1972: dockers face down the Tory government

For the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentonville Five, we’re reprinting this article written in 2012 by Bristol North Socialist Party member Roger Thomas.

“Arise Ye Workers” read the banner as five London dockers were carried shoulder high from Pentonville Prison in London. The date was 26 July 1972. Five days earlier, the ‘Pentonville Five’ — Con Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner, and Derek Watkins — had been imprisoned for defying the Tory government’s anti-union laws.

Edward Heath’s Tory government suffered a crushing defeat brought about by strikes which swept the country. Britain came within inches of a general strike, which might well have rivalled that of France in 1968. Heath’s government was humbled and its attempt to use the courts to control workers’ activity shattered by mass defiance.

The dockers’ fight revolved around the Industrial Relations Act, a key part of the Heath government’s plans to control not just wages but, through the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC), the activity of the unions and individual workers. The NIRC had the power to fine workers and unions.

Dockers’ fight for jobs

Dockers were locked in a fight for jobs and against the effects of containerisation, which transferred many dock jobs inland to be done by workers on lower pay. Between 1966 and 1972, 20,000 dockers’ jobs had been lost.

Bernie Steer speaking
Dock worker Bernie Steer, one of the Pentonville Five, addresses
the crowds on his release from prison
Credit: TUC Library Collections (uploaded 25/07/2012)

This struggle, and the government’s attempt to undermine the dock labour scheme, led to the development of the National Port Shop Stewards Committee. Action consisted of unofficial strikes and picketing of the container depots.

On 26 January, a one-day unofficial strike was supported by 25,000, and on 7 March 14,000 London dockers struck. The main dockers’ union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), was on the front line against the NIRC and its members’ actions brought the first fine.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) policy was for non-registration with the NIRC court and non-attendance at hearings. But this policy was coming under strain, especially when a union of the TGWU’s size risked fines or loss of its funds.

The TUC felt that it could not continue to support the TGWU when faced with threats to its own funds and those of other member unions. TGWU members expected the national leadership to launch a national strike, but they continued to drag their heels.

Meanwhile on 1 May, Southampton dockers struck against fines, while Preston and Merseyside dockers struck to celebrate May Day.

The National Ports Shop Stewards extended the action to two transport firms in each port. In Hull, this led to another court case which Walter Cunningham, chair of the Hull stewards, refused to attend. A meeting in Hull saw him refuse to pay the fine, risking jail.

Unofficial action

With the unofficial national campaign extended, London dock stewards had selected Dagenham Cold Storage and UK Cold Storage to picket. However, few drivers were honouring the ban. It was therefore decided to picket the depots directly.

Picketing began at Chobham Farm in Stratford, east London, where lorries turned away from the port had been diverted. A mass picket of 1,000 started on 6 June.

Soon the number of lorries crossing the picket line were reduced, and the company offered to do a deal with the union to take on registered dockers and gradually phase out non-dockers who were paid considerably less. The stewards insisted there should be no job losses among the existing workers.

The Chobham Farm drivers and warehousemen — also in the TGWU — didn’t believe this, and went to the NIRC for an order to stop the dockers picketing. The court obliged, naming the port shop stewards and three dockers but not the TGWU.

At the time, Militant — the Socialist’s predecessor — suggested a conference of dockers and Chobham Farm workers on the issue of containerisation to work out a common policy in opposition to the employers.

The Court of Appeal — anxious to try to uphold the legal system’s increasingly fragile claim to impartiality — overturned an earlier NIRC judgement and reversed the fines on the union, saying that a union wasn’t responsible for its stewards’ actions, and that it was unjust for the union to be penalised simply because it was not registered.

Tory government minister Robert Carr called the decision “a torpedo below the waterline and effectively destroyed government policy.” Redress could now only come against individual workers.

The NIRC now took out an order against the three pickets, threatening them with imprisonment for contempt of court if they failed to attend the court by 16 June. The national stewards met and called for indefinite strike action if any of the three were imprisoned.

