Tom Jackson: how not to lead a union

Submitted by Anon on 2 July, 2003 - 9:12

By Pete Keenlyside

In an era when trade union leaders were household names, Tom Jackson, who died this month aged 78, stood out from the rest. This was partly due to his appearance - the trademark handlebar moustache - partly due to the fact that he appeared regularly on TV panel programmes but mainly because he was general secretary of the postal workers union (then UPW, now CWU) during the 7-week strike in 1971.

Tom Jackson joined the Post Office and the union in 1938. After a spell in the services during the war he set about climbing the union ladder and by 1955 got himself elected to the Executive Council. He became a National Officer in 1964 and in 1967, at the remarkably early age of 42, took the top job of General Secretary. He stayed there for 15 years until he took early retirement in 1982.

Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, has described him as "one of the labour movement's gentlemen" and he certainly lived like a gentleman whilst he was up there. In between looking after his members he managed to squeeze in membership of the Press Council and sitting on the boards of the BBC and British Petroleum. After he retired, he became a director of privatised Yorkshire Water.

What the UPW needed at its helm during his tenure was not a gentleman, however, but a fighter. This was never more so than during the great strike of 1971. The union had put in a claim for £3 a week, between 15-20%, and management had offered 8%. It was debatable whether an all out strike was the best tactic, given that the union, not the most militant at the time, was the first to take on a newly elected Tory Government committed to beating down such challenges. Having embarked on such action, however, the strike should have been conducted in the most ruthless and determined manner possible. Instead, many members at the time thought they were fighting with one arm tied behind their backs.

Instead of gradually building up the action to increase its effect, the day before the strike started, all offices were cleared of mail so there was no backlog. Nothing was done to picket out telephonists, the real key to the dispute, who chose to scab. Having run out of money, the union was forced to call a halt after 7 weeks. In the end they settled for no more than they were offered at the start.

Tom Jackson wasn't a bad person and there was never any doubting his commitment to his members. But his essentially right wing politics and his total acceptance of the bureaucratic way of running a trade union caused him to lead the union in a direction virtually the opposite of all others.

This helps to explain the paradox of why we lost in the 1970s when everybody else was winning and why the position was reversed in the 1980s and 90s.

After the failure of 1971 the union almost ceased to exist as a national union in the eyes of the members. Terms and conditions were sorted out locally. The basic wage became irrelevant in many areas as deals to earn overtime without having to really work it became commonplace.

As a rank and file militant, Tom Jackson had as little relevance to me as to his other television viewers. In a strange way that he never intended, this built up the shop-floor militancy that the Tories never managed to deal with because there was no head to chop off. The downside was that it took 15 years before the union had the courage to call a national dispute again.

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