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  James Larkin Jones (1913–2009), by Bernard Lee Schwartz, 1977 James Larkin Jones (1913–2009), by Bernard Lee Schwartz, 1977
Jones, James Larkin [Jack] (1913–2009), trade unionist, was born on 29 March 1913 at 25 York Street, Garston, Liverpool, the younger son of George Henry Jones, dock worker, and his wife, Annie Sophie, née Diplock. He was named after Jim Larkin, the Liverpool Irish republican socialist and trade union leader. He had an older half-sister and two older half-brothers from his mother's first marriage, to a seaman, John Prescott Constable, which was ended by the latter's death.

Merseyside and Spain

Jones went to an elementary school in Garston, leaving at fourteen to join a local engineering firm as an apprentice at 5s. a week. Within a few months the firm went bankrupt so, in 1927, he immediately followed his father into the docks and joined the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), where he became known simply as Jack Jones; the union remained his base for the rest of his life. It was the beginning of a memorable journey and one of the most remarkable paths to national eminence in the history of the British trade union movement.

Within three years of becoming a docker Jones was elected, in 1930, a shop steward and in that role took an active part in organizing a Merseyside contingent for one of the legendary hunger marches on London. He meanwhile took a correspondence course with Ruskin College, Oxford, and then a course in economics at Liverpool Labour College. In 1936 he was elected as a Labour councillor in Liverpool. In early 1937 he volunteered to join the British unit of the International Brigade, fighting Franco's army in Spain. His involvement in Spain left an indelible, lifelong mark. In August 1938 he was badly wounded in the shoulder while fighting on the Ebro front in one of the fiercest battles of the civil war. One of his closest friends and comrades, George Brown, had been killed at the battle of Brunete the previous year. On his return to Britain, Jones carried a dying message from Brown to pass on to his widow, Evelyn Mary Brown, née Taylor (1913–1998), daughter of Joseph Taylor, a retired sergeant-major in the Cheshire yeomanry. Back in Liverpool, recovering from his wounds, Jones duly carried out that request. He and Evelyn married shortly afterwards, at Liverpool South register office on 24 October 1938. The marriage began a partnership lasting sixty years which without doubt provided a vital support for Jones's own radical commitment. Evelyn Jones was a former member of the Communist Party (and later a shop steward) while Jack's formal membership of the communists was confined to his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. They had two sons, James (Jack junior) (b.1942) and Michael (Mick) (1944–2012).

Union Organiser

In 1939 Ernest Bevin appointed Jones to the role of full-time district organizer of the TGWU in Coventry. There he set about establishing his reputation as a union official of unusual organizing ability and vision and laid the foundation of his reputation as a proponent of ‘shop-floor power’. As Coventry's peacetime motor and engineering factories were turned over to war production, notably of tanks and aircraft, trade union membership increased and Jones seized the moment by creating a corps of active shop stewards to assist and frequently pressurize employers to step up the efficiency of their war production. The influence of shop-floor workers under Jones's tutelage was often crucial in persuading employers to adopt new production methods of vital importance in boosting wartime production. It was frequently Jones himself who negotiated production schedules, often against the resistance of employers—thus helping to build a powerful trade union force in which shop stewards enjoyed unusual power and influence as they worked in the national interest. TGWU membership in Jones's district increased from 3000 to 40,000 during his period as district secretary. Inevitably his success generated an envious backlash against Jones from his national leadership, notably from Bevin's successor as general secretary, Arthur Deakin, who regarded Jones's shop-floor militancy as a sign of communist sympathies. Deakin was convinced Jones was a Communist Party member. Despite repeated denials from Jones it remained a political shadow hovering over him while Deakin led the union. It also ensured he remained in the lower levels of his union and in Coventry.

This was changed dramatically in 1955 when Deakin died, to be succeeded by Arthur (Jock) Tiffin, enabling Frank Cousins, a long-standing friend of Jones, to become assistant general secretary. In 1956 Tiffin himself died, and was succeeded by Cousins. This extraordinary sequence of events in turn transformed the political balance across the entire trade union and labour movement. As general secretary of Britain's largest union, the left-wing Cousins began reshaping his union. He had already been instrumental in ensuring in 1955 that his protégé Jones would become regional secretary of the powerful midland area. Then in 1963 Cousins brought him to London in a newly created role as executive officer, effectively number three in the union hierarchy. This was Cousins deliberately placing Jones as his successor regardless of the then nominal deputy, Harry Nicholas; indeed Jones effectively ran the union from 1964 to 1966 while Cousins was a minister in Harold Wilson's first government. There was little surprise that Jones was elected general secretary when Cousins finally retired in 1969. Nicholas was later appointed general secretary of the Labour Party.

