Socialist Worker

When workers beat the law

Issue No. 2203

Mass, illegal, strike action freed five jailed dockers from 
Pentonville  jail in 1972. Workers carried them after their release

Mass, illegal, strike action freed five jailed dockers from Pentonville jail in 1972. Workers carried them after their release

Workers have beaten anti-union laws before. The laws are intended to intimidate, but they cannot prevent struggle if they are disobeyed. One key example is the dockers under a Tory government in the 1970s.

On 26 July 1972 a jubilant crowd carried five men shoulder high from London’s Pentonville jail. The “Pentonville Five” were trade unionists—dockers—jailed five days earlier for defying anti-union laws.

Strikes had swept the country in response. They forced the courts into a humiliating climbdown, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Tory government.

The strikers defied their union leaders, who didn’t act, and the Labour Party, who denounced the struggle.

Instead dockers voted with their feet. Within hours all major ports in Britain were out.

A group of young dockers’ stewards decided to spread the strike, and targeted print workers in Fleet Street to shut down the national press.

Bob Light, who was a 22 year old docker, gave a flavour of how the strike spread: “I turned up at the World’s End building site in Chelsea rather sheepishly and knocked on this little wooden door to be greeted by Frank Campbell, who said, ‘Thank god you’re here now.’

“And I just stood at the door while Frank went inside and shouted, ‘There’s a dockers’ picket line. Everybody out.’ And they all came out. There was one significant workplace that we had omitted—Heathrow Airport. And so I was dispatched with another docker and an engineering worker. The three of us drove into Heathrow absolutely contemptuous of all the security guards, drove up to Terminal One, demanded to see their convenor, and two hours later there were no flights from Heathrow.”

The pressure forced the TUC to move and to call a one-day general strike. The TUC leaders knew that behind the scenes the government had decided to throw in the towel.

The judges literally invented a law to set the dockers free. It was a major victory for workers, and a decisive defeat for the Tory government and its anti-union laws.

But it not just in the 1970s that workers beat the law. Workers at oil refineries and power stations struck illegally and won last year, and Shell tanker drivers took illegal action and won big pay rises in 2008.

The law will be beaten not by legal argument but by militant defiance.

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Tue 25 May 2010, 18:07 BST
Issue No. 2203
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