We’ll need a few more Vic Turners in the days ahead

Vic Turner, one of the Pentonville 5 dockers jailed under the Tory government of Edward Heath in 1972, who died recently, takes his place in history as one of the heroes of the labour movement.

Tribute by Peter Arkell

Vic Turner was one of the most prominent leaders in the shop stewards committee of the Royal Group of the London Docks. The committee was much feared by employers and governments during a time of rising militancy in the late 1960s as the post-war boom came to an abrupt end.

Vic Turner
Vic Turnner speaking to a mass meeting of dockers before the arrests

By this time the trade unions in Britain had become very powerful. They had over 12 million members, representing more than half the working population. The ruling classes were dismayed by their inability to bring the unions to heel. They feared the shop stewards, who were directly elected by rank-and-file workers in the work place. These “unofficial” committees, like the one at the Royal Docks, led and carried forward many of the strikes and actions, despite the reluctance of official leaders to lend support.

Vic Turner
Awaiting arrest, Vic Turner can be seen under the R of “workers” in the banner.
The police backed off on this occasion, but returned a few days later.

The Labour governments of 1964-70 confronted the dockers, when prime minister Harold Wilson warned about “Reds under the beds” during a national strike in 1966. His government produced a White Paper that proposed new anti-union laws. At this time, the unions had legal immunity and could strike without ballots or fear of claims for compensation by employers.  A strong reaction from the trade union movement forced the Wilson government to back down.

A docker (left) picketing one of the storage warehouses
and a counter-picket

The government of Edward Heath that was elected in 1970 tried to address this issue by introducing new legislation to hold the unions themselves responsible for the actions of their members. The unions could be fined for any actions by its members not officially sanctioned by the union leadership. New laws on picketing were also introduced, limiting their numbers and outlawing altogether any so-called “secondary” pickets. It became illegal for workers to spread their dispute to other work places. It was these anti-union laws, backed up by a completely new court called the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC), that were challenged by the London dockers in 1972.

The use of containers to transport goods in ships and by road was threatening jobs in the docks, as was the use by the employers of huge warehouses, staffed by lower-paid workers, to store the cargo near the docks. The dockers claimed that the work in these warehouses should be done by registered dockers working, like them, under the official National Docks Labour Scheme. They mounted pickets outside two of the warehouses, putting themselves at odds with the new laws which viewed them as “secondary” pickets. The scene was set for a decisive confrontation.

Exposed: The private detectives hired by the Midland Cold Store to identify the pickets are snapped as they go into the National Industrial Relations Court
Exposed: the private detectives hired by the Midland
Cold Store to identify the pickets are snapped as
they go into the National Industrial Relations Court

The multi-national Vestey Group, which owned one of the warehouses, applied to the NIRC for an injunction to stop the picketing. The dockers ignored the order. Industrial spies were hired to identify the pickets’ leaders. Five Transport and General Workers Union stewards were named in court as the ringleaders: Bernie Steer, Vic Turner, Tony Merrick, Cornelius Clancy and Derek Watkin.  Four of them were arrested for contempt of court on July 21, 1972. Turner, was finally arrested outside Pentonville Prison a couple of days later while leading the protest to free the other four.

The police had failed to find him though he always insisted that he had not tried to evade arrest. He was approached outside the jail by a policeman who asked him if he was Vic Turner. On receiving an affirmative reply, the policeman asked Vic if he would mind waiting there for a bit. Half an hour later, the policeman returned with lawyers. Turner was formally identified, arrested and taken into the prison.

What followed was not in the government’s script. The prison was besieged by workers from all over London — so much so that one of the jailed men complained jokingly on his release that he had not been able to get a minute’s sleep because of the din made by the protesters through the night. A huge demonstration led by the Royal Docks shops stewards banner, with “Arise Ye Workers” emblazoned across it, formed up and marched to the prison, rather than to parliament which was the original plan.

Arrest of Derek Watkins
Arrest of Derek Watkins outside the Midland Cold Store

Arrest of Conny Clancy
Arrest of Conny Clancy

Fleet Street was quiet for once, as printers at the national newspapers walked out behind their banners. As the strikes, walk-outs and demonstrations spread throughout the UK, the government found itself facing the prospect of an indefinite general strike. In fact the TUC eventually called for a one-day general strike, more to control it than to lead it, after Heath had turned down their request to intervene.

Scene outside the prison as more and more trade unionists joined the rolling strike

The government buckled and asked the previously unheard-of Official Solicitor to look into the case. He hastily applied to the House of Lords on the grounds that the NIRC had insufficient evidence to deprive the dockers of their liberty and that the evidence from the spooks was also insufficient. The dockers were freed amid tumultuous scenes of celebration after five days in jail.

Vic Turner
The Pentonville 5 are released and carried shoulder-high from the prison,
Vic Turner in the foreground, Bernie Steer behind

After this, the NIRC was discredited and largely ignored, while the government whose main stated task had been to take on the power of the unions, then lost a national strike by the miners later in 1972, and was finally toppled by a second miners’ strike in early 1974. These years marked the high point of what could be achieved by trade union militancy alone. The unions had beaten an offensive by the state in a period of relatively high employment and before the economic crisis went critical. 

March to Pentonville Prison, led by the dockers

The Tories, out of office for five years while the Labour governments of 1974-9 struggled with the growing economic crisis, developed new policies, and new strategies for dealing with the unions. Capitalism should be freed from regulation, the global market should determine everything, with never a thought for the social consequences.

Armed with this monetarist dogma, the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher elected in 1979 aimed to break the deadlock with a new offensive on the working class. A series of anti-union laws removed the immunity that the trade unions had enjoyed since before World War One. Compulsory ballots, compensation for employers for “unlawful” strikes, limits on picketing, a ban on solidarity action – all moved swiftly onto the statute book where they remain to this day.

With high unemployment resulting from the destruction of much of the manufacturing industry, the unions were unable to hold the line.  The Royal Docks closed in 1980, causing high levels of unemployment and deprivation in the surrounding areas of North Woolwich, Silvertown and Newham. Vic Turner got a job as a trade refuse officer for Newham Council. He joined the Labour Party from the Communist Party, becoming a popular councillor in 1984 and mayor in 1997.

When the miners were finally provoked in 1984-5 to defend their pits and communities, their great year-long strike did raise the question of state power. The strike itself was a challenge to the power of the government, but the TUC offered little meaningful support. The miners were isolated and returned to work without an agreement. It was a betrayal even more blatant than in 1926 when the General Strike was abandoned and the miners left to fight alone before they were starved back to work.

The leaders of the Labour Party themselves went on to embrace globalisation as its most ardent adherents during the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. These governments carried on with the agenda of the Tories, facilitating the corporations, and supervising the slide of society towards one of low wages, high unemployment and weak unions.

The current economic crisis, immeasurably more serious than the previous ones, is driving the ConDem Government towards confrontation with the mass of the people.  With the Labour Party thoroughly discredited in the eyes of many because of its support of cuts, its “one-nation” rhetoric, its opposition to resistance and its embrace of “responsible capitalism”, the way is open for new ideas and policies that go beyond mere resistance.

More heroes, prepared to lead and fight for principles, like Vic Turner, will be needed in the class battles ahead.

Vic Turner born 3 Oct 1927, died 30 Dec 2012

27 January 2013

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