Skip to main content

Film Review Timely tribute to a working-class hero

A great new documentary on union leader Jack Jones is essential viewing for old and young alike, says JOHN HAYLETT

Unsung Hero
Directed by Sol Papadopoulos

JACK JONES was fated to be a militant trade unionist and socialist, being christened James Larkin Jones in tribute to Liverpool-born Irish labour movement colossus Big Jim Larkin.

But the stimulus to the late transport union T&GWU leader’s lifetime of struggle was the poverty-stricken existence into which he was born, before following his father and brothers into the organised resistance to capitalist brutality.

His life story, encapsulated in Hurricane Film's Unsung Hero, draws on archive film — including the sight of cattle being driven outside Liverpool's St George’s Hall, the site of so many massive working-class mobilisations — and personal testimonies. It will be premiered on Friday in his home city’s Philharmonic Hall.

The enterprise, funded by Unite the union, north-west region of Unison and the City of Liverpool, does its subject proud.

Trade unionists and Labour Party members who worked for decades alongside Jones will appreciate the film but it may have greater validity for younger viewers who may never have heard of him.

As journalist Owen Jones points out, the casual labour system that meant dockers didn’t know if they had work from one day to the next has returned to torment young workers today through the gig economy, zero-hours contracts and related employment insecurity.

Jack Jones notes, in a succession of enlightening interviews spliced through the film, that trade unionists talking about their childhood poverty has become a bit of a joke. But it was real for him.

He really did sleep four to a bed with three brothers, living in a two-up, two down-slum outside Garston docks where his father would seek day work.

As a schoolboy, he ran messages on his bike for the local Council of Action during the 1926 General Strike before joining the world of work at 14, first in a factory and, at 16, in the docks where he was swift to begin organising for the T&GWU.

His lifelong internationalism was expressed in taking on the job of Liverpool organiser of the Aid Spain movement before the Labour Party finally agreed to his longstanding demand to be sent to the front in the ranks of the 15th International Brigade.

Film narrator Brian Reade has him presenting a letter from T&GWU general secretary Ernest Bevin to Spanish comrades but the text illustrated is from a Liverpool Trades Council & Labour Party missive to “the Glorious International Brigade,” introducing their volunteer, apologising for the “cowardly attitude of the capitalist government” and looking forward to the day when workers “will destroy capitalism and will establish … the socialist state.”

Not really sentiments usually associated with Bevin but Jones praises his work as Minister of Labour in the wartime coalition government, placing it on a par with Winston Churchill’s role.

Jones’s service in Spain ended at the battle of Gandesa, with a bullet wound to the right shoulder and shrapnel in his left arm and leg, returning to wed Evelyn, a Manchester communist previously married to his comrade George Brown who was killed in Spain.

Unison’s first general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe, to whose memory the film is also dedicated, called Jack and Evelyn “almost one person,” such was their closeness.

But he recalls her ability to, figuratively, “smack him round” on questions concerning morality, internationalism and trade unionism.

Jones’s rise to the top of the union saw him take new initiatives on equal pay, anti-racism and opposition to apartheid in the 1970s. He was constantly interviewed on TV and called into 10 Downing Street for talks with Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, as well as Tory Edward Heath, to resolve industrial disputes.

Many observers thought he was running the country and current TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady calls him “the best prime minister we never had.”

He had a stand-up row at a Tribune Labour Party rally with Ian Mikardo MP over Jones’s backing for a social contract of “planned growth of incomes” that the left saw as pay restraint and opposed strongly.

When his own union voted to end the contract, Jones said he had always backed membership-led democracy, “so I couldn’t complain if I was defeated.”

On retirement, he refused Callaghan’s offer of a government post and a peerage, confirming his reputation as someone who couldn’t be bought. He and Evelyn remained in their council flat in south London while he built up the National Pensioners Convention to counter the injustices suffered by retired workers and their families.

Comprehensive availability of free bus travel for over-60s stands as a reminder of one key struggle he led.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey sums his predecessor up as a “man of the people,” who realised that organisation was essential to win anything — a lesson now applied in the battles over zero-hours contracts and the gig economy.

Unsung Hero is far more than a soft-tinged reminiscence of a leader fighting the battles of yesteryear. Conditions change over decades but similar ploys enlisted by employers to weaken trade unions and boost profits tend to recur.

Jack Jones’s “organise, organise, organise” mantra holds similar lessons for unorganised workers today as it did earlier in the docks, car factories and elsewhere.

This excellent film is unlikely to be shown in commercial cinemas. All the more reason for trade unions to make it available to their members and those they wish to organise.

Upcoming screenings of Unsung Hero: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, June 15, tickets: liverpoolphil.com; TUC Congress House, London, July 2, organised by TUC London East and South East Region, tickets: lese@tuc.org.uk and Broadway Cinema, Notingham, July 22, organised by Nottingham People's Assembly, details: nottspeoplesassembly.org. The film is available free for screenings by organisations and festivals, contact hurricanefilms.net.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 8,728
We need:£ 9,272
21 Days remaining
Donate today