Strikes broke out across the country involving 35,000 dockers. These were joined by car workers at Longbridge.

The stewards joined a mass picket at Chobham Farm to await the court official who was to make the arrests. But no arrests took place.

Official Solicitor

A shadowy figure — the Official Solicitor — enters the scene. He instructed the TGWU to apply to the Court of Appeal to have the orders set aside on a technicality for lack of evidence to justify imprisonment.

Judge Denning explained: “We were influenced by the state of the country, by the realisation that there would be a general strike, which would paralyse the whole nation”. This merely delayed the inevitable by a couple of weeks.

At Chobham Farm, a deal was signed to take on registered dockers, while the existing workforce were given alternative jobs.

On 4 July, Midland Cold Storage applied to the NIRC for an order to stop picketing. The court summoned seven dockers to appear.

They didn’t attend, so a court order banned them from picketing or encouraging others to picket the company. They ignored the order and continued picketing.

The dockers were convinced that the government was now on the road to confrontation. The company returned to court, and on Friday 21 July NIRC president John Donaldson issued warrants for the arrest of five dockers for contempt of court.

Dockers jailed

After the decision, there were immediate stoppages of work in London and a mass picket at Midland Cold Storage. Four of the dockers were arrested that day and placed in Pentonville Prison. The fifth, Vic Turner, appeared in the picket line at the prison the next day.

The dockers shifted picketing to the prison itself. Strikes broke out in Liverpool, Manchester and Hull, with other scheme ports joining by Monday 24 July. 40,000 dockers were estimated to be on strike.

From the prison, delegates were sent out to argue for solidarity action. One group descended on Fleet Street, home of the national press. Through a series of impromptu meetings, the papers were brought to a halt.

Across the country, around 90,000 workers were on indefinite strike by the time the five were released on 26 July. 250,000 had come out for one or two days, and the south Wales miners’ executive had agreed to call its members out. A demonstration to the prison attracted 30,000 workers.

In the light of this revolutionary wave, the TUC — having argued against any solidarity action — was forced to call a one-day national stoppage for the following Monday. On 26 July, the Law Lords overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision, and ruled that the TGWU was after all responsible for the actions of its members.

Case collapses

Thus, the case against the five dockers collapsed, and they were released from prison. Ironically, they were imprisoned for contempt and had never purged that contempt. The decision was rushed through at the start of the summer recess by a ruling class in terror at the prospect of a developing general strike.

The release was met by jubilant scenes. The next day the official national dock strike began.

The Industrial Relations Act had been defeated by mass action that forced a reluctant TUC to threaten a one-day general strike — though only when it became clear that the dockers’ militancy had won and the Pentonville Five would be released. There are many lessons that can be learned from this militant episode in the class war from 1972.

1972 striking dockers give Labour and TUC hammering at memorial rally

by Kevin Parslow, Unite LE1228 secretary (personal capacity)

The Pentonville Five and the London dockers’ campaign was commemorated in a rally at East Ham Town Hall in Stratford, east London, on 1 July.

Following a short film, Kevin Hussey, a striking docker at the time, emphasised that this was the rank and file of the trade union movement — through the National Ports Shop Stewards Committee — which took up the cudgel, not the full-time officers. Like a number of speakers, Kevin drew parallels with the current growing strike wave today. In particular, the RMT rail strike.

Kevin also criticised both the Labour Party then and now for failing to support striking workers — Reg Prentice, then a local MP, later ‘crossed the floor’ to become a Tory minister. Kevin said then Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Vic Feather was an “absolutely useless waste of space”.

Former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said society felt the power of the working class in 1972, and forced the hand of the TUC. The TUC general council voted for a one-day general strike only after lefts Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon forced them to, responding to the pressure of the members.

Len criticised Keir Starmer, and said the trade union movement will be important in the next period. However, none of the speakers drew any conclusions from their criticism of the pro-big business Labour Party. But the trade unions will have to play a key role building a socialist alternative.