Dockers strike
Outside the Midland Cold Store in July 1972, before the arrest of the Pentonville 5, two pickets with opposite messages, a docker on the left and a Cold Store worker

‘Arise ye Workers’

In 1972, five dockers were sent to prison for defying anti-union laws. Peter Arkell looks at the lessons to be learned from a period of unprecedented trade union militancy in Britain

Thirty-five years ago, towards the end of July 1972, five London dockers were rounded up from picket lines and from their homes by the police, arrested, and put into Pentonville Prison in North London. Their crime? Secondary picketing or trying to get support for their dispute at another workplace in defiance of a court order.

They had been identified, with the help of a private detective firm, as taking part in unlawful picketing of various storage depots in East London, illegal that is under the Tory anti-union legislation of the time. The main site in question was the Midland Cold Store.

Private detectives
Two private detectives and their lawyer (on right) are asked to look into the camera as they enter the National Industrial Relations Court to give evidence against the 5 dockers

Edward Heath’s government that took office in 1970 quickly came face to face with a growing mass movement after introducing laws that abolished the legal immunity from damages enjoyed by unions for 70 years, outlawed secondary picketing and set up a special National Industrial Relations Court.

The Five dockers - Bernie Steer, Vic Turner, Tony Merrick, Cornelius Clancy and Derek Watkins - had been tried (in their absence) by the new court and ordered to desist. Their union, the Transport and General Workers union (T&GWU), refused to recognise the court, but at the same time had not given official approval to the dockers’ campaign.

The dispute itself had its origins in the claim by dockers that some large depots around the docks area were using cheap labour to do work that belonged to the dockers under the terms of the National Docks Labour Scheme, which had been introduced after World War II.

What happened next, after the Pentonville 5 were dumped in jail, truly shocked the government and shattered its plans (for a while) to limit and then break the power of organised labour. Dockers round the country stopped work and all the major ports came to a standstill, an action that historically had always struck fear into governments because of the stranglehold on imports and exports that this represented.

Private detectives
The same two private detectives, at a later visit to the NIRC, attempt to stop a News Line photographer from taking their picture (again). One of them drops his briefcase

But the action did not stop there. Fleet Street printers came out and most newspapers did not appear, and a series of rolling strikes started, with miners, Heathrow Airport workers, car workers, all poised to join in. Finally, after days of silence, and more in a bid to control the spontaneous walk-outs than to lead them, the TUC called for a one-day general strike for July 31. The previous and only General Strike in Britain had taken place in 1926, and had resulted in a great betrayal of the miners by the TUC leaders.

On Friday July 27, a huge march of trade unionists behind the London docks shop stewards committee banner with its slogan “Arise ye Workers”, headed for Pentonville Prison. Once there it did not break up and disperse. The marchers kept up a strong presence day and night (one of The Five jokingly complained after his release that he could not sleep because of the noise).

The Heath government, faced with this threat, was forced to act fast, or risk losing control of the situation which could easily spiral into a challenge not just to the government but, much more dangerously, to the TUC as well. A mysterious court official - the Official Solicitor - whom nobody had ever heard of until then, was produced, as if by magic. He freed the dockers and the House of Lords quickly ruled that the unions themselves were responsible for the secondary picketing, even if it was unofficial. The five were carried out shoulder-high to a tumultuous welcome from the crowd on Saturday July 28.

The confidence of the masses can perhaps be measured by the actions of the Fleet Street print workers who regularly refused to print titles with articles critical of the unions. At that time the press barons were powerless to do anything about it. If they wanted their papers on the streets the next day, they would have to remove or change the offending article.
All this took place against the background of the end of the post-war economic boom. British industry was increasingly uncompetitive, unemployment was rising and so was the cost of living. President Nixon had taken the dollar off the gold standard and nobody knew what the economic repercussions of this would be. The pound was under constant pressure of devaluation.

The employers and the governments had to blunt the power of the unions and drive up the productivity of the workforce. In response, the trade unions staged a show of unprecedented militancy. In January 1972 the miners struck, and won a historic victory over pay, partly as a result of picketing the power stations. Engineers were starting to occupy their factories in the Midlands and the North, fearful for their jobs.

