate on the National Docks Group Committee.
In the 1930s, Jones organised protest meetings in Liverpool against the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, and was even attacked by a group of Blackshirts.
He also joined the Territorial Army in 1934 which prepared him for fighting in the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
In Spain, Jones was the political officer of the Major Atlee Company and was seriously wounded in the Battle of the Ebro between July and November 1938.
At Ebro, the Spanish Republican Army and International Brigades suffered thousands of casualties at the hands of the Nationalists, the Nazi Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazone Legionaria.
Jones became Regional Secretary of the TGWU in Coventry on his return to the UK, working closely with the West Midlands motor industry. He was then appointed the union’s Assistant General Secretary.
He later joined the Institute for Workers’ Control founded by Tony Topham and Ken Coates, leader of the International Marxist Group, in 1968.
After being elected General Secretary of the TGWU, also in 1968, Jones worked with AEU leader Hugh Scanlon to thwart Labour plans to introduce a 28-day cooling off period before strike action could be taken.
On retiring as TGWU leader in 1978, Jones took up the presidency of the National Pensioners Convention and became an ardent campaigner and figurehead for the group.
He was also president of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. In 2008, seven decades after the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain, he unveiled a memorial to the British Battalion at Newhaven Fort.
Hundreds of trade unionists flocked to London’s Royal Festival Hall in February 1978 to say goodbye to Jones at a special gala occasion. Among the guests were Prime Minister Callaghan and entertainers Mike Yarwood and Les Dawson.
Throughout his life, Jones wore a trademark cloth cap – whatever the weather – to testify to his working class roots. He died in Peckham in April 2009 at the age of 96.
Transport House in Liverpool was renamed Jack Jones House in 2009 after being refurbished by Unite – the union formed by the merger of the TGWU and Amicus.
*Fascinating wartime images of Merseyside feature in Clive Hardy’s latest hardback book, The Home Front – Britain 1939-45.
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