James (Jack) Jones, the son of a docker, was born in Liverpool in 1913. His father named him in honour of James Larkin. The family were very poor and after leaving school at fourteen he worked as an engineering apprentice.
After the Wall Street Crash Jones lost his job but was eventually able to find employment with a firm of signmakers and painters. Later he joined his father as a Liverpool docker. He became a member of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and was elected as a shop steward and was a delegate on the National Docks Group Committee.
Converted to socialism by reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. Jones later explained how the book "was passed from hand to hand among people in the Labour movement and had a remarkable effect on our thinking." In 1931 Jones became secretary of the Liverpool Labour College and used extracts from books by authors such as Tressell, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, G. H. Wells, James Connolly, Robert Blatchford to educate young people.
A strong opponent of Oswald Mosley and the National Union of Fascists, Jones organized protest-meetings against the fascists holding meetings in Liverpool. On one occasion he was beaten up by a group of Blackshirts armed with knuckle-dusters.
In 1936 he was elected as a Labour councillor in Liverpool. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Jones became active in the Aid Spain campaign in Liverpool. After hearing a speech given by Paul Robeson in June 1937, Jones decided to join the International Brigades. Jones fought for many months before being seriously wounded at Ebro in July 1938.
When Jones returned to England he became a full-time official of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) in Coventry. During the Second World War he helped to keep the city's munitions industry working through the Blitz.
By the end of the war Jones had developed a reputation as a militant trade union figure. However, Arthur Deakin, the general secretary of the TGWU, disagreed with Jones' approach to trade unionism. According to Geoffrey Goodman: "By the end of the war, he (Jones) had established a powerful union base in Coventry, as well as a national reputation, which became the forerunner of a powerful shop stewards movement across the car industry. It also provoked envy and opposition from his union's national leaders, notably the then general secretary, Arthur Deakin, who effectively blacklisted Jones as a near-communist. It was Deakin who effectively blocked his promotion within the union because of his radical politics and his commitment to shop steward power - a policy fiercely rejected not only by Deakin but many other national union leaders. Deakin was convinced that Jones was indeed an undercover communist - something Jones always denied."
After the death of Arthur Deakin, the left-winger, Frank Cousins was elected as General Secretary of the TGWU. In 1956 Cousins appointed Jones as Midland region engineering secretary. In 1963 Cousins brought Jones to London where he became the union's executive national officer.
In 1968 Jones was elected General Secretary of the TGWU. He was also a leading figure of the Trade Union Congress and was its principal spokesman on international and economic matters. It has been claimed that Jones was the most influential political figure outside the cabinet. Geoffrey Goodman argues that Jones was able to persuade Harold Wilson to "create various new bodies, including the industrial dispute body, Acas, the Health and Safety Executive and the Manpower Services Commission in charge of work training".
In 1977 he gave the BBC Dimbleby Lecture. The following year he retired as General Secretary of the TGWU. Jones was also Vice-President of the International Transport Workers Federation and was a campaigner for pensioners' rights. His autobiography, Union Man, was published in 1986.
Jack Jones died aged 96 on 21st April 2009.
My home was in York Street, Garston, in the south end of Liverpool - a long street of poor and mean terraced houses. They had two rooms up and two rooms down, generally in a decaying state. They had been built some time in the last century - obviously with the minimum of cost - to house labour for the nearby factories and docks. The houses were infested by rats, mice, cockroaches and bugs. Our rent was five shillings a week, and even that was exorbitant!
From a child's point of view the street had one advantage: out of the maze of working-class streets it was the nearest to the Mersey river. We walked past the copper works, the tannery, Grayson's shipyard, the bobbin works (making wooden bobbins for the textile industry), a derelict glass works and King's ship-breaking yard and there we were on the shore, a wonderful if muddy playground when we tired of playing our games in the the street.
Like every true artist, I have longed to see my talent contributing in an unmistakably clear manner to the cause of humanity. I feel that tonight I am doing so. Every artist, every scientist, every writer must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. The battle front is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear. The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of this era is characterized by the degradation of my people. Despoiled of their lands, their culture destroyed, they are in every country save one (the USSR), denied equal protection of the law, and deprived of their rightful place in the respect of their fellows. Not through blind faith or coercion, but conscious of my course, I take my place with you. I stand with you in unalterable support of the government of Spain, duly and regularly chosen by its lawful sons and daughters. May your meeting rally every black man to the side of Republican Spain. The liberation of Spain from the oppression of fascist reactionaries is not a private matter of the Spaniards, but the common cause of all advanced and progressive humanity.
The focal point for the mobilization of the International Brigades was in Paris; understandably so, because underground activities against Fascism had been concentrated there for some years. I led a group of volunteers to the headquarters there, proceeding with the greatest caution because of the laws against recruitment in foreign armies and the non-intervention policies of both Britain and France. From London onwards it was a clandestine operation until we arrived on Spanish soil.
