The Jack Jones House Unite building in Liverpool is named after a trade unionist who dedicated his life to improving ordinary working people’s lives.
Born into poverty in 1913, Jack Larkin Jones followed his father into Garston docks. He quickly became a Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) shop steward and delegate on the National Docks Group Committee of the union. One of his early achievements was when he was awarded the TUC Tolpuddle Medal for union recruitment. At the same time he constantly faced the danger of victimisation and found himself engaged in running battles with full-time union officials who disliked his militancy.
On his days off work from the docks, Jones took part in demonstrations against the scourge of unemployment. He also distributed anti-fascist leaflets produced by the International Transport Workers Federation about the worsening political situation in Germany.
When Jones was elected as a Labour Party councillor for the Croxteth Ward in Liverpool he pressed the case for slum clearances. He then volunteered to fight with the International Brigades in Spain where a democratically elected progressive government had been attacked in 1936 by a right-wing movement headed by General Franco that enjoyed Hitler and Mussolini’s backing.
Whilst serving with the International Brigades, Jones was seriously injured at the Battle of Ebro in 1938. Although he survived other Merseyside men were not so fortunate. Jack Jones House entrance bears witness to their sacrifices with a plaque bearing their names and which was unveiled by Merseyside County Councillor Edith Lawrenson and Jack Jones himself in 1985.
On his return from Spain, Jones married Evelyn Taylor and the couple were to enjoy more than 50 years of married life together before Evelyn died in 2006. The couple had two sons, Jack junior and Mick.
Jones was then appointed to the post of Coventry District Organiser for the TGWU. “Here, I felt was my opportunity to prove that the union really could work for its members…..the key to developing organisation was to find and cultivate the enthusiastic shop steward……whilst I knew I had to develop confidence and a strong sense of solidarity among the workers.” (*)
Jones also faced a major task to break down non-unionism in numerous factories where low pay was endemic. Many meetings were held outside these plants and once Jones had succeeded in building up membership he threatened strike action in order to get pay talks going. Each success encouraged more workers to join the TGWU.
At the same time, when the Second World War was started, Jones was determined to see production maintained and even increased across a city that was being bombed heavily.
“I saw the workforce as the soldiers at the rear, a major factor in winning the war against Fascism.” When experienced men were needed for aircraft production he helped organise transfers across factories. When his members were asked to work seven days a week, Jones also did so.
As increasing numbers of women were drawn into the war effort, Jones recruited heavily whilst other unions stood aside wrongly believing the women would return back to their homes when the war ended. As membership levels continued to rise he was able to successfully negotiate for improved terms and conditions. Trade unionism grew without any detriment to the war effort.
The election of a radical Labour Government after the successful conclusion of the war was greeted with joy by Jones and the labour movement in general. Not so the employers who were keen to see a return to their pre-war dominance. Times though were a changing and the TGWU and the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) secured a major breakthrough in mid 1946 with an agreement with the Standard Motor Company to introduce a five-day week of 42.5 hours, the first five-day week agreement in the engineering industry with the added bonus of a 4.5 hours cut in the working week. A national five-day week followed in 1947.
Jones though faced problems not only from management but from TGWU general secretary Arthur Deakin. “In those days he always appeared to be on the side of management……..Deakin did not like my support for the shop steward system.” The pair had constant battles but in 1955, Jones strengthened his role within the union by being appointed Engineering Group Secretary for the whole Midlands region. The election of Frank Cousins to replace Deakin proved crucial to Jones’ appointment.
In 1956, Jones was able to persuade management at the British Motor Company of the need to allow shop stewards to undertake trade union education in works’ time. This was to ultimately pave the way for similar agreements nationally.
In 1963, Jones was appointed as TGWU Assistant Secretary and moved to London. “I insisted that each full-time officer must be accountable for his results.” He also planned a massive recruitment campaign whilst building a closer working relationship with the AEU and its leader Hugh Scanlon. Jones called for the introduction of a 35 hour working week with three weeks’ paid holiday a year and later, as an elected member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, he opposed Harold Wilson’s proposed prices and incomes policy on the grounds that it would hit the lowest paid workers the hardest.
Meanwhile, Jones maintained his life long opposition to racism by speaking out at many, often heated, workplace meetings following Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech about immigration.
When Frank Cousins stood down from his role, Jones was elected in December 1968 to replace him. In his role as TGWU general secretary he soon found himself at odds with Edward Heath’s Conservative Government at the start of the 1970s.
The Industrial Relations Act 1971 imposed limitations on legitimate strikes and twice the TGWU was fined for contempt over its refusal to comply. Opposition eventually coalesced in 1972 around the Pentonville Five TGWU dockers whose imprisonment was greeted with outrage and solidarity strikes amongst trade unionists. With a General Strike in the offing, the Official Solicitor intervened to obtain the men’s release.
Jones: “One thing a free trade union movement cannot tolerate is the imprisonment of its people.”
When Labour returned to government in 1974, Jones was one of the authors of the Social Contract. This persuaded trade unionists to a sign up to a programme of voluntary wage restraint in order to allow the Chancellor Denis Healey to introduce policies designed to control inflation and public spending. In return, Labour was expected to maintain price and dividend controls, improve pensions and introduce planning agreements with companies benefiting from Government aid. The ultimate collapse of the Social Contract agreement was to lead to the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79.
By then Jones - who in a January 1977 Gallup opinion poll was voted the most powerful person in Britain - had retired in 1978 from his role as TGWU general secretary although not before the union reached a membership total of more than two million people.
As he said: “More and more people were coming to rely on the weapon of trade unionism as represented by the TGWU.”
In his retirement, Jones maintained his involvement in the labour movement. He served as Honorary Life President of the National Pensioners Convention and President of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. At the 2003 Labour Party conference he received a special award in recognition of his service to the trade union movement.
Jack Jones died at aged 96 on 21 April 2009. Later that year the TGWU building Transport House in Liverpool was refurbished by the newly formed Unite. It was reopened as Jack Jones House.
|Tony Woodley unveils a plaque to Jack Jones|
The building was rededicated on 30 January 2015. Tony Woodley, former Unite general secretary, undertook the re-dedication by unveiling a plaque. He told the large crowd “It’s a privilege to remember possibly the greatest trade union leader of our times. Jack never forgot his roots and practised what he preached – workers first.”
Twelve members of the great man’s family were in attendance. Granddaughter Jane Jones said, “We are really proud of granddad and thrilled Unite continues to remember him.”
|Ricky Tomlinson and members of Jack Jones' family|
On the same day as the rededication another new plaque for the entrance to Jack Jones House was unveiled. This is dedicated to Merseysiders whose spirit of international solidarity saw them risk their lives in the fight against racial segregation in South Africa.
As a great internationalist himself and one who in 1973 persuaded dockers in various UK ports to support black seamen in South Africa - and thus raised their wages from £38 to £87 a month - Jones would no doubt have been thrilled.
* All quotes in this piece are taken from JACK JONES - UNION MAN - an autobiography that was published by Collins in 1986.
All photographs in this section are copyright Mark Harvey of ID8 Photography