Socialist Worker

When we broke the union laws

Thirty years ago this month workers in Britain won one of their finest ever victories. PAUL McGARR tells the story.

Issue No. 1807

A JUBILANT crowd carried five men shoulder high from London's Pentonville jail. 'Arise ye workers' read the banner at the centre of the celebrations. The date was 26 July 1972, and the words on the banner were no mere slogan. The 'Pentonville Five' were trade unionists -dockers -jailed five days earlier for deyfing 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 of the day. The strikers defied their union leaders and Labour Party leaders, who denounced the struggle. Derek Watkins, one of the five jailed dockers, spoke to Socialist Worker as he waited for police to take him to jail:

'It could be any five workers in any job in any industry anywhere in the country. If it wasn't us it would be someone else. Other workers will have to make up their minds what they are going to do about the imprisonment of trade unionists for the crime of being trade unionists.'

A Tory government had been elected in 1970. It and the employers were determined to restore the profits of British capitalism by taking on the working class.

THE ASSAULT took place on every front. Unemployment was rising. The government pushed through welfare cuts. It forced rents up, hitting workers hard at a time when most people rented rather than paid mortgages.

Government and employers wanted to hold pay down, which against a background of inflation meant cutting living standards. One big obstacle stood in the way of this offensive-workers and their unions. The Tories introduced new anti-union laws and a special new court with powers to fine unions.

The months before the clash over the Pentonville Five saw a series of sharp battles between the government and the working class. In early 1972 miners inflicted a decisive defeat on the Tories in a fight over pay. Rail workers also won an important victory, and the year saw some 200 factory occupations by engineering workers too.

But the movement still stood on a knife edge-would trade unionists buckle in the face of the government offensive? Dockers were thrown into battle over a massive threat to jobs. Employers wanted to cut costs, and jobs, by setting up inland depots to handle containers using non-dockers on much lower wages.

Dockers responded by picketing the depots, running straight into the Tory anti-union laws. Union leaders had policy saying they would defy the anti-union courts. But the threat of fines saw most quickly start to bend. Dockers' shop stewards, though, continued picketing. So the courts targeted rank and file workers. In June they threatened to jail three London docks shop stewards.

The day before the threatened jailing unofficial strikes hit most ports, pulling out some 35,000 dockers. Other workers moved to take solidarity action. The shop stewards committee in Birmingham's giant Longbridge car plant threatened a strike of all 25,000 workers.

The government panicked. An obscure legal official, the Official Solicitor, suddenly appeared, and the courts decided the three dockers should not be jailed. IT WAS only a postponement of battle. The decisive clash came a few weeks later over an inland depot in east London, Midland Cold Storage.

This firm posed as a small independent outfit. Socialist Worker journalist Laurie Flynn exposed how the firm was owned by the Vestey Corporation, one of the world's biggest meat companies. This time the courts and the government decided to take on the dockers. On Friday 21 July five London dockers- Tony Merrick, Conny Clancy, Derek Watkins, Vic Turner and Bernie Steer- were taken to Pentonville. Labour's shadow employment spokesperson, Reginald Prentice, made his attitude to the five clear:

'They are absolutely wrong to organise picketing and blacking which have not got the support of their union. They are even more wrong to defy the order of the court. I have no sympathy for them, and I don't think they deserve the support of other workers.'

Rank and file dockers took their case directly to other workers. At the centre of that initiative were left wing shop stewards and activists in the docks, and other industries. They included younger workers who were often not even shop stewards, but who were inspired by the militant struggles that were bursting out across the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Eddie Prevost, a dockers' activist, explained the response to the jailings: 'One of these stewards who read Socialist Worker said, 'Come on. We'll go and put a picket round the 'ville while they're in the nick.' We rushed down, put a picket round, and the picket became the nerve centre of the strike.'

Jack Jones, the left wing leader of the TGWU, refused to do anything to support the jailed five. Across the country 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.

The first approach by a few dockers' pickets met a cool response. The papers appeared the next day-a Saturday. It took the intervention of many more rank and file dockers arguing the case with print workers to win solidarity. John Mitchell, a print union rep on the Express, gave a flavour of the meetings held along Fleet Street:

'I convened a meeting, and this little lad got up and said, 'The way I see it these guys haven't done anything wrong. If they can do this to the dockers, who's next? So I move that while they're in we're out.' And out we went.'

On that Saturday some 2,000 print workers marched to join the dockers at the gates of Pentonville jail. Over the next days some 250,000 workers in all came out on strike at some point, and almost 100,000 were on all-out unofficial strike. On Tuesday 25 July thousands of engineering workers and transport workers in London, Sheffield, London and the west of Scotland struck for the day. Steel workers in Yorkshire, rail workers at London's Waterloo, and council workers in Tower Hamlets and Lambeth in London stopped for the day too. Bob Light, who was then a 22 year old docker, gave a flavour of how the strike spread:

'I turned up at the World's End massive 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 holiday flights from Heathrow.'

The pressure from below forced the TUC to finally move and to call a one-day general strike for the following Monday. The TUC leaders knew that behind the scenes the government had decided to throw in the towel. TGWU leader Jack Jones later admitted, 'We moved what you call a general strike in the knowledge that it wouldn't be necessary.'

The Law Lords invented a legal pretext 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. Workers in Britain had shown their immense power-a power that, if used, remains as great today.

Ross Pritchard edited the Printworker rank and file bulletin in 1972. He summed up the feeling outside Pentonville as the five dockers walked free: 'There was massive jubilation, and you felt it had proved something-that you could do anything you like. You could sense the power of the working class-you had seen it in action. Everybody suddenly realised that they had been involved in a quite historical thing. People began to think of how working class power can change things.'

'ON THE first night a couple of teams went to Fleet Street, boldly to stop the presses, and they failed. They organised to go back on the Saturday, but instead of a small group of shop stewards now rank and file dockers went to get into man to man arguments with printers.

We had a loudspeaker and went down Fleet Street, marching from paper to paper in a procession of shouting and leafleting and cheering and arguing. We had a magnificent leaflet. It had five bars with the names of the five imprisoned, with the legend underneath: 'Five Trade Unionists Are Inside-Why Aren't You Out?''
BOB LIGHT, east London docker

Glorious Summer by Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon tells the story of the Pentonville Five. It is available for £13.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. Phone 020 7637 1848.

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Article information

Sat 6 Jul 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1807
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