John Freeman was born in 1934 between the Shankill and Crumlin Roads. In the late 50s, he found work in Australia before returning home to Northern Ireland in the following decade. He got a job at Short Brothers plc, where he became a trade union activist. Usually referred to as Shorts, this major aerospace company was the first in the world to make production aircraft and was particularly notable for its flying boat designs in the 1950s. Bought by Bombadier in 1989, it had moved its main base to Belfast four decades before, where it produced turboprop airliners, components for aerospace, and missiles for the British armed forces.
Freeman was elected to the General Executive Council of T&G, known in Ireland as the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (now Unite) as part of the crop of Communists who came onto the executive after the lifting of the ban on holding office in 1968.
He was appointed Regional Secretary for the Irish region of the (A)T&G in 1974 and served in that role until he retired in 1998. During his time as Regional Secretary he was elected and re-elected on to the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and, in due course, served as its chairperson. He also served with ICTU on its General Purpose Committee and, in 1995, was elected president.
From a Protestant background, Freeman played a decisive role in the politics of the period in Ireland and beyond. A key player in the broad left within the T&G, he has the distinction of reportedly being asked to leave the Communist Party by Jack Jones so that the number of his regional secretaries who were members could not be pointed to as large (even though the Labour Party did not organise in Northern Ireland). It is understood that Freeman continued to sit on the political committee of the CP of Ireland, at least during the early 1970s.
Freeman was often talked of as possibly being one of the main contenders for leadership of the TGWU but finally stood aside for the more popular Ron Todd in 1984.
He died on March 15th 2011