How workers' action freed the Pentonville Five

Submitted by AWL on 11 January, 2013 - 12:13

It is July 1972. With the union leaders safely in talks with [Tory Prime Minister] Heath and knuckling under to his Industrial Relations Act (IRA), the Tories now went for the real union power on the docks: the rank and file.

They were going to make an example of five dockers from east London to cauterise resistance to the long-term running down of the docks, to stop the unofficial blacking [refusal to unload] of lorries and picketing at the container depots that were taking the dockers' work, and, most importantly, to complete the enforcement of the IRA and finally succeed in beating down the unions.

The Tories had chosen their moment carefully - annual holiday time in large parts of industry. Weeks of righteous press outrage about dockers disrupting good, honest work at the container depots prepared the ground.

Sir John Donaldson, judge of the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC), ordered the arrest of the five dockers on Friday 25 July. Derek Watkins, Cornelius Clancy and Anthony Merrick were arrested on the picket lines at Midland Cold Storage in London, the firm that had taken them to the NIRC. Bernie Steer was arrested later that day. They were taken to Pentonville Prison in north London.

By the time Vic Turner was arrested the next day on the mass picket at Pentonville, the majority of Britain's 42,000 dockers were on strike — and the incredible strike wave that was to see everyone from car industry workers to miners to airport workers and bus drivers come out had begun. The picket at Pentonville started as soon as the first arrested dockers arrived and continued until they were freed. Thousands of dockers were there day and night, joined by printers, building workers and even South Wales miners.

This incredible level of action - even given the numerous annual holidays that had, as the Tories planned, limited the potential for solidarity action — took just six days to free the Pentonville Five. The Tories dressed their action up in legal niceties as they freed the Five on Wednesday 26th, but mass, direct working-class action had (for the second time in 1972, following the Saltley Gates victory in February) brought the government to its knees.

There had been a long build-up to this so-called “July Crisis”. On 8 April the NIRC fined the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) £5,000 over the blacking of lorries at Heatons in Liverpool.(Heatons were joined in their action against the pickets and the T&G by Bishops Wharf in Liverpool, and later Craddocks). The T&G did not pay. On 20 April the NIRC fined them a further £55,000, and said that if the fines were not paid by 4 May they would issue a writ of sequestration. The T&G did not attend either hearing.

The Tories were pressuring the union leaders to reign in the rank and file by hitting what they held most dear — the union treasuries. It worked on the bureaucrats, who announced on 24 April that they would pay the fine (thus recognising the NIRC and the IRA, setting a precedent for the state to interfere in union affairs any time they fancied), but not on the rank and file. At mass meetings on 27 April dockers in London voted to black two named container firms using unregistered labour. The same day similar decisions were taken in Tilbury, Hull, and Manchester. 1 May saw a docks strike in Liverpool, Southampton and Preston. Another Liverpool docks strike on 7 May won a 35-hour week at the new Seaforth Terminal.

The 4 May Docks Delegate Conference voted to give 28 days' notice of strike (for improved pay and conditions and an agreement on containers being handled by registered dock labour). To make doubly sure the union leaders couldn't back down the National Port Shop Stewards Committee called a strike for 14 June, the day the Docks Delegate Conference reconvened. 30,000 dockers struck. Meanwhile, the Delegate Conference voted to postpone a strike for six weeks in light of further negotiations (the Jones-Aldington Committee first met on 6 June), on the advice of the "leadership."

The same day — following a complaint lodged by depot workers at Chobham Farm container depot in Stratford, east London, on 8 June — the NIRC ordered the arrest of the three dockers who had refused to turn up to their hearing on the 12th — Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Alan Williams - unless they attended the court the next day or lodged an appeal by 2pm on the 16th. (They did neither.) The previous day, 13 June, the Court of Appeal had amazingly overturned the £55,000 fines on the T&G, saying it was not responsible for the actions of its stewards.

All focus was on the three threatened dockers: mass meetings discussed that, rather than the calling off of the strike or the lifting of the fines. The picketing continued, and the arrests never took place. On the 16th (the day of the proposed arrests) dockers came out in support of the three in London, Liver- pool, Hull, Southampton, Tilbury, Cardiff, Newport, Manchester, Bristol, Barry and Preston. Workers at BMLH Longbridge car factory came out, too.

