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Shop Stewards

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From: The Socialist issue 577, 29 April 2009: FIGHT for JOBS

Search site for keywords: Labour - Jack Jones - TGWU - Shop Stewards - Unions

Jack Jones

Former TGWU general secretary

Many of the obituaries of Jack Jones in the capitalist press comment on his early life when he was fighting with the international brigade in the Spanish civil war against the fascists of Franco.

Bill Mullins

There is no doubt that Jones, who was injured in the battle of Ebro (south of Madrid) in 1938, represented a generation of youth who were outraged at the rise of fascism across Europe and wanted to do something about it. His experiences in Spain left an indelible mark that would put him firmly on the left in the trade union movement.

In 1969 his election as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) was representative of the shift to the left in the unions, and the Labour Party. The context for this was the changing situation in the British economy, which was suffering as it increasingly lost out to overseas rivals in world markets.

Jones had allied himself to the developing shop stewards' movement (in reality the activists of the TGWU), which played a big part in his election campaign. At the time the Labour government was preparing, on behalf of big business, to 'curb' the power of the unions, particularly the shop stewards' movement.

The government of Harold Wilson tried to introduce new anti-union laws, which at their heart were against the shop stewards. They included overt legislation which would have seen shop stewards imprisoned for lengthy periods of time for representing their members.

The uproar this caused forced the union leaders, particularly Jack Jones, to openly lead opposition to the measures. As a result the legislation was withdrawn. It was from this period that the capitalist press started to refer to Jones and Hugh Scanlon, who had been elected as president of the engineering union (AEU), as the 'terrible twins' of the labour movement.

The Telegraph obituary tries to paint Jones as fundamentally different to previous TGWU leaders like Ernest Bevin, Arthur Deakin and Frank Cousins (Jones' immediate predecessor). "They", according to the Telegraph, "represented the general good" of society whereas Jones "saw himself as the workers' tribune".

But in reality, despite Jones being different to his predecessors, when the chips were down, like Scanlon, he could not see how to take the movement forward other than to ensure that a Labour government stayed in power.

The Telegraph, quite correctly, says that Jones was "incorruptible" and that he "lived in a council house his whole life". Compare this to the gravy train now being ridden by the Labour leadership with their second homes and abuse of expenses.

It was in the Spanish civil war that Jones first met Ted Heath, who was later to become a Tory prime minister. Heath was part of a delegation from the British universities to Spain. Jones described him as reflecting "a strand of Conservative thinking which had some sympathy with the Republic".

As prime minister, Heath's attempts to curb the unions were met with opposition. But when some of the unions said they would not comply with Heath's anti-union laws, Jones opposed this, saying the TGWU would not do anything "illegal".

Under his pressure and on the casting vote of the chair of the union's GEC the union paid a 50,000 fine imposed on it by Donaldson's industrial relations court. This was for the union backing the fight against the containerisation of the British ports.

Ironically this in turn was to lead to the jailing of the Pentonville Five (all TGWU members) for refusing to lift pickets against the containerisation process in east London. But the imprisoning of the Five was met by a strike wave, which grew from below. As a result the Heath government and the courts were forced to retreat.

Trade union power

The Telegraph comments that in 1974 Harold Wilson was returned to Number 10 but it was "Jones who was running the country". Despite this focus on Jones as an individual, this is a reference to the enormous power the organised trade union movement had at the time. In reality, Jack Jones, like the other trade union leaders on the left, and on the right, increasingly feared they were losing control of their rank and file.

Jones, in fact, drafted the 'social contract' with the Wilson government that saw the introduction of wage controls in 1975. But in 1977 Jones was forced to witness his own union conference reject further wage restraint.

The election of Jones and other left leaders was representative of a shift to the left in the consciousness of the mass of workers in the late 1960s and 1970s. They were pushed further to the left by pressure from ordinary trade union members and activists. In this situation, with a strong trade union movement, the working class had the opportunity to push forward its interests on the political arena.

But without the building of a mass revolutionary party, the only alternative promoted by Jones was the Labour government. It was this that dictated his policies, even if the price of a Labour government was attacks on the conditions of his members. When Labour's attacks met with opposition from the organised working class, Jack Jones' reformist outlook meant that he could not give a lead to fight for a real alternative to the crisis of capitalism.

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