Jack Jones’ Docker Internationalism

Union leader Jack Jones – born on this day in 1913 – was known as ‘the most powerful man in Britain’ for defending British workers. But his decades spent fighting Spanish fascism and South African apartheid deserve to be remembered too.

(Gary Weaser/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty)

‘Internationalism is part of the life-blood of the trade unions and from my earliest days in the movement, I had taken a keen interest in the conditions of working people in other countries.’

Jack Jones, socialist trade union leader and general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union from 19681978, recounted the sentiment that had animated him throughout his decades as an icon of British working-class internationalism. 

Chair of the TUC’s International Committee throughout the 1970s, Jones’ position as the effective lead representative of British trade unionism abroad represented the culmination of a lifetime at the forefront of labour movement solidarity with overseas struggles—most dramatically displayed in his service in the International Brigades, during the Spanish Civil War.

Sometimes characterised as ‘the most powerful man in Britain’ during the heroic period of trade unionism he oversaw as general secretary, Jones’ political career spanned the long arc from the class and anti-fascist militancy of the Hungry Thirties to the eve of the terminal crisis of post-war Keynesianism that would usher in the Thatcherite counterrevolution. 

Born 110 years ago today, Jones should be remembered as a lifelong stalwart in the fight for working people: from the rank-and-file up to the heights of British political decision-making, from the banks of the Ebro to the slums of Santiago and Johannesburg. His impassioned commitment to international solidarity remains a vital example for the socialist and trade union movement in our own century.

Socialist Beginnings

The young socialist who felt obliged in 1937 to scale the Pyrenees in pitch darkness, and throw his life to chance to help defend a country he had never visited against the onslaught of fascism, was made in Liverpool. 

Born in Garston in 1913 to an Irish Catholic family, Jim Larkin Jones—named for the leader soon afterward of the Dublin Lockout, himself of Liverpool-Irish stock—grew up in a portside environment where endemic poverty and insecurity sat alongside working-class communitarianism and a cosmopolitan social fabric. 

His father, a docker and union man, had been on St George’s Plateau in August 1911 when striking workers were fired upon by Churchill’s troops. From him, Jones would learn his lifelong ‘healthy dislike’ for scabs. His mother, meanwhile, set an instructive example for his internationalism; hosting Italian lodgers to help the family make ends meet during wartime, and insisting on respect for their Eastern European Jewish neighbours, ‘her attitude helped form’ Jones’ ‘opposition to Nazi Fascism’ and ‘hatred of all kinds of racialism.’ 

Leaving school at fourteen, Jones received his most impactful education at labour movement rallies and the Socialist Sunday School he attended. Like so many, his socialist consciousness was catapulted by Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which he read during the 1926 General Strike. The Strike, and the shock of its abrupt capitulation, ‘had a powerful impact’ on his thinking; upon entering the world of work shortly afterwards, Jones was already committed to the cause of labour.

Despite apprenticing as an engineer, by the early 1930s, Jones was working at the same Garston Docks his father had, soon becoming a shop steward. An autodidact in employment law and attendee of the Liverpool Labour College, he would thereafter be elected to the TWGU’s National Docks Group Committee, and develop his lasting links with the International Transport Workers’ Federation. Amidst the mass destitution of the Great Depression, and impressed by local communist and unemployed workers leader Leo McGree, Jones joined the Liverpool contingent of the 1934 Hunger March. 

Dockworkers’ Internationalism

On the docks, most disputes were over safety and conditions, but political questions began to percolate into portside life against the backdrop of fascist ascendancy in Europe. The Nazis’ rise to power, and Austrofascist strangulation of Red Vienna, alarmed Jones: fascism was understood as an imminent threat to the labour movement everywhere. 

Helping found the Liverpool Trades Council anti-fascist group, and receiving regular beatings while protesting the meetings of Mosley’s Blackshirts, Jones also entreated his fellow dockworkers of the urgency of solidarity with anti-fascists in Europe. This was not always easy: 

‘Day after day at the docks, I tried to draw the attention of my mates to what was happening in the world. It wasn’t easy, for the order of debate was: sport, sex, beer and, of course, the job!’

