Bill Jaeger, a pioneer of Moral Re-Armament, had a life-time’s calling to the international labour movement. A true internationalist, he built links of trust and friendship between individuals and groups around the world, long before ‘globalization’ became common coinage. He was an energetic fighter for social justice. But he saw the roots of conflict all too often laying in personal antagonisms and human folly. He was a confidante of labour leaders, including such figures as John Riffe of the American steelworkers at a critical time leading up to the amalgamation of the two major US trade union bodies, the Confederation of Industrial Organizations and the American Federation of Labor, to form the AFL-CIO.
Francis Blanchard, former Director General of the UN’s International Labour Organisation, spoke of Jaeger’s ‘moral support’ and once said of him: ‘Nothing that concerns the world of work and, even wider, the conditions of men and women of our time, is foreign to him. His curiosity of spirit is boundless—as is his generosity and compassion for all who suffer.’
Lord Jordan of Sellyoak, the former head of Britain’s engineering workers’ union who became Secretary General of the International Confederation of Free Trades Unions, remembers Jaeger as being ‘tireless for the cause that we have been working for all our lives in building a free and fair society’.
For three decades from 1963 Jaeger was a presence each year at the annual ILO conferences in Geneva, acting as a correspondent for the independent British workers’ paper, The Industrial Pioneer. He had no other official position. Yet he built a network of contacts and friendships, from California to China, in his travels to 64 countries. His only credentials were his impoverished working class background in Stockport, a theological training at Regent’s Park Baptist College in London, and a deep sense of compassion for the underdog combined with a photographic memory of people and statistics. He never forgot his roots and would often warn that people on the political ladder too easily overlooked the people who first put them there.
William George Jaeger was born in Stockport in 1912 in a tiny terraced house, where his mother Annie ran a hat shop. His father, Charles, was a cabinet maker. His grandparents were German and young Bill had his first taste of persecution from neighbouring kids during the First World War. But he had an insatiable curiosity, read voraciously and excelled at Stockport Grammar School where he was head boy for two years. Baptised at 13, he felt even then a calling to live a life of service.
During his first week studying theology in London, he encountered Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group, the forerunner of Moral Re-Armament (MRA). He immediately took to its emphasis on listening to the still, small voice within and setting one’s life right in the light of absolute moral standards. But there was no pious religiosity about him. He had a big hearted love for people and a warm sense of humour, combined with natural leadership skills. When he wanted to make a particular point he would jab the air with his index finger and fix you with a knowing smile.
They were qualities that served him well as he and colleagues set about befriending mayors, local government and union leaders in the East End of London, during the almost daily clashes between gangs of Fascists and Communists in the Depression years of the 1930.
On graduation, Jaeger felt called to work alongside Buchman and his colleagues. Buchman launched Moral Re-Armament on 29 May 1938, in East Ham Town Hall. Twenty-six mayors and chairmen of town councils took part and 3,000 were in the overflow audience. Bill Jaeger chaired the event. Annie Jaeger had by this time sold her hat shop for £40 to join him in the work of the Oxford Group. Her and Bill’s story of these years were later turned into a West End musical called Annie, which ran for 11 months, 1967-68, in the then MRA-owned Westminster Theatre. A young Bill Kenwright, the theatre impresario, playing the part of Bill.
Buchman launched MRA in America in 1939 with mass rallies in New York, Washington DC and at the Hollywood Bowl. He was deeply concerned about America’s initial complacency towards the war in Europe. He urged Bill and Annie to join him in a programme to strengthen America’s industrial war effort. Jaeger, aged 27, sailed to America in 1939 with the 1930s tennis star Bunny Austin who had also joined the Oxford Group. Jaeger’s passport described him as a Baptist minister and he was never called up to war service.
Meetings with labour leaders across America included Philip Murray, President of the United Steelworkers Union and national Vice President of the CIO, who told Jaeger: ‘The best national defence America can have is good morale among the people, and any movement that does this deserves our strong support.’ He urged MRA to contact John Riffe, then West Coast Director of the Steelworkers’ Organising Committee in San Francisco. Riffe’s problems were too much poker and whiskey, too many brawls and a deep bitterness towards the bosses. But towards the end of the year he said: ‘By applying the principle of honesty I have been able to achieve more for my union in three months than in the past three years.’
Jaeger remained a friend to Riffe throughout his personal ups and downs over the following years. In 1953 Riffe was appointed Executive Vice President of the CIO, despite opposition from Marxists against his association with MRA. Riffe attributed his election to his decision to reform his own life. The historic merger between the CIO and the AFL in 1955 was achieved without acrimony thanks to his readiness to forego the top post.
In America, Jaeger met and married Clara ‘Click’ Clark, who had also joined the Oxford Group. She was the former secretary to the American novelist Theodore Dreiser, and had a reputation for her ‘past’, for which she had had to repent. She and Bill were ideally suited to each other, and Clara was later to write Jaeger’s biography, Never to lose my vision (Grosvenor Books, 1995).
Jaeger’s long-standing links with China also began in America. At an ILO congress in Philadelphia in 1944 he met Zhu Xsuefan, a postman who had founded the Shanghai trade union movement. They lost touch during the Cultural Revolution. But after Chairman Mao died in 1973 and China rejoined the ILO, Zhu, now Vice President of the People’s Congress, got in touch with Jaeger again. This led to several visits of MRA delegations to China. Jaeger was never hesitant to raise human rights issues, but insisted, ‘If they feel you’re not anti-Chinese you can talk to them. You can’t condemn a whole country.’
After World War II, Jaeger and his colleagues travelled to the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of defeated Germany, developing a programme of national reconstruction. Here the issue, at the height of the Cold War, was whether Communists would take control of the West German trades unions. Several became close friends of Jaeger and visited the MRA centre in Caux, Switzerland, which had opened in 1946. The impact was such that, in 1950, the entire executive and secretariat of the West German Communist Party had to be reorganised because it had become ‘tainted with an ideology inimical to the party’. Communist representation on the works councils of the steel and coal industries declined from 72 per cent to 25 per cent. Several factors were at work in this, but in 1959 Chancellor Konrad Adenauer evaluated MRA’s ‘great success’ in the Ruhr as ‘the test of MRA’s effectiveness’.
‘The deepest thing I’ve learnt in my life is never to write anybody off,’ Jaeger said at his 90th birthday party. He always saw the best in people and whilst ‘workers of the world unite’ was a common refrain, Jaeger’s vision was that ‘workers can unite the world’.
William George Jaeger, Baptist minister and Moral Re-Armament campaigner: born Stockport 25 April 1912, married Clara Clark 1946, one son, died Stevenage 2 July 2002,
First published in The Independent, 17 July 2002