Jack Jones, 1970s Trade Union Leader

Jack Jones was General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union from 1968 to 1978. Born in Liverpool in 1913, he worked as a docker, became a socialist and fought in the Spanish Civil War.  He was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Ebro in 1938, and then became a full-time official of the TGWU in Coventry.  He died in 2009, aged 96.
He was one of those who supported Industrial Democracy.  Sadly, the hopeful moves in the 1970s were frustrated by a ‘Double Whammy’.  On the one hand, traditionalists who did not foresee anything like Thatcher.  On the other, radical loud-mouths who thought themselves competent to lead a Bolshevik-style revolution in circumstances utterly unlike Russia 1917.
The Transport and General Workers’ Union was much the biggest union in Britain.  In In 2007, it merged with Amicus to form Unite the Union.

Jack Jones speaks

Jack Jones explains his role in the Labour movement in the 1970s, and how the battle to bring in Industrial Democracy was fought and lost, making something like Thatcherism almost inevitable

L&TUR We’d like to begin with the experience of the seventies. As you were a central figure in that period, your reflections would be of great interest and, I think, of great use to the present Labour movement.. So could be ask you, what lessons were learned from the experience of the seventies, of Labour in government and the protracted problems that developed in the 1970s.

J.J. I’m not sure about ‘what lessons were learned’, rather, what lessons should be learned, because in retrospect the Labour Party, the Labour Government and the Trade Union movement unfortunately allowed things to develop at the very end of that Labour Government which not only led to defeat in the election, but considerable defeat for the whole of the Labour Movement – not least the Trade Union Movement.

We had made considerable progress based on discussions within the Liaison Committee, which brought in the TUC, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the NEC of the Labour Party. We worked at that from 1971 and 1972 onwards. I thought it was necessary to bring back unity after the defeat of Labour in 1970, and above all, we had to get the Industrial Relations Act removed from the statute book, because that was the biggest blow the Trade Union Movement had suffered for a long time.

We produced a lot of policy statements which dealt with the economy, housing and pensions – in other words, social justice. The social wage was very much in our minds; also the principle of bringing in legislation which would ensure the operation of the Trade Union Movement: the right to representation, to Trade Union recognition, the right to join a Trade Union and elements of Industrial Democracy. All these were involved in our discussions.

And in 1974, we set to work to produce the Employment Protection Act. I described this at the time as a ‘shop stewards’ charter’. And it was. It was designed to . ensure that organized workers would have the right to information from their employer and the right to time off in the discharging of their Trade Union duties. The principle of extending Health and Safety legislation was proposed and operated. In particular, that Health and Safety representatives would have to be members of independent Trade Unions. That is very important because victimisation could only be avoided by people who were members of some organisation that could protect them.

So although we made a great deal of progress, towards the end the Government, faced with considerable economic difficulties, pressed for a 5% limit on pay. This was unrealistic. I was then retired, by the way, so I watched from the sidelines. The 5% limit was too low, given that the previous one was 10%; and it was the result of acquiescence by the Trade Union Movement, not negotiation with it On the other hand, those unions who were concerned with national negotiations were beginning to demand far more than was reasonable in the circumstances. Examples of this were the public service and local government unions. And I’m afraid some of my colleagues in parts of the transport industry were doing the same thing. The result was that we had disputes that, in my view, should have been avoided. I pointed out the dangers of this in 1977, when I was defeated at our own union conference on the issue of pay policy. I said that if the Trade Union Movement and the Labour Government split away from each other, it would put the party of privilege back into power and would result in the poor being kicked in the teeth.

So the lesson we should learn is that the Trade Unions and the Labour Party should work closely together and find ways of maintaining unity in spite of all the difficulties. If ever Labour gets back into power, it is essential that we do not have a repeat of the kind of situation that divided us in 1978 and lost us the election in 1979.

L&TUR Do you think there is any connection between the failure of the Trade Union Movement to support the Bullock Report proposals for Workers’ Control, and the headlong rush into wage demands you have just talked about?

J.J. The Trade Union Movement was a bit divided anyway on the approach to Industrial Democracy. My old friend Hughie Scanlon and one or two others, always took the view that the only thing they should do is extend collective bargaining. I appreciate the idea of extending collective bargaining. And if you read the Bullock Report, you will see that the inference there is that you would have Trade Union channels, the shop stewards, taking collective bargaining into the boardroom. Which I think is still right.