The building workers then came out in a long and bitter dispute, the first time for about 50 years that they had risked a walk-out, since most of the big employers had refused to recognise the unions and many construction workers were not organised. Nevertheless some 300,000 workers took part for weeks on end, behind the demands of £30 for a 35-hour week and the abolition of “lump” or casual labour. They won a big increase in pay, but failed to get the “lump” abolished. Pentonville erupted in the middle of the builders’ strike.
There was also an upsurge internationally. The Vietnam War was in the process of being lost by the US, the 1968 May-June general strike in France was not long finished and nor was the attempt in the same year by the masses in Czechoslovakia to rid themselves of Stalinism.

Over 24 million strike days were “lost” in 1972, the second highest number ever recorded and although the number fell the following year, the trade unions continued to grow in power as the economic crisis worsened. Inflation ran out of control following the quadrupling of the cost of oil after the 1973 Middle East War. A three-day week was imposed along with a state of emergency. The miners staged another strike and in early 1974, the Heath government, unable to govern, called a snap election on the question of who governs Britain and lost.

Labour returned with a tiny majority in Parliament, settled with the miners, repealed the anti-union laws, called another election a few months later which it won with a slightly larger majority, and then muddled through the next few years. They relied heavily on their friends, the union leaders, to keep them from sinking beneath the waves of working class militancy.

Finally they too, succumbed to the power of the mass movement when low-paid council workers went on strike in 1979 in the “Winter of Discontent”. Huge piles of rubbish (with rats) went uncollected in the big towns of the UK (even in London’s Leicester Square), and bodies went unburied. The government was defeated and Thatcher came to power.
While the ten years from 1970-1980 represented a high point from the perspective of the unions, for the Tories and employers it represented a real threat to profits and their right to govern. At no point, however, did the TUC or the union leaders ever give any indication that they wanted to do more than pressure the employers and government to change direction, so the threat was never very dire.

This was to be of crucial importance in the years that followed. The ruling class and the forces of the state, won themselves a few years of breathing space to sort out their strategy and develop new tactics for the coming showdown. While the ruling class was preparing to defeat the mass movement (and there was even talk of a coup in some circles), the Labour and trade union leaders fiddled.

By the early 1980s, the situation had changed dramatically. Unemployment had reached several million, with Britain’s industrial base largely destroyed. The unions were on the retreat and in decline because of this and their leaders were still thinking nostalgically about the good old days of the 1970s. They really could not believe that Thatcher would ignore them and then bludgeon her way past them, using the power of the state. But that’s what happened. Heath’s anti-union laws were, in the main, resurrected by Thatcher in the 1980s, and are, of course still in place now under New Labour.

The state had prepared for its revenge, particularly against the miners. Thousands of police were mobilised, along with the army, to block and arrest thousands of flying pickets during the 1984-5 miners’ strike against pit closures. The TUC leaders did not even turn up, and carried out a betrayal just as deadly as that of 1926. And they repeated their cowardly lack of action a year later, when they failed to give serious support to the 6,000 printers sacked by Rupert Murdoch News International when it re-located its printing operations to Fortress Wapping.

The lessons from this extraordinary decade have still to be learned by many trade unionists and socialists. Neither the trades unions nor a mass movement, not even an alliance of one with the other, are capable by themselves of challenging for power, and nothing short of that will change anything. Governments might collapse in front of a powerful mass movement and in the 1970s in Britain they did, two of them, perhaps even three if you count Harold Wilson’s Labour government which came unstuck in 1970.

Vic Turner and Bernie Steer
Two of the Pentonville 5, Vic Turner and Bernie Steer,
are carried in triumph out of the prison

That, in itself, only demonstrates how remarkably strong the feeling was for change, even revolutionary change, but without an understanding amongst the leaders that beyond governments lies the state, and until that state is exposed, challenged and broken, there can be no change. It is the state, with its police, courts, prisons, army, bureaucracy, spies, surveillance experts, communications experts and its friends in the media that, in the final analysis, keeps the world safe for global capitalism in the different countries of the world.

At a TUC meeting last month to commemorate the release from jail of the Pentonville 5, amidst all the meaningless bluster about “restoring the organisational strength of the movement” and making sure “the voice of the movement is heard by MPs”, there was one clear voice, that of Pentonville 5 hero Vic Turner, who said: “The working class has not really changed. I know it does not seem like it, but when a situation arises where the working classes have to muster, they will”.

Correct. And that time may not be far away. As governments, the New Labour ones especially, govern mainly in the interests of the giant global banks and corporations whose only purpose is to make greater and greater profits, so the working classes round the globe will have to muster behind revolutionary leaders to defend their standards of living and their rights, liberating themselves from a system that is destroying the very planet on which they live.

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