By Peta Steel
George Jerrom, former National Officer of the National Graphical Association and its successor the Graphical, Paper & Media Union was a leading communist working in the print and in print unions.
A long time member of the Communist Party who was Secretary of the party’s Print Advisory Committee, his influence and experience earned him support from fellow trade unionists, printers, journalists.
A warm, approachable man with a brilliant ability to dissect problems he had a major influence on some of the defining print industrial disputes during the 1980s.
Ann Field, former GPMU and Amicus national officer paying tribute to him said: “As a dedicated trade unionist and communist George always took time to listen to people’s views and opinions, and he was steadfast in support of workers’ struggles.”
Jerrom who was from the Elephant and Castle, was born in 1933. Known as ‘Skimps’ as a child because of his small size, growing up in London and the blitz, with his father serving away in the army, George often skived off school to search for shrapnel amongst the debris and bomb holes. Hunting shrapnel as far more exciting than education.
He left school at the age of 14 following his father and family into the printing industry, beginning his seven year apprenticeship, interrupted by his national service to be a copy/proof reader with the Cornwall Press, printers of the New Statesman amongst other magazines.
Education might not earlier have seemed important, but books were, his first wage packet was to be spent on them. His love of books and the knowledge he gained lasted him for the rest of his life. He was frequently to talk about the beauty of the “written word”.
He came from a family steeped in the history of the print and in trade union activism. His grandfather was one of the founding members of the print union NATSOPA.
Being in a trade union was as natural to him as going into print. Though George broke the family tradition and instead of going into the machine room he went into the composing room.
As he told Strathclyde University in 1984 “They were mainly in the machine room I broke the mould and went into the composing room.”
His training would see him joining the Association of Correctors of the Press at the aged of 16. He would on qualifying become what he described as being the most crafted of ‘correctors of the press’ and be given a full time readers card.
Aged 21 George became the youngest FOC in the ACP (FOC – Father of the Chapel, a shop steward in the print industry), also serving as youngest ever member on the London based union’s EC, he was also its political officer.
The bad working conditions as he later described them, had a profound affect on him. As did the strength of the unions. “It was a traumatic shock to walk into that satanic mill on the first morning it soon became apparent that the people who were chapel officers, did the job had a genuine and deeply seated commitment”.
George was to show the same commitment and was to hold some form of union position for the rest of his working life.
His first political affiliation was to the Labour Party, having got married for the first time to Jean Saint, they moved to Crystal Palace, he joined the local ward, rapidly rising through its ranks eventually representing them in a local election where he was roundly beaten.
In 1964, fed up with Labour’s politics, urged on by local Labour members who suggested he should join his ‘spiritual home’, he left and joined the Communist Party, a move he never regretted. “I’ve been quite happy with my politics ever since,” he declared. “They annoy other people, but I am quite happy with them.”
He was to play a prominent role in shaping the Party’s attitude towards developments in the printing industry when he joined the Print Advisory Committee, a body he remained on till the dissolution of the CPGB in 1991.
In 1965, whilst working for the Daily Worker, the APC transferred its engagements with the craft print union the NGA. George recognising that the industry was changing and new practices were being introduced putting more pressure on small craft unions, he was a supporter of the amalgamation: “I have no doubt , the ACP would not have been able to exist as a separate entity. It may have tried to turn itself into a professional body of sort, but as an industrial creature it would have ceased to exist.”
George served on the regional and then executive body of the merged NGA. He moved jobs and became the FOC of reading room at the Daily Mail. Along with the late Ross Pritchard, George founded the ‘Shoe Lane Progressives’, the broad left group that had a major impact on NGA policies holding to account the then right wing leadership, making it more answerable to its members. His refusal to compromise on industrial issues added to a fraught relationship with the NGA ruling establishment.
Nominations for national fulltime officials were at that time subject to an examination conducted by the National Council of the NGA but despite failing one such – widely believed to have been manipulated by the leadership -in 1979 George was elected as an NGA National Officer and given responsibility for national newspapers in Fleet Street, Manchester and Scotland and later for commercial and magazine printing, dealing with amongst others British Printing Corporation when it was purchased by a Robert Maxwell.
In the newspaper industry he find himself in negotiations with Rupert Murdoch. The latter was to say at that time that he wouldn’t sign any document unless George Jerrom did too.
Becoming a full time official saw the Londoner moving with his second wife Rena to Bedford. He had met her in 1970 at a party at the Cuban Embassy where she worked. He was a member of the Cuban Friendship Association.
Rena along with her sister Joan were well known Scottish folk singers ‘The Swankie Sisters’ and George found himself with Jimmy Reid as a brother in law. George and Rena were to form a formidable partnership, with Rena often to be found on a picket line singing. Having been brought up himself in a musically talented family he was fiercely proud of her voice.
He also took charge or represented the union on outside bodies such as Amnesty International, the South Africa Anti-apartheid Movement, and Chile Solidarity, becoming known as the ‘’Foreign Secretary”, a nickname given to him by NGA General Secretary Joe Wade, as he recalled in his interview with Strathclyde: “He likes to call me that because I deal with all our Amnesty work. I’m responsible for making all our representations on humanitarian terms to South Africa”.
The nickname caught on as George dispatched telegrams world wide highlighting the position of political prisoners.
George was an advocate of one union for the printing industry recognised how much the media landscape would change with the advent of new technology and the concentration of multi media ownership. He was one of the first officials to realise the benefits that NUJ broadcasting journalists in membership of one media union would bring. He was disappointed when talks to merge the NUJ and NGA broke down.
The NGA was one of the founders of what became the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, George becoming one of its strongest supporters.
Professor James Curran of Goldsmiths, one of the founders of the CPBF remembered him well: “He was very clever, effective and likeable. He was really important back in the day. He put his weight behind the setting up of the CPBF, then called the CPF, and also behind the industrial right of reply campaign on behalf of victims of press misrepresentation. He was very smart and well read. A natural leader I feel honoured to have known”
In July 1983 the Stockport Messenger Group dispute, a rehearsal for the later one at Wapping took place as six NGA workers walked out in protest at the increasingly intimidating approach of its owner Eddie Shah.
Six members of the NUJ walked out in support. George became a champion to the latter, as one recalled: “We remember him well on the picket line. His support and humour and friendship.”
1983 would also see George stand as the Broad left candidate and being defeated by Tony Dubbins in the vote for General Secretary.
Throughout the 1980s, George found himself in a series of negotiations that saw the introduction of new technology and new practices. In his 1984 interview with Strathclyde, he predicted – accurately – future conflict “the current climate if it continues will mean that technology will be imposed and our members more and more will be joining unwillingly dole queues…”
George became a national officer of the GPMU when the NGA merged with SOGAT to form the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, retiring in 1996.
Retirement didn’t see Jerrom slow down, he served on Employment Tribunals and became an active member of the Pensioners Convention. George had a great enthusiasm for life with interests that covered jazz, he had a large collection of records and CDs, art (he carried a sketch book with him wherever he went) and books, his home was full of them, and he knew where each one was and what it was about.
NGA and GPMU activist Megan Dobney said: “George Jerrom was a working class communist intellectual – with a forensic brain and a revolutionary attitude. He was the best General Secretary we never had.”
He is survived by his wife Rena, sons David and Stephen, three grandchildren and three great grandchildren.