At Chobham Farm several thousand dockers awaited the arrival of the Tip- staff, the official who would make the arrest. But the Tipstaff never came. Instead, a hitherto unheard of state minion, the Official Solicitor, made his way — allegedly under his own steam — down to the Appeal Court to persuade them, in the name of all that is just and fair, that there was insufficient evidence against the three dockers. The arrests were over-ruled. The state had backed down.

By the 21st the bosses at Chobham Farm, having met NIRC officials in private, realised they had no room for manoeuvre and made a settlement with the dockers. It was an incredible victory. From 10 July the containers were to be handled by registered dockers. The pre- sent unregistered workers were to be found work elsewhere in the company, highlighting that the dockers' fight was with management, not other workers. The dockers even won a pay rise for the workers at the depot that took them to the NIRC!

The state tried again. Seven dockers were summoned to appear before the NIRC on 5 July because of a case put by Midland Cold Storage — a small container firm which was part of one of the huge shipping empires — against the pickets. They refused, and on 7 July the court issued a temporary order restraining the seven from blacking or encouraging blacking of lorries leaving or entering Midland's depot. The seven — carefully chosen after surveillance by private detectives, including pickets being photographed and tape recorded, and having wives and children "interviewed" by a detective pretending to be a journalist — ignored the orders.

After unsuccessfully trying to take a similar action in the High Court, Midlands went again to the NIRC on 20 July. Meanwhile, with the TUC and the employers in talks, lorry drivers — at the very least encouraged by management, and according to some reports actually paid to do it — began to picket the dockers' picket at Midlands, later extending the picketing to the docks themselves.

On 21 July Donaldson ordered the arrests. The immediate solidarity that had sprung up with the threat at Chobham Farm was reborn on a far, far greater scale. The lorry drivers who had been picketing the docks immediately ended their action, in solidarity with the jailed trade unionists. Dockers in Liverpool who were already out in a local dispute gave their support; Hull dockers came out immediately. By the evening 26,000 dockers were out. Fleet Street electricians moved, though Saturday's papers were still printed.

A large Saturday demonstration against redundancies in the print industry turned to Pentonville. The Manchester dockers voted to not even discuss going hack until the Five were freed. NATSOPA print-stop workers in Fleet Street came out, stopping the next day's papers.

On the Sunday the dockers picketed all the newspapers, using leaflets and a loudspeaker system to make sure every- one heard their case. The SOGAT van drivers responded and the papers were shut down. Now the bosses couldn't spread lies about the strikes or the dockers. The main London food markets were shut after solidarity action, too.

On Monday 24th ports that had never known an all-out strike were shut. The Fleet Street electricians voted to strike until the Five were released, shut- ting the presses indefinitely. The Scottish and northern editions of the papers were closed down, too. There was a half-day strike at Oldham's largest factory, Platt International. London lorry drivers and warehouse workers came out, as did Aberdeen, Fleetwood and Grimsby fish- workers and trawler crew - plus the Welsh and Scottish miners not on holiday, engineering workers, municipal  workers in Tower Hamlets... and so the list went on. The Yorkshire District NUM  announced action for later in the week: three Yorkshire pits came out immediately anyway.

The 300 building workers who came out in Irving, Ayrshire, telegrammed T&G leader Jack Jones demanding a General Strike. Jones, however, did not even mention the Pentonville Five as he launched the rushed-out Jones-Aldington plan at a press conference. Meanwhile, the TUC leaders went to Downing Street for what proved to be an extremely short meeting with Ted Heath. They asked him to free the Five and put the Act "on ice." He refused. 

Tuesday's scheduled TUC-CBI-Tory talks on the economy were called off, and the leading inner committees of the TUC began to face up to the need for them to call action at Wednesday's General Council before the spiralling movement slipped totally out of their control. As Tuesday's 30,000-strong demonstration in support of the Pentonville Five passed the huge construction site at Mondial House, building workers walked off the job to join the march as it headed up to surround the prison. The Chiswick bus depot came out, ink factory workers, steel workers in their thousands, BAC at Bournemouth, 1,500 Bass brewery workers... Even the workers at Midland Cold Storage itself came out. Union districts and other bodies started to make plans for mass stoppages later in the week and the following week.

As the movement grew ever more rapidly no-one could even guess how many workers were now on strike. The government claimed a ridiculously low 62,000 excluding dockers, but the Western Mail estimated 100,000 in Wales alone. The newly famous — the newly heard-of-at-all, in fact — Official Solicitor was dusted down again to announce that he intended to apply for the release of the Five.