The proposal was a two-way connection between the worker representatives, who were serving their colleagues in the Trade Union Movement, reporting back to the workshop floor and taking the workshop floor’s point of view into the boardroom. If you are going to ensure that workers succeed and gain improvements in general, then they must have a place in the determination of overall policy of an industrial undertaking, whether it is publicly or privately owned.

L&TUR Were you surprised by the reaction of people like Hughie Scanlon to the Bullock Report?

J.J. Oh no. Let’s face it, there was a lukewarm attitude on the part of members of the government: people like Edmund Dell, Shirley Williams, in fact a whole crowd of them. I’d better not mention too many bloody names. They wanted to settle for much less than the Bullock Committee recommended.

L&TUR But was there anybody rooting for it, apart from yourself, in the Trade Union Movement?

J.J. I think we could say that at the time the TUC leadership, that is to say people like Len Murray and David Lea, were in agreement with me. Clive Jenkins, for what it was worth, supported the approach. It was a bit of a battle on my own. But I thought it was highly justified; and still do, even if we are now in a situation where we can only get half the loaf. The fact is that we were in a position to make a lot of progress. If we could have gone on and won an election with an increased majority – I am very mindful of the fact that in 1979 the Labour Government did not have a majority, and that is what brought them down – but a government with a good majority cold have really done something in the direction of Bullock, modified in the light of circumstances.

The original report dealt with large-scale industry in the main, and with a situation in which the Trade Union Movement was at its height. We had 12 million members of the TUC, and in the T&GWU 2.1 million. We were moving forward quite rapidly in the sense that, because of the progressive legislation we’d got during that period, we could begin to grapple with the small firm.. You can take it that the employers and management of firms of say, 500 or less, operate with a degree of personal dictatorship towards anyone trying to set up a trade union branch, so much so that today many of these small firms could be likened to the days of Charles Dickens.

However, the fact is that now all the safeguards have been virtually taken away. One of the safeguards applying to small firms was the system of wages councils. We had broadened the terms so that they could deal with a wide range of conditions, where it was essential to have some sort of legal framework. That has been taken away. The restriction on hours of work for women and young people has been taken away. But, above all, we had the right to go first to conciliation and then to arbitration on the issue of the ‘going rate’. If you had a small firm operating in an industry where there were established wages and conditions in that locality, although you could not strike in such a firm, you could take a dispute to arbitration and get a decision which was legally binding. And with other firms we had the machinery for getting Trade Union recognition where it had been refused for years before.

But we lost all that. So, if we want to draw lessons from the past, we must bear all this in mind and restore the opportunities for working people to be protected, both by law and through their Trade Unions, at the first opportunity.

L&TUR Do you see the rejection of the Bullock Report as a turning point? We are inclined to look at it as the turning point; that after that Trade Unionism was left to its own devices, which led to Arthur Scargill’s approach. At the time you yourself said that it ‘had come to the top of a hill’. It had almost gone beyond Trade Unionism in any recognisable sense.

J.J. We almost reached the top of the hill, then the road suddenly gave way and we went right back to the bottom. But it is too simplistic to say that Bullock, of itself, was the turning point. It was one factor, yes. It showed that the government was not prepared to go all the way in backing the Trade Union movement. I am bound to say that Callaghan expressed support for the approach, but I don’t think he ever fought for it. That was partly because the politicians never truly understood manufacturing industry, and did not appreciate the significance of Bullock as much as I hoped they would. That is not to criticise, because in general Callaghan was sympathetic

L&TUR If the unions had been united with you on the subject of Bullock, do you think the government would have been forced to fight for it?

J.J. Yes. Had there been greater unity in the Trade Union movement on that, I think it would. There would have been a sense of purpose. I think there was a short-sighted attitude on the part of some Trade Union leaders – and this is still the case – that if you encourage worker involvement, worker participation, worker representation on boards, it could be at the expense of the individual Trade Union. But I don’t see that. I think it would strengthen the Trade Union Movement.

Looking at the wider European scene, if we now get European legislation for works councils, I would regard that as a step forward and we should try to ensure that the representatives on those legal works councils are representatives from independent, bona fide Trade Unions. Without that there could be the danger of victimisation. Works councils would be a step in the direction that ultimately we would want: adequate representation on the board. It is the families of the employees, not just the employees themselves, who are involved in the jobs the people do.