The sense that ‘Germany and Austria were far-off countries’ would not last, however; anti-fascist consciousness on the Liverpool docks, by their very nature internationally-connected, was heightened through the trade unionists’ interactions with disembarked European sailors, and with inbound Jewish and political refugees. 

‘As dockers, we got to know many seamen from foreign countries. If any of them got into difficulty they were referred to me, because my mates knew I would help them if I could.’

Leafleting German ships with anti-fascist materials, Jones met many politically sympathetic sailors: inviting two for tea on one occasion to discuss the situation in Germany, and attracting the ire of his religiously conservative sister for having ‘brought two foreign “reds” home.’ One of his new acquaintances was subsequently sent to a concentration camp, Jones would learn. Through their interactions with the anti-fascist interlocutors who stopped off or sought refuge on Merseyside, Jones and many of his contemporaries’ understanding of the threat of fascism grew—inspiring them to practical anti-fascist activity in Britain, and in Jones’ case, internationally.

On another occasion, Jones helped to save Tom Cacic, an inbound deported Canadian unemployed workers leader and Yugoslav national, from further deportation and likely execution in right-wing Yugoslavia. Alerted by Liverpool lawyer and future Labour MP Sydney Silverman, Jones managed to intercept the handcuffed communist as he disembarked: ‘Ask for Silverman, the lawyer’—allowing Cacic to contact Silverman, whose intervention helped prevent the extradition. Jones’ union milieu also raised alarm about the super-exploitative wages and ‘very harsh treatment’ aboard ships of the black, Indian, and Chinese sailors who frequented the Liverpool docks.

Such portside encounters were crucial for Jones’ development as a trade unionist, and for the concern with international issues for which he would become renowned. Indeed, his formative experience as a young shop steward on the Liverpool waterfront, meeting and engaging politically with the struggles of maritime workers, refugees, and radicals from across the world, imbued Jones with what might be called a particular dockworker’s internationalism that would shape his worldview for the rest of his life.

Evelyn and Spain

Jones’ anti-fascist internationalism was kicked into overdrive by news of General Franco’s pronunciamiento against the Spanish Republic. Meeting with Spanish sailors and members of the local Spanish community, he threw himself into the ‘Aid Spain’ campaign. Having some training from the Territorial Army, Jones had wanted to join the International Brigades from the beginning, but his request had been demurred by ‘Aid Spain’ due to his importance as a trade union organiser. Midway through 1937, however, he was finally granted leave to go. 

Before leaving for Spain, he became close with Evelyn Taylor, a young CPGB organiser whose first husband, George Brown, had been killed fighting for the Republic. Taylor was herself a remarkable anti-fascist internationalist, having spent years carrying messages for the underground resistance in Germany, Italy, and Hungary, at the risk of her life. ‘My admiration for her spirit was more than matched by my growing love for her’, Jones recalled. ‘We both knew, without putting it into words, that if I returned from Spain we would marry.’

Seen off from London by labour movement grandees Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, Jones would spend his first months in Spain, following basic training in Figueres and an audience with the Union General de Trabajadores leadership in Barcelona, fighting on the Aragonese front. Witnessing many of his new comrades killed in action, Jones’ ‘character was hardened by many experiences at that time.’ Down to his trade union experience, the 25-year-old was subsequently appointed political commissar of the Attlee Battalion, charged with ensuring ‘political and moral education and vigilance’ among his men. It was with this English-speaking Company that Jones would undertake the fateful march towards the Ebro offensive.

Jones’ political thinking about the conflict to which he had committed himself was illustrated in a letter by himself and his comrade Lewis Clive to the Labour Party in July 1938:

‘We believe that there can be no compromise between Fascism and the Democratic ideals for which we ourselves have come here to fight. […] 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.’

Clive would be among those killed at the Ebro, leading a charge against the infamous fortified Hill 481 overlooking Gandesa. ‘The number of dead and wounded mounted rapidly. The British Battalion took a heavy battering.’ Another casualty was the young Ken Band, who Jones eulogised beside his improvised hillside grave: ‘We shall remember him—Ken died for the cause of the people of Spain—Viva la Republica Espana!’

Jones could never say for sure whether he had killed anyone in Spain, but he was wounded in action. Mounting another assault up 481, Jones was struck in the shoulder by a sniper’s bullet, with his bleeding arm lacerated further by shrapnel. Forced to wait until nightfall before inching back down the hill, Jones was taken to an emergency field hospital resemblant of ‘an abattoir’, and thereafter to surgery in Barcelona, where he underwent a slow recovery. His Spanish war was at an end.

Jones’ time in Spain, at the front and among the desperate populations of the Republic’s besieged cities, deeply affected him. Received by cheering crowds upon his return to Lime Street station, he set about spearheading a campaign to dispatch a ‘Food Ship for Spain’ on behalf of the city. Returning to Garston, Jones soon returned also to organising dockside solidarity with asylum-seeking dissidents: this time with republican Spanish sailors, marooned in Britain’s ports after the victory of Franco. 

With defeat in Spain and war on the horizon, the prospects for Jones’ vision of anti-fascist internationalism appeared bleak. All was not darkness, however: he and Evelyn were married upon his return, and would remain a formidable pairing on the British left for the rest of their lives. 

Keeping the Flame

The internationalist experiences of Jones’ youth would stay with him. Having relocated his family to Coventry, where they would experience the devastating November 1940 Blitz, Jones began the post-war years working to organise the car plants of the West Midlands as TGWU Regional Secretary. Opposing the anti-communist purge within his union, he established a national position he would maintain on the TGWU left, including on international questions.

In 1952, Jones joined a union delegation to socialist Yugoslavia, then ploughing the furrow of Non-Alignment, and, ‘impressed by the early attempts at workers’ self-management’, developed a ‘keen interest’ in the country. Back home, he became a leading supporter of Frank Cousins’ ascendancy to the TGWU leadership, with the two sharing common ground on numerous matters—including Cousins’ championship of unilateral nuclear disarmament. 

Brought onto the TGWU’s national executive, and becoming acting Assistant General Secretary in 1964, Jones was now firmly in the union leadership. A delegation that year to the USSR was the first of a number of industrial excursions to Eastern Bloc countries that Jones would head. Not a communist but an opponent of the Cold War, Jones encouraged ‘two-way exchanges’ between Soviet and British trade unionists to help promote East–West understanding. 

From 1964, Jones sat on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, from where he would implacably oppose Harold Wilson’s musings about dispatching a ‘token’ British auxiliary force to join the United States’ war in Vietnam—as he subsequently would the government’s anti-trade union white paper, In Place of Strife

As in Eastern Europe, Jones led TGWU expeditions to survey the US motor industry, witnessing the prevalence of racism in American society, including among trade unionists. His engagement with US politics continued into his tenure as general secretary, in 1969 meeting visiting US President Richard Nixon. Over ‘an intense couple of hours’ discussion’, Jones battled with Nixon and Henry Kissinger over industrial questions, while also urging detente in ‘America’s relationship with the USSR and China’. From a wing of US politics far more consonant with his own, Jones would also meet Cesar Chavez, the legendary Mexican-American leader of the United Farm Workers, who thanked him for the TGWU’s solidarity with the Delano grape strike.

The racism Jones had witnessed in US unions was a problem he encountered in Britain, also. Some TGWU branches had been known to uphold ‘colour bars’ against Commonwealth migrants, and Jones’ long-held opposition to hiring discrimination had meant facing down many ‘stormy meetings’.

‘Sometimes the fault was on the side of our members, on others of management, but in either case, racialist attitudes had to be fought, even if this meant unpopularity.’

Appointed to the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, Jones clashed with certain TUC leaders over their opposition to the 1968 Race Relations Act, which legislated against workplace and housing discrimination. That year, Jones, who had learned proletarian internationalism on the waterfront, was ‘shocked’ by the spectacle of hundreds of East End dockers marching in support of Enoch Powell. The Powellite sympathies of some trade union leaders were ‘repugnant’, and Jones would devote much energy throughout the 1970s to helping set the movement decidedly against racist and sexist discrimination.

South Africa, Chile, Spain again

Throughout the 1970s, from the battles against Heath’s Industrial Relations Act to the hope and agony of the Wilson and Callaghan governments, Jack Jones stood alongside Hugh Scanlon at the apex of the labour movement. Deeply involved in Labour’s ‘Social Contract’ policy, although enjoying frosty relations with the Cabinet and at times with his own left-wing rank-and-file, Jones pioneered the’ Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service’, and became the TUC’s chief economic spokesman. This was also the moment when Jones emerged as the undisputed doyen of British trade union internationalism.

Having supported a Liverpool campaign in defence of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, Jones would tie his colours to another anti-racist global crusade as a Vice-President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In 1973, he had attended a TUC delegation to South Africa: coordinated, to Jones’ displeasure, with the South African TUC, which did not admit black unions. Jones’ ‘idealistic ideas about uniting white, coloured and black workers in one trade union movement’ were proven to be ‘naive’, he wrote, finding that many ‘white trade union leaders’ in South Africa ‘were willing participants in apartheid’.

Visiting the country’s African townships and ‘barrack-like’ gold-miners’ compounds, Jones met ‘surreptitiously’ with banned black union leaders; with 1973 a renaissance year for black South African trade unionism, he ‘got the feeling of a giant rising from a long sleep.’ The delegation was also received by Prime Minister Vorster, who grew hostile to Jones’ questioning, especially his request to meet imprisoned ANC-SACP activist David Kitson. Permitted to visit young British prisoner Sean Hosey in Pretoria, he would ultimately manage to get a message passed to Kitson. Apartheid, wrote Jones following the trip, ‘offends the dignity of man and its continuation cannot be justified.’

The military coup in Chile later that year, horrifying trade unionists everywhere, was reminiscent for Jones of the fascist incursions of the 1930s, writing in Tribune immediately afterward that: ‘We are at the beginning of another Spanish war situation.’ Jones would twice undertake union delegations to Pinochet’s Chile, on the latter occasion being interrogated by security forces at Santiago airport, with his papers seized. 

Deeply moved by conversations with the families of murdered trade unionists to communicate their plight to ‘the world’, Jones addressed Labour Party Conference upon his return: stressing the ‘personal responsibility’ of the British labour movement to support the Chilean working class. He would remain a prominent supporter and sponsor of the Chile Solidarity Campaign, encouraging the Liverpool dockers to boycott Chilean goods.

In the near-forty years since he had joined the International Brigade, Spain had remained an emotive centre of Jones’ political life. He maintained ‘contact with the illegal trade union movement’ resisting Francoism, and supported them where he could: ‘I had never relinquished my fervent opposition to Fascism and Franco.’ With the Generalissimo’s death in 1975, Jones returned to Spain on the invitation of the long-clandestine UGT; it was hoped that the TUC delegation would ‘help the advance of trade union forces’ in the country. 

After Barcelona, he would revisit Gandesa, where he had taken fire long before, sharing ‘an emotional occasion’ reminiscing with elderly former Republican fighters in a small wine bar. Journeying home by way of revolutionary Portugal, this reunion with Spain as a mature trade union leader ‘had a deep effect’ on Jones. It was ‘a tremendous relief to know that democracy was on the march’ in the country whose fate had long ago catalysed his socialist commitment to international solidarity.

A Legacy of Internationalism

Jack Jones’ internationalism, which would send him to a myriad of other countries on trade union and peace matters, ran as a red thread throughout his career. Resigning as general secretary in 1978, Jones addressed the TGWU conference on ‘the need for international solidarity and peace’, and restated his ‘life-long belief in socialism.’ Much of his subsequent campaigning was focused on defending the rights of the elderly as president of the National Pensioners Convention, a cause he would continue to uphold until his death in 2009, aged 96. He never abandoned his internationalism, however: helping advise trade union struggles in Fiji, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands, and commemorating the legacy of the International Brigadiers.

Jones is widely commemorated among the labour movement today as a giant of British trade unionism, with the north-west England headquarters of Unite in his native Liverpool bearing the name ‘Jack Jones House’. As well as his contribution to the cause of labour in Britain, however, it is crucial that his lifelong dedication to the interconnected socialist politics of anti-fascism, anti-racism, and anti-militarism be remembered. On his 110th birthday, we should celebrate that commitment by fighting to keep the British labour movement dedicated to the ideals for which Jack Jones lived and risked his life.