The TUC General Council met on Wednesday 26 July. It took them a full six days to take any action - other than mild condemnation of the government from Vic Feather: "Putting people in prison like this serves nothing... The damage that the Industrial Relations Act is doing to industrial relations and to the nation is now clear to everybody... The Act must be suspended. [!]" But the TUC leaders knew that they had to call some action or lose all credibility. Yet, an all-out, open-ended General Strike would very soon have been out of their control. More scared of the rank and file than of the government — which they could no longer talk to — they called a one-day General Strike for the following Monday. The motion was moved by AUEW head Hugh Scanlon, his first and only known move since the "crisis" began.

Meanwhile, 20,000 London bus workers came out, as did the ground staff at London Airport. All the major factories in Sheffield were on strike; 4,000 joined a demonstration through the town. Workers in local television came out, 10,000 lorry drivers on Merseyside (including at Heatons, the firm that had gone to the NIRC in April), Lambeth refuse workers, Rolls-Royce Small Engine Division at Leavesden, Cammell Lairds and Fiddlers Ferry power stations, Merseyside, Stourton container depot...

The NIRC, having, they said, weighed up all sides of the argument in a balanced and measured fashion in the finest traditions of British justice, argued that the Jones-Aldington report and the House of Lords decision of that day to reimpose the £55,000 fine on the T&G for the Heatons case (thus putting the pressure back on the trade union leaders to defuse the crisis), had clearly changed the situation as regards the five dockers. They could now go free. The state had backed down again: all the legal manoeuvring was just face-saving.

In reality, a huge, semi-spontaneous mass working class movement had succeeded in freeing the Pentonville Five, and in exposing the arbitrary class nature of the law. While that movement was not harnessed into a General Strike that smashed the Industrial Relations Act once and for all, as was possible and even necessary, it was a truly incredible victory. The July Crisis was the British working class's highest point 
of militancy since 1926, which it remains to this day. As we look forward now to a labour movement revival we should both celebrate July '72, and learn the lessons of its potential and the failures of the left to seize that potential.


Eyewitness at Pentonville

By Jackie Cleary

Pentonville jail, where the five dockers were imprisoned, is bordered on the Caledonian Road by high, white walls. Every day during the time the five were held there, vast crowds of trade unionists thronged up and down the road outside the prison walls.

Some militants would stay there overnight, operating a shift system. Meetings were held in the side streets. Leftists moved about continually, selling papers. A street theatre group performed for the crowds.

If the Revolution is, as someone said a 'carnival of the oppressed', then this looked remarkably like the Revolution! And on one level it was. It was a tremendous outbreak of working-class revolt, stark refusal to accept that the government, or parliament, or any other power on earth, had the right to jail trade unionists for acting as trade unionists.

It shook up British society. The TUC felt obliged to call a one-day General Strike. The government caved in. We won.

The political limitations of the movement were plain even at this glorious demonstration of working-class militancy, though. Bernadette Devlin,a left-wing socialist MP from Northern Ireland, turned up to show her solidarity with the trade unionists. She was soon surrounded by a very large group of dockers and others, who associated her with the Irish Republican Army. At least two of the loudest and most hostile of them I saw there every day during the Siege of Pentonville. Devlin had to be escorted away.

But Ireland was an especially difficult and complex question. On the immediate issue, freeing the five jailed trade unionists, we won a great victory. When they came out of the gate, the five dockers were lifted shoulder high and carried to a side street through a great sea of cheering, joyful, and triumphant people. The crowd with approval as each of the five said his piece from an impromptu platform on the back of a lorry.

That was a great day for the working-class movement.


Background on the docks

The cause of the docks dispute was containerisation and its attendant attacks on dockers' jobs and hard- won concessions of the post-war period.

In the seven years up to 1972 the number of dockers had been reduced from 65,000 to 42,000 — with 1,000 of those in the "unattached pool" on a minimum retainer but not working, a figure set to grow rapidly. Some estimates suggested a massive 90% further reduction in numbers before the end of the decade.

The dockers' hard and bitter post- war struggles had won job security and (relatively) decent wages. They had gone from literally having to fight each other for a day's work to union-employer regulated, guaranteed work to registered dockers, under the National Dock Labour Scheme set up in 1947. The consolidation of the unions (helped by full employment) drove up wages.

