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Scanlon was born in Melbourne, to parents who had emigrated from Britain. His mother brought him from Australia back to the UK when he was two years old; she was by that time a widow. He attended Stretford Elementary School in Stretford near Manchester, which he left at the age of 11 to become an apprentice instrument maker at a local engineering firm where he first joined his union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU).
After that, Scanlon worked at the Metropolitan-Vickers engineering plant at Trafford Park where he became a shop steward, before attaining the position of convener for the plant. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1937 following the events of the Spanish Civil War and made use of its networks and organising skills to rise through the union, becoming a district official in 1947.
Although Scanlon formally abandoned communism in 1954, he continued as a "broad left" candidate within the union – winning the leadership in 1968. Scanlon and TGWU leader Jack Jones were known by the press as "The Terrible Twins" for their opposition to both Labour Party and Conservative Party attempts to restrict the power of the unions – Labour prime minister Harold Wilson once famously telling him to "get your tanks off my lawn."
When Edward Heath failed to form a coalition with the Liberals in 1974 and Labour formed a minority government, Scanlon and Jones acted as go-betweens for Labour, communicating the party's demands back and forth to Congress House. They were the prime movers within the union movement of the Social Contract which introduced strict wage controls and limits on strike action. This culminated in the 1978/79 Winter of Discontent, which was followed by the election of the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, in 1979. Earlier in the decade, Scanlon had been a vocal opponent of Britain's membership of the EEC.
Scanlon's political beliefs led to his being effectively blacklisted by the British security service from 1966 to 1977, it emerged years later. In 1977, he was prevented from becoming chairman of British Shipbuilders because MI5 advised that he should not see documents marked "confidential" or above. Two years earlier, he was refused security clearance to join the British Gas Board, but was later appointed after his files were examined.
|Trade union offices|
|President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union
George Smith and Sidney Greene
|Trades Union Congress representative to the AFL-CIO
With: Cyril Plant
Walter Anderson and Ronald Rigby