While in Paris we were housed in workers' homes in one of the poorest quarters of the city. But it wasn't long before we were on our way, by train, to a town near the Pyrenees. From there we travelled by coach to a rambling old farmhouse in the foothills of the Pyrenees. After a rough country meal in a barn we met our guide who led us through the mountain passes into Spain.
In the light of the morning we could see Spanish territory. After five hours or so, stumbling down the mountainside (I found it almost as hard going down as climbing up), we came to an outpost and from there were taken by truck to a fortress at Figueras. This was a reception centre for the volunteers. The atmosphere of old Spain was very apparent in the ancient castle. For the first day or so we felt exhausted after the long climb. The food was pretty awful. We ate it because we were hungry but without relish.
For some the first lessons about the use of a rifle were given before we moved off to the base. I at least could dismantle and assemble a rifle bolt and knew something about firing and the care of a weapon. But my first shock came when I was told of the shortage of weapons and the fact that the rifles (let alone other weapons) were in many cases antiquated and inaccurate.
Training at the base was quick, elementary but effective. For me life was hectic, meeting good companions and experiencing a genuine international atmosphere. There were no conscripts or paid mercenaries. I got to know a German Jew who had escaped the clutches of Hitler's hordes and was then a captain in the XII Brigade. He had hopes of going on ultimately to Palestine and striving for a free state of Israel. He was not only a good soldier but a brave one too. That was also true of a smart young Mexican whom I met. He had been an officer in the Mexican Army and was a member of the National Revolutionary Party of his country.
We believe that there can be no compromise between Fascism and Democratic ideals for which we ourselves have come here to fight. We feel ourselves wholly at one with the determination of the Spanish people to drive out the invaders of their country, and as members of the Labour Party we urge that our leaders turn a deaf ear to talk of compromise, and continue to press ever more vigorously the Party's declared policy; namely, the demand that the British Government's support of nonintervention be reversed and that the right be restored to the Spanish Republic freely to purchase arms.
Nothing could be more encouraging to the work of those of us fighting with the British Battalion than to feel that we are being supported by the vigorous efforts of all the Democratic forces of Britain led by the Labour Party. In that struggle we are proud to act in the advance guard, and pledge ourselves to do all in our power to maintain the high reputation already gained by the Battalion in Spain.
People have asked me: "Did you kill anyone in Spain"? Frankly, I do not know, but it is possible. In that engagement I didn't think of death, yet people were being killed and wounded by my side. In battle, one experiences a numbness that is difficult to describe; one's first impulse is to protect oneself as much as possible and then to fire in the direction of the enemy. One tries to pinpoint a target, but almost in a frenzy. To keep cool and calm in such circumstances is an ideal not easily achieved. Nor did I have great confidence in the accuracy of my rifle. It was a Remington-type rifle, Russian made, and after firing a few rounds the bolt got very hot. All I do know is that some of my comrades were killed and wounded and men on the other side suffered the same fate. That is war.
There were many casualties and I became one of them. Once more I had clambered up the hill with my comrades, taking cover where we could and firing at the enemy wherever he appeared. The bullets of the snipers whizzed over, grenades and shells were striking the ground, throwing up earth and dust and showering us with shrapnel. Suddenly my shoulder and right arm went numb. Blood gushed from my shoulder and I couldn't lift my rifle. I could do nothing but lie where I was. Near me a comrade had been killed and I could hear the cries of others, complaining of their wounds. While I was lying there, to make things worse, a spray of shrapnel hit my right arm. The stretcher bearers were doing their best but could hardly keep up with the number of casualties. As night fell I made my own way, crawling to the bottom
of the hill. I was taken with other wounded men down the line to an emergency field hospital at Mora del Ebro where I was given an anti-tetanus injection. The place was like an abattoir; there was blood and the smell of blood everywhere.
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.
But Jones used the argument of the war effort to persuade them that such a move would boost production and was therefore in the national interest. His success in that campaign laid the foundation of his later reputation. By the end of the war, he had established a powerful union base in Coventry, as well as a national reputation, which became the forerunner of a powerful shop stewards movement across the car industry. It also provoked envy and opposition from his union's national leaders, notably the then general secretary, Arthur Deakin, who effectively blacklisted Jones as a near-communist. It was Deakin who effectively blocked his promotion within the union because of his radical politics and his commitment to shop steward power - a policy fiercely rejected not only by Deakin but many other national union leaders. Deakin was convinced that Jones was indeed an undercover communist - something Jones always denied.
Jones remained in Coventry as a district official until the leftwinger Frank Cousins was surprisingly elected TGWU general secretary in 1956, soon after Deakin's death, leading to a dramatic change of scene. One of Cousins' first moves was to promote his old friend Jones, appointing him Midland region engineering secretary and then secretary of region 5. It was Cousins who picked him out as his eventual successor and inheritor of his own radical policies. Jones was brought to London in 1963 to fill a newly created post of executive national officer - effectively third in the union hierarchy after Harry Nicholas, who was nominally Cousins's deputy - with the clear intention of succeeding to the top job.