General Secretary of the TGWU

Jones took over as general secretary of the TGWU at a time when Wilson's Labour government was struggling to reach agreement on wages policy as well as a more modern industrial relations system which might limit strikes, as set out in the 1969 white paper, ‘In Place of Strife’. This brought tensions between the government and the trade unions to a new peak. Indeed it led to a climate of political and industrial friction effectively continuing throughout Jones's nine years as head of the country's largest union.

Jones immediately became the dominant voice of the trade union movement. From the outset he was accepted as a senior member of the TUC general council (which he had joined in 1968), quickly becoming chairman of its international, transport, and nationalized industries sub-committees. Equally he was seen and heard as a significant political voice, irrespective of which government was in office. In his tenure as general secretary he worked with—and sometimes against—three prime ministers: Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan. When Heath won the general election of 1970, soon after Jones had taken over from Cousins, he moved swiftly to introduce legislation, the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, curbing trade union power and freedom to strike, with proposals going well beyond Wilson's earlier plans. But, like Wilson, eventually Heath was forced to retreat and reverse his political agenda, largely as a result of opposition from Jones and his engineering union ally Hugh Scanlon, a partnership that became known as the ‘terrible twins’. The most remarkable irony in all this was the good relationship built up between Prime Minister Heath and Jones in particular. Between 1972 and Heath's eventual defeat in the general election of February 1974 an astonishing rapport was created between a Conservative prime minister and the trade unions largely due to the Heath–Jones relationship. In his autobiography Jones later wrote:
No Prime Minister either before or since could compare with Ted Heath in the efforts he made to establish a spirit of camaraderie with trade union leaders and to offer an attractive package which might satisfy large numbers of work-people. (Jones, 259)
Heath and his advisers offered a deal permitting limited free collective bargaining on top of threshold agreements to help the low-paid. In the end there was no deal—not least because Heath ran into opposition within his own cabinet. Even so it resulted in Heath's dropping his plans to reform trade union power, for which Margaret Thatcher and the right of his party never forgave him. If that remarkable concordat enlarged Jones's reputation as a national political figure it did little to help Edward Heath's political future.

For Jones it was a different story. When Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street following the general election of February 1974, Jones was at the peak of his authority across the whole Labour movement. He had already begun discussions with Wilson and the Labour leadership on future co-operation between an incoming Labour government and the trade unions. The ‘social contract’ was the result of those discussions: a plan largely conceived by Jones to bring government, unions, and employers into a partnership for economic planning that would embrace wages policy, price restraint, and industrial investment. Wilson and his successor from 1976, Jim Callaghan, made it clear that they would welcome Jones into their governments—but Jones chose to remain where he was, arguably in a stronger position than as a member of the cabinet. His influence was exceptional. A close personal and political friendship with Michael Foot, the secretary of state for employment, helped Jones persuade the government to form the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Manpower Services Commission. Widely known as Emperor Jones, he was indeed a unique figure of organized labour. In 1977 an opinion poll by Gallup revealed that a majority of the British public regarded him as having more power than the prime minister (with twice as many respondents naming him the most powerful man in Britain as named Callaghan).

By the time Jones retired from the TGWU in March 1978 (to be replaced by Moss Evans), his influence was clearly on the wane, however. The government had shelved plans to implement the proposal of the Bullock committee on industrial democracy, of which Jones was a leading member, for workers' representation on the boards of large companies; and Jones failed to persuade the government of the merits of a 35 hour week. Now dependent on Liberal votes in the House of Commons, Callaghan's government was also considering plans to encourage employee share schemes (which Jones had always opposed). Moreover, Jones's own union, at its biennial conference in July 1977, decisively repudiated the social contract despite his vocal support for it, leaving him in the embarrassing position at the Trades Union Congress of having to oppose a policy of which he was known to be one of the key architects. Even so, many commentators believed that had Jones remained at the helm of the TGWU in 1978–9, the extremes of the ‘winter of discontent’ would have been avoided.

