James Larkin Jones, known as Jack Jones, was born in Liverpool on 29 March 1913, the son of a docker. From 1927 to 1939 he worked in the engineering and dock industries, interrupted by his service in the Spanish Civil War in the International Brigades. He was wounded at the Battle of the Ebro in August 1938 and returned to England. He was an active trade unionist and in 1939 he was appointed full-time secretary of the Coventry District of the Transport and General Workers' Union and also served as Coventry & South Warwickshire District secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. In 1955, he was appointed regional secretary of Region No.5 (Midlands). In 1963, he was appointed assistant executive secretary, the third-highest position in the union. He acted as assistant general secretary from 1964 to 1966 while general secretary Frank Cousins was serving as a government minister (and hence assistant general secretary Harry Nicholas was acting general secretary). In 1969 he was elected to succeed Cousins as general secretary. He retired in 1978.
He was a member of the Midland Regional Board for Industry, 1942-1946 and 1955-1963, the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, 1964-1967, and the TUC General Council, 1968-1978, and was chairman of the Midlands TUC Advisory Committee, 1948-1963. He was deputy chairman of the National Ports Council, 1967-1979, and in 1972 he was joint chairman (with Lord Aldington) of the Special Committee on the Ports (Aldington-Jones Committee). He was chairman of the TUC International, Transport and Nationalised Industries Committees, 1972-1978. He was vice-president of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), 1974-1979, executive chairman of the Birmingham Productivity Committee, 1957-1963, chairman of the Labour Party Working Party on Industrial Democracy, 1967, vice-president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1976-2009, and a member of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, 1965-1969, the National Economic Development Council, 1969-1978, the council of ACAS, 1974-1978, the British Overseas Trade Board, 1974-1979, the Committee of Inquiry into Industrial Democracy, 1976-1977, the Board of Crown Agents, 1978-1980, and the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, 1978-1980. He also served as a justice of the peace for Coventry, 1950-1963. He was visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, 1970-1978, and association fellow at the London School of Economics, 1978-1982.
After his retirement, Jones devoted much of his time to the welfare of pensioners. He was vice-president of Age Concern England, 1978-2009, vice-president of the European Federation of Retired and Elderly Persons, 1991-2009, president of the TGWU Retired Members' Association, 1979-2009, and life president of the National Pensioners' Convention, 2000-2009. He was also life president of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, 2002-2009, and chairman of the trustees of the National Museum of Labour History, 1988-2003.
Jones received an Honorary D.Litt from the University of Warwick in 1978 and from Coventry University in 1996 and a D.Univ from the Open University in 2000. He was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1979 and received the Award of Merit of the City of Coventry in 1978. His autobiography, 'Union Man', appeared in 1986. Appointed MBE in 1950, he became a Companion of Honour (CH) in 1978.
In 1938, he married Evelyn Mary Taylor, the widow of a friend who had been killed in action in Spain. They had two sons. Evelyn died in 1998 and Jones died on 21 April 2009 at the age of 96.