The Pentonville case was a high water mark during a period of stunningly effective working-class militancy against the attacks of the 1970-74 Tory government – a period it is worth learning from as we face renewed class war by a Tory-led administration.
Between 1970 and 1974 there were two national miners’ strikes and two national dockers’ strikes. The nation’s postal workers and construction workers also went on strike. Council-house tenants launched a wave of rent-strikes and there was even an abortive general strike.
This took place in the context of the Tory plan to diminish the value of workers’ incomes through the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, which met its biggest test during the Pentonville case. In the words of then Communist Party trade union organiser Bert Ramelson, after Pentonville the Act simply became “inoperable.”
The dockers’ strikes led to the Ted Heath government imposing states of emergency. A measure of how sensitive they were lies in the revelation from Cabinet papers that Heath received regular reports from secret agents and had phones tapped and bugged.
Meetings between dockers’ shop stewards and leading Communist Party officials were detailed for him – as were internal discussions about the editorial line of the Morning Star.
It later emerged that a leading London docker, who later became the chair of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), was an MI5 informant.
The key battle for dockers was over “containerisation,” the move towards shipping goods in large standard-sized steel containers.
Only 15 men handled a container ship, compared with the 150 required by a conventional vessel. Job numbers were dropping drastically.
Dockers weren’t fighting containerisation itself, but campaigned for a designated zone around registered docks where container-handling would be done by organised labour.
In Merseyside a joint committee of TGWU dockers and lorry drivers obtained agreements from March 20 1972 with 35 transport firms.
But one firm, Heaton’s, which moved containers to inland depots to “stuff and strip” them at half the usual cost, went to the special court set up by the Act – the National Industrial Relations Court – for an injunction against picketing.
In London, action focused on a ramshackle container depot in Stratford less than two miles from the London docks – the now defunct London International Freight Terminal on the site of what today is the Olympic park.
In July 1972, five shop stewards were imprisoned in Pentonville Prison for criminal contempt of court. The case was recorded as Midland Cold Storage (MCS) Ltd v Turner and Others.
MCS was owned by Lord Vestey, the head of a massive meat shipping company. It was said that the Vesteys did not just live off the interest on their invested capital, but on the interest on the interest.
MCS had sought an injunction to end picketing. A private detective agency, Euro-Tec, was asked by Special Branch to establish the names of the rank-and-file leaders.
One Euro-Tec agent later revealed that thousands of shop stewards and union officials, their families and friends were regularly monitored by the agency on behalf of MI5.
The five who were arrested and imprisoned on Friday July 21 1972 were Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Derek Watkins. Turner and Steer were both prominent Communist Party members and Steer was also lay secretary of the unofficial national ports shop stewards committee.
The day the men were sent to prison 35,000 dockers walked out on strike. That weekend saw a massive mobilisation across the country, with phone lines ringing red hot in preparation for a total stoppage in all ports.
By the time the dockers were released on the Wednesday at least 250,000 workers had taken unofficial strike action.
Newspapers and public transport were almost totally shut down. Some coalmines came out. Customs, immigration and social security offices were severely affected.
There was almost no milk available that week – it was then almost exclusively delivered by drivers organised by the TGWU.
It was this tremendous pressure which led the Official Solicitor – then as now a fairly unknown part of the state judicial system – to apply to the Appeal Court, which ordered their release.
But the House of Lords immediately backed a counter-appeal from the haulage companies. This prompted the TUC general council to call a one-day general strike for Monday July 31 unless the five were set free.
The general strike didn’t happen because the Official Solicitor succeeded in having them released. But a number of unions, including the National Graphical Association, held one-day protest strikes anyway.
The Cabinet was informed that the proposed general strike was “bound up with tactics to secure the acceptance, by the dockers’ delegate conference taking place that day, of the recommendations in the interim report of the joint special committee on the future of the dock industry.”
That was a problem, since the emphasis of the Aldington-Jones report was on improved severance – mainly for unfit and older dockers – coupled with some temporary work-sharing, which many saw as the thin end of the wedge.
Thus, when a delegate threw open the doors and shouted out to hundreds of waiting dockers: “It’s a national strike!” a massive roar shook the streets around Transport House.
Bernie Steer was lifted onto shoulders and paraded around to chants of “Heath Out!”
Thousands of dockers appeared from nowhere to march in an orderly fashion to Tower Hill for a rally.
As Tony Merrick roared: “We were asleep for five years while they took jobs away from us. Even now, the victory has not been won.”
From July 28 42,000 registered dockers began the quietest and most solid, successful dock strike ever.
The settlement after three weeks of strike action saw major improvements in conditions and also staved off deregulation for 15 years.
Eventually the Containerbase Federation Ltd made an agreement with the TGWU road transport (commercial) trade group, preferring a devil they could do business with. It opened our roads to a world of box containers.
Shaken by Pentonville, the nation’s capitalist newspapers set to work to portray the Communist Party as the source of the problems in British industry. The News of the World launched a major campaign against Ramelson.
The national dock labour scheme was abolished in 1989. Since then the union has fought back to regain a key role, but much casual work still abounds in Britain’s ports.
- This article is adapted from extracts from The Pentonville Five: Dockers in Action, Solidarity and the Anti-Union laws, available from the Communist Party history group for ¬£1.50.