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Jack Larkin Jones (1913-21 April 2009)
Trade unionist who as leader of the TGWU wielded exceptional power and influence.

The remarkable story of Jack Jones, who has died aged 96, has to open with his achievements as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union for nine crucial years, 1969-78. It was under his leadership that the TGWU, already Britain's biggest trade union, reached a membership of more than 2 million - the first British union to achieve that figure, making it, at the time, the largest in the non-communist world.

This phenomenal state of affairs led to him being described by his foes and critics as "Emperor Jones", a ruthless labour leader, but by his many admirers, including Gordon Brown (a TGWU member), as "one of the world's greatest trade union leaders".

The truth lies with both descriptions. His power and influence, in trade union politics and throughout the labour movement, was unique. It can be compared with that of Ernest Bevin (founder of the TGWU) during the second world war as minister of labour. Indeed, Jones's impact on the national scene was so great that an opinion poll taken during the early days of James Callaghan's government in the mid-1970s reflected a popular, if misplaced, view that he had more power than the prime minister - hence the "Emperor Jones" label.

It was Jones more than any other figure in the labour movement who was responsible for the "social contract" on wages (1975-79) and a partnership between the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Callaghan and the TUC, which collapsed after Jones's retirement in 1978. Even so, it represented an extraordinary period of cooperation between government, employers and unions in pre-Margaret Thatcher days, and almost certainly sustained the life of the Callaghan government through to 1979.

In fact, Callaghan invited Jones to join his cabinet and offered him a peerage to allow his entry into the government. Characteristically, Jones refused both. He had no time for the House of Lords.

Jones was born in Garston, Mersey-side. His father was a Liverpool docker who christened his youngest son James Larkin in honour of the Irish republican socialist and trade union leader of that name. But once he began working at the docks, James Larkin became Jack.

He left school at 14 to take a job as an engineering apprentice at five shillings a week but soon left, cutting his political teeth in the docks. He joined the TGWU in 1927, becoming shop steward, and by 1930 was a member of the docks branch committee. In 1934 he helped organise a Merseyside contingent for one of the hunger marches on London.

From 1936 to 1939 he served as a Labour councillor in Liverpool, even though in 1937 he volunteered to fight for the International Brigade against Franco's fascists in the Spanish civil war. Towards the end of 1938, he was badly wounded in the shoulder while fighting on the Ebro front - one of the critical battles of the war in which many of his closest friends and comrades were killed, including George Brown, the first husband of his future wife, Evelyn. In fact, it was when Jones returned to England that he met Evelyn, herself an active and one-time militant socialist, to deliver her husband's last words. He had pledged to his dying friend to report back personally, and the encounter led to a marriage lasting 60 years.

At the outbreak of the second world war, Jones applied for a job as a full-time TGWU organiser and was appointed to the Coventry district - a posting personally approved by Bevin. It was in that role that he established himself as a union official of exceptional ability. He developed a policy that was later to become his trademark - "shop-floor power". That agenda was based on encouraging shop stewards to in effect assume the role and influence of factory floor managers - giving greater authority to the trade unions. Local employers at first fiercely resisted his plea to give the shop floor more influence.

by Geoffrey Goodman

The Guardian, Thursday 23 April 2009. Article History

Read more about this article in The Guardian

For more information see:

The Independent: Jack Jones: Formidable trade union leader who spent his life fighting for workers and pensioners

BBC News Obituary Jack Jones

Times online Jack Jones, trade unionist, dies aged 96

The Irish Times Former union leader Jack Jones dies

Jack Larkin Jones in Wikipedia

Obituaries from Spain:

Foro por la Memoria

El Jack Jones histórico sindicalista y combatiente

La Muere Jack Jones destacado lider sindical y combatiente en España