Character and assessment

Throughout everything Jones retained an implacably tough modesty. His consistent rejection of favours or special treatment never wavered. He and Evelyn continued to live in their small, almost cramped, local council flat at 74 Ruskin Park House, Champion Hill, from which they never moved after coming to London. He disdained expensive lunches and was often seen eating a sandwich in the embankment gardens under the shadow of parliament. His puritanical code was once described as ‘almost Cromwellian’—including an absence of cosy, charitable humour. He avoided political gossip and Westminster plotting, but never his commitment to his union or his socialist ideals. After his death he was still being accused of ‘secret communist sympathies’ and even a charge of links with Soviet spies, following allegations by the defector Oleg Gordievsky. In fact, Jones had been investigated by MI5 in the early 1970s, but the security service had concluded that there was ‘not merely no sign of a continuing Soviet connection but also positive evidence of growing distance’ between him and the Communist Party (C. Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, 2009, 589). The truth lies far more in his rejection of any form of authority other than his own, as many of his closest union colleagues discovered. He was never an easy ally, chose friends with care, was ruthless in removing subordinates whom he deemed ineffective, and was ever sparing in praise. He was a hard man to love, yet vastly admired even by his critics. Through both the Wilson and Callaghan periods in Downing Street he would always offer support, albeit never without making his own special terms and principles very clear. The sobriquet Emperor Jones was not entirely without foundation.

Jones rejected repeated offers of a peerage (and indeed consistently advocated the abolition of the House of Lords), but a genuine surprise came, on retirement, with his acceptance from the queen of the Companionship of Honour—which he refused to accept as a personal accolade, insisting it be bestowed on his union, the TGWU, rather than on him personally. In 1950 he had also been appointed MBE in recognition of his wartime work in Coventry, though again he attributed it to the courage of his fellow Coventry workers, not to himself. He spent his long retirement much in the way he had spent all his life—agitating to improve the lives of former union members, especially as chairman and later life president of the National Pensioners' Convention.

As well as publishing an autobiography, Union Man (1986, 2nd edn 2008), Jones contributed to Industry's Democratic Revolution (1974) and wrote, with Max Morris, an A–Z of Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations (1982). He was a member of the Board of Crown Agents (1978–80) and the royal commission on criminal procedure (1978–80); a vice-president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (1976–), Age Concern, England (1978–), and the European Federation of Retired and Elderly Persons (1991–); and chairman of the trustees of the National Museum of Labour History (1988–2003). He was an associate fellow of the London School of Economics from 1978 to 1982 and received honorary degrees from Warwick and Coventry universities and from the Open University.

Evelyn Jones died in 1998. Supported by his son Mick, Jones continued to live in their council flat until near the end of his life, when he moved to Cherrycroft Care Home, Dewar Street, Peckham Rye, where he died on 21 April 2009, of lung cancer. He was survived by both his sons.

The nature of Jones's power and influence can only be understood against the background of the growth of trade union power both during and after the Second World War and particularly as a result of the Attlee Labour government of 1945, when a significant section of Britain's basic industries and services were brought under public ownership. This was a prime factor in helping enlarge both the role and the membership of trade unions and inevitably the power of trade union leaders. Jones was a beneficiary if not a product of these developments as the trade union movement established an influence greater than it had previously enjoyed, and greater than it would enjoy again after the dramatic impact of the election of 1979.

Jones emerged from a mould that similarly had formed his two outstanding predecessors as leaders of the TGWU: the union's founder, also a dock worker, Ernest Bevin, and then later Frank Cousins, a miner turned truck driver who in the post-war period reshaped and transformed Britain's largest trade union and made it possible for Jones to succeed him as general secretary. Each in turn, while reflecting his own contemporary political and social characteristics, set an example for developing trade unionism unlikely ever to be repeated.

Geoffrey Goodman


G. Goodman, The awkward warrior: Frank Cousins, his life and times (1979) · J. Jones, Union man (1986) · The Times (23 April 2009); (28 April 2009) · Daily Telegraph (23 April 2009) · The Guardian (23 April 2009); (29 April 2009) · The Independent (23 April 2009) · Morning Star (23 April 2009) · Daily Mirror (23 April 2009) · Daily Mail (23 April 2009) · The Herald [Glasgow] (23 April 2009) · TUC records and library · Transport and General Workers' Union records · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


U. Warwick Mod. RC |  U. Warwick Mod. RC, TGWU papers




BL NSA, current affairs recording · BL NSA, documentary recording · BL NSA, interview recordings


photographs, 1945–2003, Getty Images · photograph, 1968, PA Images, London · K. Williams, portrait, 1969, National Library of Wales; repro. in K. Williams, Portraits (1996), 65 · photographs, 1969–99, Photoshot, London · photographs, 1969–2008, Rex Features, London · B. L. Schwartz, dye transfer print, 1977, NPG [see illus.] · S. Morse-Brown, pastels, 1979, repro. in D. F. Raine and et al., The imprisoned splendour: the life and work of Sam Morse-Brown (1993), 184 · R. Miller, toned bromide print, 1996, NPG · G. Scarfe, portrait, repro. in G. Scarfe, Line of attack (Hamilton, 1988), 86 · obituary photographs · photographs, Camera Press, London · photographs, repro. in Jones, Union man

Wealth at death  

under £247,000: probate, 1 July 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales