A labour movement hero speaks out for Amnesty

This blog is a celebration of 30 years of Amnesty trade union solidarity, or more precisely, the 30th Anniversary of the foundation of Amnesty UK’s Trade Union Network in 1979, which is certainly thriving and striving these days.

We’re not going to celebrate on any particular day, but rather we will mark the Anniversary throughout this year with a range of events, activities, and initiatives. The latest news will always be found on the Amnesty TU web pages, but I’ll give readers of this blog early warning of the main events and I hope you will use this site for critical feedback.

At the moment I’m working on a really tricky but truly exciting project. I’m calling it 30 Years = 30 Voices, and the aim is to get thirty trade unionists to reflect, in extremely short quotes, on different aspects of the human rights relationship, past and present, between Amnesty and trade unions. We aim to produce this as a 30-panel poster exhibition with an online presence too.

It’s tricky because it makes sense to have a mix between current and historic quotes, full-time and rank-and-file individuals, and UK and international voices. The contributions need to reflect the diversity of the union movement in terms of gender, age, sexuality and so on, and I want to include trade unionists on the front-line, individuals who have been Prisoners of Conscience or are still at risk today.

With just 30 quotes, the judgment-call of choosing who to invite – and on which theme(s) to invite them to comment – is a challenge that is testing me to the limits, but is proving very rewarding due to the overwhelming enthusiasm, and warm-hearted discipline, of those so far approached.

I’m not going to say whom we have lined up, and anyway trade unionists are not “celebrities” and the process is in any case only part-way through. But I can’t resist reporting – as a teaser – the wholehearted contribution of one of my, and the labour movement’s, true heroes – someone who inspired me when I first became a teenage activist in the late 1970’s and whose path convinced me that the trade union movement could be an effective vehicle for my enthusiasm for social justice and personal liberty.

I’m talking of Jack Jones, who will be 96 years old when this project sees the light of day.  He’s a man who may not be known by some younger readers, but whose unflinching commitment to working class solidarity, internationalism, human rights, and the union cause made him a giant within the labour movement over decades of activism.

There are several (more or less accurate) biographies of Jack online, including one at Wikipedia, and he published his autobiography in 1986, which is still available through Amazon.

The bare facts are these: Jack Jones was born in 1913, in Liverpool. He left school at 14 and worked as an engineering apprentice, lost his job in the Wall Street Crash, and later became a dock-worker in Liverpool, where he was a strong opponent of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Jones became active in the Aid Spain campaign. After hearing a speech given by Paul Robeson  in June 1937, he decided to join the International Brigades in support of the democratic cause. He fought for many months before being seriously wounded at The Battle of Ebro in July 1938.

Back in England, with Spain firmly in fascist hands, he became a full-time official of the Transport & General Workers’ Union at Coventry, and during World War II he helped to keep the city's munitions industry working through the Blitz. As he rose through the union’s ranks, he became a strong supporter of the shop steward movement that was promoting trade union and industrial democracy – a lasting contribution that endures to this day. Jack was elected General Secretary of the TGWU in 1968, a post he held until retirement in 1977. With others, and working through the TUC, he led trade union opposition to the 1966-70 Labour Government's prices and incomes policy and the efforts of that government and the subsequent Conservative Government to introduce legislation to restrict the activities of trade unions and the right to strike. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service in 1975. He went on to serve as the President of the National Pensioners’ Convention, campaigning for retirement rights, and continued to support international solidarity causes.

There are many personal connections in this story. I worked for five years at the headquarters of the TGWU for two of Jack’s successors, Ron Todd and Bill Morris, and would chat with him from time to time when he was in the building on Retired Members Association business. In his union days he had also been very active in the International Transport Workers’ Federation where I afterwards went on to spend ten years as a full time official. What’s more I had spent my whole childhood growing up under the decaying but still dangerous final phase of fascism in Spain, which Jack had fought against so many years earlier (The historian Tony Judt described the Soviet Union in the 1970's as "a way of life to be endured"; an apt description of Spain at the time). Most significantly, my passion for justice as a young union organiser could only find its outlet because of the rank-and-file and internationalist traditions of the shop stewards movement that he so strongly embedded in my union’s culture.

But Jack was, for sure, not invited for personal reasons! I asked him because, as is the nature of history, change rarely happens in a moment or on a day, and I thought we might benefit from an eyewitness who could look back to the very source of the shared values that later evolved into the thirty year relationship that we proudly celebrate this year. When you read what Jack and the other contributors have to say, in but a few words, I hope you will be inspired too by the bonds of solidarity between Amnesty and trade unions.

Thank you, Jack for your enthusiasm for this project and for your enduring support for Amnesty International and thank you, too, to Mike and Owen for helping on the way.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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