Today’s working class movement faces an urgent task. In order to spur on the fightback to austerity, organisation and confidence must be rebuilt at a rank and file level. But 40 years ago, rank and file workers’ power in Britain was a reality impossible to ignore.
The 1972 Pentonville strikes show the heights that workers’ militancy can reach. When five dockers were imprisoned in Pentonville prison for picketing, unofficial solidarity walkouts quickly snowballed into mass strikes across Britain.
It was the largest industrial action since 1926—all organised through the rank and file in defiance of union leaders. Within five days, the dockers were released.
The mass strike was the high point of a two-year showdown between the Tories and workers on the question of the right to strike.
The Industrial Relations Act to restrict trade union rights was a flagship Tory policy in the 1970 election. It banned “blacking”—refusing to handle the work usually done by striking workers.
In 1972 the Act was put to the test against dockers. They were striking to defend jobs and conditions against bosses who used shipping containers to deskill the industry.
The new National Industrial Relations Court was first used against dockers in Liverpool. Then in Hull shop stewards and rank and file workers stood their ground and defied a ruling.
The court presented their TGWU union with a massive fine. And on Monday 12 June the court issued a restraining order against three dockers who had been blacking the Chobham Farm depot in Stratford, east London.
Marking a turning point in the Tories’ strategy, court president Sir John Donaldson quashed a £55,000 fine against the TGWU, but threatened the dockers themselves. “This is a threat to the rule of law,” he said.
Dockers in London, Liverpool and Hull met on Thursday 15 June and voted to strike until all proceedings were dropped. By the next morning there was national action on the docks.
“It was a historic Friday,” wrote Laurie Flynn in Socialist Worker. “Slowly the mass picket line swelled, with the three threatened dockers literally at its heart.”
Then suddenly the Official Solicitor appeared, went to the Court of Appeal and had the arrests halted. The dispute won a great victory. Workers struck against the legal establishment—and it blinked first.
The focus on the docks shifted to the Midland Cold Storage company. This firm posed as a small independent outfit. Socialist Worker exposed how the firm was owned by the Vestey Corporation, one of the world’s biggest meat companies.
Bosses went to the court and obtained an interim order against seven dockers, five of whom were soon to end up in London’s Pentonville jail.
On Friday 21 July, while their union leaders were in talks with the government, Tony Merrick, Conny Clancy and Derek Watkins were arrested while picketing. Bernie Steer was arrested in the night, and Vic Turner on Saturday morning.
When the Pentonville Five were arrested the International Socialists, forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, turned its print shop over to the dockers.
It distributed thousands of leaflets calling for a general strike to “Free the 5”. The dockers paralysed the major ports.
The bosses and their Tory allies thought they’d timed their move well to isolate the dockers. They gave the right wing press a lot to work with, stirring up counter-pickets to oppose blacking. But the counter-pickets soon suspended their action in solidarity with their jailed fellow workers.
Many workplaces were closed for the summer holidays, including most of the mines and the car industry. It wasn’t enough to stop the action spreading.
The first key battle was at the national newspapers on Fleet Street. The electricians struck that night. On Saturday 22 July it was the turn of the machine workers.
Dockers and print workers picketed intensely, marching from paper to paper with leaflets and megaphones to bring out their colleagues.
By Monday 24 July the London editions of the national press were shut down indefinitely. The action then spread around the country.
On the same day, construction sites in Hartlepool were shut down. Union steward Tommy Smith said, “It’s not a matter of how long we can stay out. It’s a question of how long Heath can stay in.”
Miners walked out in Midlothian, as did Inland Revenue workers in Bootle. All the major engineering firms struck in Sheffield, where 3,000 workers marched to demand the TUC call official action.
And workers at the markets that then brought in almost all of London’s food supply had walked out on Sunday 23 July. The streets emptied as bus and lorry drivers joined the strike.
A demonstration of up to 30,000 workers assembled at London’s Tower Hill on Tuesday 25 July. They marched on Pentonville prison.
But where were the official union leaders? TUC general secretary Vic Feather had complained that jailing pickets “solves nothing”.
Dockers’ union leader Jack Jones called it an example of “industrial difficulties being made worse”. Neither would call any kind of action. But it continued to spread without them.
They “reluctantly” pulled out of talks with prime minister Ted Heath. After a heated debate on Wednesday, the TUC General Council voted to call a one-day general strike for the following Monday, 31 July.
If they hoped this would bring the dispute back under their control, they were too late. The Tories were already running for cover.
Once again the Official Solicitor was wheeled out to provide official cover, and at 5.15pm the court gave the order to free the five. From then on, both the Industrial Relations Act and the Tory government were lame ducks.
Both fell in 1974 when Heath, this time faced with a miners’ strike, called an election to decide “Who governs Britain?”—the government or the workers. The government lost. It was more than a decade before the ruling class came back for a second attempt.
Ordinary workers had humiliated the bosses, the Tories and the courts. In the process, workers gained an awareness of their own power that would shape the struggles of the rest of the 1970s. Forty years later, we need to do it again.
One of the jailed dockers, Vic Turner, still remembers listening to pickets singing outside his prison cell.
“The other prisoners used to tell us, get your mates out there to be quiet,” he told Socialist Worker. “And when they stopped and the prisoners said no-one’s singing for you now, I said it didn’t matter—just you wait. Once the weekend’s over they’ll be organising on Monday and on Tuesday they’ll be here. And they were.”
Fellow docker Kevin Hussey was on the Tuesday demonstration. “I had only been a steward for two months,” he said. “We were supposed to go to lobby parliament. I can’t think of a better way of wasting a day. We had the debate and went to Pentonville prison instead.
“The Tories and the employers thought they had been really clever. But we kept on picketing. They couldn’t lock up thousands and thousands of us. And that’s it for me—if enough people defy the law then what can they do?”
London docker Bob Light was a member of the International Socialists, forerunner of today’s SWP. He spoke at more than 50 meetings over the five days to spread the action. “We’d put the case very simply and very abruptly,” he said.
“Not pleading or asking but saying that our class is under attack and we have to do something. The picket outside the prison was like an organising hub. All the main initiatives came out of there.”
Jimmy Nolan, a Communist Party member on the Liverpool docks said, “Workers didn’t wait for the officials, they just came out. We head a mass meeting at the pier head, and workers from all the other factories came along—without us even having approached them.”
Eddie Prevost was another docker in the International Socialists. He said, “I knew we’d beat them when we were postering down Oxford Street, and two coppers asked us to stop.
“They said, ‘Oh no lads, don’t do that, can’t you go somewhere else?’ Clearly they’d had the order not to arrest any more dockers!”
Bob remembers the role of Socialist Worker in the dispute. “There were a lot of militants around the Communist Party who didn’t want to break with the left wing of the union bureaucracy,” he said.
“If we’d done it at their pace the five would still be in prison. But in the dispute a new generation of militants, particularly Socialist Worker readers, took the lead.”
Vic Turner added, “Sometimes it feels like it’s harder for people to make a difference today. But I think their time will come. Employers don’t change. The time will come that will bring back that atmosphere of the 70s.”
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