It was still a long, hard and extremely dangerous job — the dockers handled chemical cargoes without protection, for example, and drivers of the cranes that loaded and unloaded barges could not see into the barges, relying on a system of hand signal directions to make sure they didn't crush anyone. There were a lot of accidents, and the docks destroyed the health of most of the men who worked on them. But the dockers had won real concessions.

Containers — increasingly brought in through the '60s — could be handled on average in a tenth of the time of non- packaged cargoes, being simply rolled on and off the ships. By moving over to containers the bosses could close docks, sell off the land for very large amounts of money and move to the inland ports not covered by the NDLS, using fewer people all on much less than registered dockers rates of pay. Simultaneously, they could undermine the NDLS and the unions, driving down wages and costs and driving up profits.

Rank-and-file militancy was high throughout, but the T&G leadership did not put up a fight. They collaborated with Labour's attempts to "rationalise" the docks (the Devlin Commission, set up in 1965). At the height of the struggle in 1972 TAG leader Jack Jones was busy conceding the absolutely key issue of registration of all dockers as part of the Jones-Lord Aldington Report. He even allowed the report to be rushed out by the government in an attempt to dampen down the July Crisis. Ironically, the press launch was unable to make much of a splash, rank and file T&G members having picketed out the newspapers!


What was the Industrial Relations Act?

The Industrial Relations Act was the first all-encompassing legislative attempt by the British ruling class to comprehensively shackle the trade unions.

British capitalism had been in decline since the turn of the century. Although temporarily buoyed up by the Second World War, new technology and markets, and cheap foreign labour, by the mid-60's the economy was (relatively speaking) in a bad way.
Britain's share of the world market had been declining rapidly. Growth lagged way behind Japan, the US and the rest of the developed world. Inflation and unemployment were growing.

To keep profits up and prices down the bosses, via the mid-60s Labour government, tried prices and incomes policies, i.e. squeezing wages. However, the strong shop stewards movement that had come out of the war and been consolidated through the 50s and 60s — strengthened by full employment — made a mockery of their efforts. "Independent of national union leaderships and untrammelled by legal controls," John McIlroy, The Permanent Revolution), the shop stewards remained the real wage legislators. Incomes policy failed.

So, the focus moved from trying to legislate incomes to reforming the trade union structures that made incomes policy unworkable. The Donovan Report of 1968 recommended avoiding restrictive legal legislation, instead integrating the shop stewards into workplace structures and making them part of the system — i.e. voluntary restraint rather than legal coercion.

Labour rejected the softly-softly approach and legislated to control strikes. 1969's In Place of Strife, defeated by a wave of unofficial strikes (in increasing numbers in the sector) against the measures a coalition of the TUC and Labour was a miserable failure. The bosses' economy continued to fall behind competitors.

Ted Heath and the Tories replaced Harold Wilson in 1970 — and at the end of that year came the Industrial Relations Bill. The IRB was an incredible and unprecedented (legally, that is) assault on trade union rights.

The March 1971 Labour Research said: "The severe restriction on the right to threaten, call, organise, procure, incite, induce, finance, aid or abet strike action is only one tentacle of the Industrial Relations Bill In addition there is the attempt to make agreements legally binding, the attack on closed shops, the prohibition of sympathy action, the encouragement of blacklegging and non-unionism, and the Provision that the final arbiter of the control and conduct of a trade union's affairs is to be a government- appointed court, and not the union's membership. Any one of these proposals would, if implemented, seriously weaken the movement. Taken together they represent a massive, all-embracing class attack which aims to destroy the movement as we know it today."

The Bill became law on August 5 1971. Under the Act unions had to register with a Trades Union Registrar with power to scrutinise and regulate their rules. If they refused, unions lost various financial benefits and tax immunities. The Act substantially ended the closed shop, and introduced emergency ballots and cooling-off periods for certain types of industrial action. It set up a new labour court, the National Industrial Relations Court, and made a number of "unfair industrial practices" into new civil offences — blacking, for example.

The aim of the Act was to cripple the unions at their grass-roots by making illegal the basic weapons of the rank and file — the closed shop, blacking, picketing and sympathy action. Instead, the rank and file, in a fantastic show of militancy, crippled the Act.

The Act was finally repealed by the 1974-9 Labour government.