obituary: jack sprung, 1922-2009

by Dave Spencer

Jack Sprung was one of those militant shop stewards who were a feature in The Commune’s uncaptive minds series of meetings on the 1970s. He was a steward for many years at the Standard Triumph plant in Coventry, part of British Leyland. He was also a political activist, as a member of the Coventry Workers Association, a breakaway from the Communist Party.

Jack always claimed that shop stewards were a step on the way to workers’ control of the workplace. He was a fan of Mike Cooley, the initiator of the “Lucas Workers’ Corporate Plan”. The Lucas workers were threatened with the closure of their factory and worked out a plan where their skills and the machinery at Lucas could be used to build 150 socially useful products like kidney dialysis machines and a road-rail bus. They published their plan in 1976.

Unfortunately the capitalists decided that the shop stewards movement was too strong and decided to destroy it. In 1976 Jack was victimised during a bitter dispute where, according to the local paper, the workers were actually running the factory. He went to College and became a tutor in Industrial Relations throughout the West Midlands.After retiring he became the General Secretary of the British Pensioners and Trade Union Activist Association (BPTUAA). He was a supporter of Coventry Radical Network and attended our meetings right up to his final illness.

At his funeral his friends told many anecdotes of Jack on picket lines and demonstrations where his creative skills led him into trouble and arrests – but which in retrospect were very humorous. All agreed – he never wavered.

I was asked to write an obituary for the British Pensioner which covers more his political activity. I add it below.

“Rodney Bickerstaffe phoned me up and said – could we meet for a talk in the comfort of his hotel room. He thought I was going to the Labour Party Conference as a delegate. Actually I was going there on a demo!”

Jack Sprung, General Secretary of the BPTUAA before Ann Green, has died at the age of 86. Jack was well-known as a genuine socialist and Trade Union and community activist. On a number of occasions he was sacked from his workplace and arrested for sticking to his principles. He never wavered. If there was a photograph in the paper of a strike picket or a protest against some injustice, Jack would be there at the front.

He always had a sense of humour. In May 1970 there was a large Anti-Apartheid demonstration outside Coventry’s Rugby Football ground where the Springboks were playing the local side. We were shouting outside with megaphones.Some of us had blown up black and white balloons in the Labour Party headquarters nearby and were working out the direction of the wind so that we could float them into the stadium. Jack, however, had smuggled himself inside the ground and was hiding under the straw that had been scraped off the pitch. Just before the referee blew his whistle, Jack dashed out between policemen’s legs, seized the ball from the centre spot and ran off down the pitch before being tackled by the Springboks’ second row. The whole incident was captured on national television – including Jack’s arrest.

Another campaign where Jack was in the frontline in the photograph in the local paper was the “Royal Court Drinks Protest”. This was an action we undertook with Coventry Indian Workers’ Association against the hotelier Fred Kilpatrick who had a colour bar in his two hotels. A large group of us entered the lounge of the Royal Court and refused to budge. The ensuing bad publicity for Kilpatrick meant that people cancelled events at his hotels until he withdrew the colour bar.

Jack left the Labour Party in 1968 after 20 years as a member and 9 years as a councillor. He objected to the junketing and knife-and-forkism of his fellow councillors. One thing Jack did learn about as Chair of Social Services was the large number of old people who die every year from hypothermia. A Newcastle doctor at the time claimed that 60,000 people die from hypothermia each winter, 90,000 in a bad winter. Jack campaigned on this issue for the rest of his life, in particular as a member of his Area Health Authority and in numerous letters to the local paper.

In 1999 Jack was arrested in the House of Commons after waylaying the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, on her way to the chamber. He asked her to call on the Commons to stop “The Great British Pensions Robbery”. This was part of the pensioners’ national day of protest. He had managed to smuggle a placard into the House of Commons to re-inforce his point. The police escorted him away and Jack managed to get some publicity for our cause in the papers.

It is no wonder that Jack found it difficult to agree with Jack Jones and Rodney Bickerstaffe on how to campaign for pensioners. Jack’s method was direct action both at work at the Standard Triumph motor works where he was a TU convenor and on community issues like pensions. Cosy chats with ministers or managers was not Jack’s way. I only hope we have the courage and the support to carry on his fine example.

Jack leaves behind his wife Mavis, sons Alan, Steven and Anthony and daughter Julie. Our condolences to them.