And acceptance of Bullock at the time, even if it would have had to be taken step by step, would have meant a good message to everyone: that the workers counted in society, counted in industry.

L&TUR And don’t you think it would have brought home to the electorate that the Trade Unions were acting quite responsibly in accordance with their power, and that they weren’t just throwing their weight about?

J.J. That’s right. Those would be precisely my words on that.

L&TUR Do you think that, to put it crudely, because of the failure of the movement to adopt Bullock, and other mistakes that were made towards · the end, that it has to accept some of the responsibility for Thatcherism?

J.J. No question about that.

L&TUR Were you surprised by the success of Thatcherism?

J.J. No. I thought that with the degree of disunity that was demonstrated towards the end, it was ‘quite clear that the Tories were going to get back. I didn’t think they would get the majority they did, but I was afraid that if they got back they would hold on to power, and, holding on to power, they would drive the anti-Trade Union attitude into legislation. As well as removing a lot of the improvements we had secured for children and pensioners, for example.

L&TUR What did you think of Labour’s reaction to Thatcherism in power during the eighties?

J.J. I think that the party has been bemused by the tremendous majorities that Thatcher & Co. have managed to secure in the various elections, They have been asking themselves what they could do to win back public opinion to their side, and they have sought , if you like, the lowest common denominator to gain support. I can understand the politicians looking in that direction. They have to try and find ways and means of reviving possible support. But it is unfortunate that there have not been the close links that Labour had with the Trade Union Movement that we had in the run-up to the 1974 election. I know that a number of the political leaders of the Labour Party feel that it is disadvantageous to have too close a link with the Trade Union Movement. But it was never a question of the Trade Unions laying down what should be done. It was a question of discussing what the problems of working people are, and how we resolve them together. There is no doubt that the Trade Union Movement can be very influential – as can the Pensioners’ Movement, for example. So it was right that we should talk closely together, and right that we should have a liaison. But that has been abandoned and does not exist any more.

L&TUR That does not bode well for the future, does it?

J.J. No, it doesn’t. I think the Labour Party leadership should seek again to get closer discussions. But the Trade Union leaders must not approach those discussions – if ever they take place again – with the idea that they can lay down the law, and that everything they say is absolutely right. It is no use ‘doing a Scargill’ talking to Labour leaders. That attitude of rhetoric, irrespective of whether you get anywhere at all, is unhelpful. There is a need for both sides to exercise good will towards each other.

L&TUR I suppose we have to accept that there will be no increase in intimacy this side of an election.

J.J. I’m not sure. I would hope there would be.

L&TUR What would you like to see as Labour’s priorities on the broad front of Trade Unions and industrial relations when Labour gets into power?

J.J. I think that Neil and the people around him have got a number of priorities absolutely right. They have said that in terms of immediate or very early legislation they would have two priorities, children and pensioners. They have given a commitment to increasing child benefit and increasing pensions, and I hope they will keep it.

There has been a lot of argument about labour legislation. In a recent speech Neil Kinnock made clear that the approach to labour legislation would be to restore the legal right to be a member of a Trade Union, and the legal right to representation. This is very important. If we had the legal right to representation we could make a great deal of progress, for example, in North Sea oil rigs, and the small firms I mentioned earlier, where the great problem is fear of victimisation.

If you want to strike under the Tory law which changed the 1974 Labour Government’s legislation, the employer can retain in employment those who go back at a very early stage and when the rest go back he can sack all of them together, or he can pick out whoever he thinks ought to be sacked. That fear of victimisation must be removed. Workpeople must have at least the right to talk to their employer without fearing the sack. This has gone, and has got to be restored.

The National Health Service is also a vital priority, as are children, pensioners and housing. The Trade Union Movement should want to talk about that, because working people must have the right, not only to jobs but to decent homes. That means getting back to the stage where the nation is involved, and the municipal authorities are involved, whether it is building houses to rent or even to buy.

L&TUR Could we move on to the campaign that you are mostly known for at the moment. Would it be a good idea to have a separate TUC affiliated pensioners’ union? What can present unions do for pensioners?

J.J. Before I retired, I had taken steps to try to set up our own T&GWU retired members association. I then proceeded to persuade the TUC, Age Concern and other bodies to set up the National Pensioners’ Convention. We produced a common platform on which we could approach the government of the day. Also, we could publicise the minimum conditions which ought to be available to all retired people. This has worked reasonably well. But I was always clear that, since we had such a large force organised in Trade Unions, it was vital that we should try to get the unions interested in involving retired people as well as those at work.

