40 years since
two personal views of how the dockers defeated the
PENTONVILLE 5 AND THE DOCK STRIKE OF 1972
CAN LEARN TODAY ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF THAT MOMENTOUS STRUGGLE 40
40 Years ago in the summer
of 1972 new technology had revolutionised dock handling and
‘containerisation’ was in place. The consequence of this
development meant that there would be loss of work for many
dockers who were all in the TGWU. 1972 was a period of great
class battles, involving not just the dockers but building
workers and miners. 1972 was to lead to the victorious miners’
strike of 1974, the defeat of the Heath Tory government and the
election of a Labour government under Harold Wilson.
In the summer of 1972 the
Heath government had set up the National Industrial Relations
Court (NIRC) which was to be used by the Tories to attack the
Trade Unions and the Labour Movement. Its laws on picketing,
particularly secondary picketing, was used to criminalise a
whole section of workers who were trying to defend their jobs
and livelihood. Their basic democratic rights were being
infringed and it was the start of the Capitalist state’s use of
anti-union laws to restrict workers’ right to strike (withdraw
labour). It was to lead to a major confrontation between the
working class and the Capitalist state.
The NIRC, which the TUC and
its affiliate trade unions had refused to recognise, prohibited
picketing at two East London container depots. The picketing
continued and 5 dockers, all Shop Stewards with the TGWU (Bernie
Steer, Vic Turner, Derek Watkins, Cornelius Clancy and Anthony
Merrick) were committed for contempt and imprisoned. Bernie
Steer and Vic Turner were both members of the Communist Party
and the Communist Party had successfully set up a rank and file
body “The Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions”
to campaign and mobilise workers in opposition to the NIRC.
Because the TUC and other
Trade Unions had refused to recognise the NIRC, the TGWU refused
to attend the court hearing and was fined £5,000 for contempt.
The court was to find the TGWU a further £50,000 and a total
sequestration of the unions income “despite the wobbling of the
leadership, the dock stewards remained defiant and refused to
lift the boycott of the haulage company Heaton’s” (3).
The result of the jailing of
the 5 dockers was that thousands of workers in the docks,
printing and other trades struck, and a one day general strike
was called on 31st July. Haulage bosses at Chobhams
and Midland Cold storage sought other injunctions and court
Meanwhile Jack Jones General
Secretary of the TGWU, rather than call his membership out on
indefinite strike, took the issue to the TUC. In the meantime
44,000 dockers, 130,000 other workers had downed tools in
protest. Dockers in London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea,
Glasgow, Bristol, Felixstowe, Leith, Chatham, Ipswich,
Middlesbrough and even Kings Lynn stopped work in solidarity
with the 5 dockers imprisoned by the Tories. The TUC General
Council voted 18-7 to have a one day general strike. Vic Feather
was the TUC General Secretary.
Before the one day strike
took place the Tories and the Capitalist state caved in and had
the 5 dockers released on the 26th July. Norman
Turner (Official Solicitor) was used to free the 5 dockers
having never been used before. He successfully applied to the
High Court to overturn the NIRC position to have the dockers
imprisoned “NIRC had insufficient grounds to deprive them of
their liberty, evidence of private investigators was
Sir John Donaldson a Tory
judge appointed by Robert Carr, the Home Secretary, had wanted
to get rid of the dock labour scheme, but it was the magnificent
response of the working class that freed the 5 dockers. When it
came to the crunch the Tories were defeated and ensuing Labour
governments repealed this legislation. The Official Solicitor
was used to get the Tories off the hook. It would be Thatcher
and Blair who would use the anti-union laws to shackle the trade
In today’s period there has
been the same movement of the working class, but a complete
distrust of the Labour party and its support for austerity
measures means the working class will have to seek out new
perspectives to overthrow and change capitalism through a
scientific socialist method. There have been, in the recent
period many one day strikes and protests, in Britain, Greece,
Spain, Portugal and the United States. Unlike the dock strike of
1972 no government has changed and capitalism still remains. It
is open to question whether “one day 24 hour general strikes”
are the answer. In 1972 Workers downed tools and there was a
complete change .The question of who rules was posed. The state
was unable to rule and had to use other means (Official
Solicitors etc) to solve its dilemma. That is not the situation
To overturn the property
relations of capitalism will require besides one day strikes,
picketing where necessary, and abolition of all anti-union laws.
We will have to continually recruit a mass of people to
advocate, redraft measures to enable the historic role of the
working class working in the trade unions to overturn the
property relations of Capitalism.
Marxist Internet Archive
SEWELL R; IN THE CAUSE OF LABOUR WELLRED
dockers face down the Tory government
came within inches of a general strike”
“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 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
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
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 TGWU, was on
the front line against NIRC and its members’ actions brought the
The 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
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.
With the national unofficial
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
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
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
The Chobham Farm drivers and
warehousemen - also in 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
Militant (the Socialist’s
predecessor) at the time 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.
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. On the Friday the stewards joined the
mass picket at Chobham Farm to await the court official who was
to make the arrests. But no arrests took place.
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
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 Donaldson issued
warrants for the arrest of five dockers for contempt of court.
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.
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
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.
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
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 40