Some unions followed: NALGO, the teachers, who had had retired associations for some time, the Tailors and Garment Workers, the print unions, the furniture unions, unions of that kind. Other unions still had retired members in the union and tried to look after their interests. We pressed for the TUC to set up a TUC Pensioners’ Committee. I felt that it should be free-standing but have direct representation to the General Council of the TUC. The TUC General Council opposed that idea, and we eventually compromised with the Social Insurance Committee – six members on a TUC pensioner’s committee, with a representative from each of the unions, supposedly to represent their retired members. When there is a retired members’ association, it is usually people from that which represent the unions.

It is a progressive system, because it means that the TUC regularly considers reports from that committee. It is also represented on a European co-ordinating committee for retired workers – a by-product of the European TUC, of which I am a vice-president. It is progressive, but we have not seen enough. In my experience, nothing unites people more in their retirement than the link with the past, with the job they worked in, the industry they worked in. Here in London, we have two of our retired members’ branches who are nearly all retired dockers. Well, it’s fine. They are not fighting each other any more! But they’ve got this nice link. They can talk about the past in their industry, the present in their industry, but they are also talking about problems because there is a focal point. When we call upon them to take part in a demonstration or a rally or a lobby of parliament they are involved. So that is the sort of thing we are trying to do. But I would like to feel that other unions, not so far involved, would do more. Some union leaderships are not keen on it.

L&TUR What do you think are their reasons?

J.J. I don’t know. In some cases, nearly all branch secretaries are retired members. It would draw them away, perhaps. Also, I think some people are afraid that the left would be unduly influential. Let’s face it, the left shop steward is the more active. When he goes into retirement, he is more likely to be prepared to go on being active. Some would do it for a highly political purpose, but most would do it because they want to use their skills after they retire. I don’t mind where they come from, right, left or centre, as long as they are fighting for the retired workers.

L&TUR Do you think there is any virtue in the idea of retirement being more flexible, and not being compulsory?

J.J. It is a live issue for intellectuals and academics! I don’t think it is a very good idea to encourage people to go on after the normal age of retirement. On the other hand – and the Trade Union Movement can be criticised for this – we have allowed discrimination against the older worker. When you get a redundancy, the employer will look towards the over-50s, or even the over- 40s in the motor industry, and push them out. They become a little less flexible, a little less physically fit – or the employer thinks they are. I think that discrimination must be fought strongly. The Labour party is now saying that there should be a degree of flexibility between the ages of 60 and 70, and that pensions should be equal for all at 60. I agree with that.

I think people should be encouraged to retire at 60, especially in a period when we have there massive levels of unemployment, particularly among young people. I think any idea of suddenly removing the urge towards early retirement is detrimental. We have got to do a lot more to encourage people to be active in retirement, physically and intellectually active. And I believe that if you ask the average person coming up to retirement, you will find that they want to retire early. They hope it is going to be a happy occasion for them, though unfortunately a lot of them think it is going to be one long holiday, and it doesn’t work out like that. Many things could be done to improve leisure opportunities. It is no use inventing the idea of early retirement and then setting about trying to destroy it. It is like the idea we have always worried about, namely, arguing for a shorter working week and then saying there should be unlimited overtime.

In the United States, there has been a big division between the white collar people and the blue collar retired person. Some of the white collar people in government and local government service wanted no limits on retirement. The blue collar workers, because they are concerned about employment factors, have argued that they should try to restrict opportunities for working beyond the normal retirement age. Indeed, the policy of unions like the Automobile Workers and the Machinists has been ’30 years and out’. There is a lot to be said for that, especially if there is unemployment.

All the indications are that in the future more and more is going to be produced by less and less people. People tell me that if that happens, there won’t be enough people to contribute to National Insurance, therefore we won’t be able to afford to pay the pensioners. That is nonsense. If, by some miracle, you could have one great machine that produced everything you needed without human labour, does that mean we’d all starve? Our folks were arguing in the old days for the two-hour day. They were demonstrating that it was possible to produce all that was necessary in a shorter working day and a shorter working week. I was party to a report, based on German experience, to the effect that if every able-bodied person in society performed a useful function, you could do all that was necessary in a 19 hour week. This does not mean that they cake gets less. It gets bigger.


This article appeared in March 1991, in Issue 22 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.