Bernie Steer, one of the Pentonville Five, on their release Bernie Steer, one of the Pentonville Five, on their release. Photo: TUC Library Collections

Fifty years on we need to look back at the greatest working class victory since the end of World War Two – the mass strikes that defeated a Tory government, writes John Westmoreland

1972 was a remarkable year for the working class. Workers fought back against a vicious Tory government out to shackle the trade unions and impose wage cuts. 1972 saw more days lost to strikes than at any time since 1919.

The strikes were political, led by rank-and-file workers and they won!

When five London dockers jailed by the government’s National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) for illegal picketing were released from Pentonville Prison it felt as if revolution was in the air.

Thousands of workers had come out in solidarity, ignoring the pleas of the trade union bureaucracy and Labour leaders. They responded to the call from dockers that said: Five trade unionists are inside. Why aren’t you out?

Trade union power

In the 1960s, Britain had the best organised working class in the world with 11,000,000 trade union members and 250,000 shop stewards. The post-war boom had created a labour shortage. Workers weren’t afraid of becoming unemployed as there was always another job available.

This gave the trade unions enormous power. Workers not happy with their pay could walk out on strike and get the rise they demanded. Workers didn’t have to wait for a Labour government to bring in reforms. Trade union power equated to what we might call ‘do it yourself reformism’.

In fact the Labour Party was held in contempt by most trade union activists after the 1964-70 Labour government advocated wage controls and set out to limit trade union power through their ‘In Place of Strife’ policy. Trade union members had forced the TUC to reject Labour’s treachery.

The irrelevance of Labour led to the election of the Tories under Edward Heath. Heath had stood on a manifesto of curbing trade union power.

The Tories brought in the Industrial Relations Act backed up by the NIRC. The legislation proscribed ‘blacking’ goods that had been handled by scab labour. This was designed to prevent any solidarity action between different sections of the working class, and this was to put them on a collision course with the dockers.

Dockers in the dock

In early 1972 the miners had defeated the Tories in a strike that was rock solid in the pits, but had won through the solidarity action of workers in power stations and transport among others. The Tories had been forced to concede defeat after miners picketing Saltley Coke Depot in the Midlands were joined by some 15,000 Birmingham engineers.

The success of ‘do it yourself reformism’ in the 60s was turning into a general expression of working-class confidence and determination characterised by the mass strike.

The media portrayed striking workers as selfish militants who were prepared to hold the country to ransom. But the older generation of workers remembered the horrors of the 1930s, and as the post-war boom started to peter out they understood that the bosses wanted to take back all their hard-earned gains.

For the dockers, whose work was hard and dangerous, there was no going back to the nightmare of a casual labour force that could be hired and fired at will. The dockers had gained control over their terms and conditions through the National Dock Labour Scheme (NDLS) that supplied individual shipping companies with dock labour. This gave dockers job security and a decent wage.

The shipping companies saw containerisation as an opportunity to take the loading and unloading of goods out of the dockers hands. Container depots were therefore picketed with a view to recruit the workers into the union and defend wages and conditions, and also to find out which companies were using them. These companies could then be ‘blacked’ at the docks.

Chobham Farm, just five miles from the Royal Group of Docks in East London was where the Tories first threatened picketing dockers with arrest, but backed down. The focus then turned to another outfit – Midland Cold Store.

Midland Cold Store was owned by Lord Vestey, a friend of the Queen. Vestey was an international trading giant of the times, trading largely in meat. Vestey’s set out to smash the dockers and used private detectives to follow individual pickets back to their homes.

The Tories had been forced to withdraw a fine of £55,000 imposed by the NIRC against the union after strikes by dockers in Liverpool and Hull had led to national industrial action. Now the tactic shifted to the victimisation of individual militants.

On Friday 21 July, while their union leaders were in talks with the government, five rank-and-file militants – Tony Merrick, Conny Clancy, Derek Watkins, Vic Turner and Bernie Steer - were arrested and carted off to Pentonville prison. The legend of the Pentonville Five was born.

Rank-and-file leadership

The mass action which was to lead to the freeing of the Pentonville Five was only possible because of rank-and-file leadership. This meant that the dominant political currents in the Labour movement had to be bypassed.

The Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy openly opposed strikes.

Reg Prentice, Labour’s Shadow Employment Minister, who was sponsored by the Dockers’ union, the TGWU, came out against the dockers:

“They are absolutely wrong to organise the picketing and blacking and 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”.

Vic Feather, the leader of the TUC, was outraged that working-class people should act on their own initiative and to all intents and purposes supported the Tories.

The dominant force on the left was the Communist Party who sought an alliance with left officials in the unions, including the TGWU leader Jack Jones, whose whole career was characterised by left-wing rhetoric that disguised his bureaucratic conservativism.

He wanted to lead action in order to control it.

Thankfully some younger dockers had formed links with the Trotskyist left who understood the dangers of letting the left officials run the show. The International Socialists had recruited a few dockers, and when the dockers needed to get their message across to other workers they gave them full use of their print shop.

The result was thousands of leaflets and posters which simply said:

Five trade unionists are inside. Why aren’t you out?

The dockers went to Fleet Street, into factories and onto building sites and demanded to meet the shop stewards, and then demanded that the workers come out. Bus routes and tube lines were plastered with posters so that every worker knew what was happening.

The centre of operations was not the offices of the union, it was on the street outside Pentonville prison. Hundreds of dockers chanted and sang to give their imprisoned comrades hope and support. The atmosphere was like a carnival and yet it was the centre from which all operations were directed.

It is worth noting that around the country rank-and-file activists were also bringing out workers. 3,000 engineers came out in Sheffield. 300 trade union delegates met in Hull to bring workers out. It is estimated that some 90,000 workers took part in industrial action in defence of the dockers.

The support of Fleet Street printers shut down the bosses’ lie factory. Vestey and the Tories felt the ground shifting and the only question was how to surrender gracefully.

The Tories capitulated after five days, and as the momentum of the action was gathering pace. They dug out someone called the Official Solicitor who discovered that the dockers had been wrongly imprisoned, and everyone headed down Caledonian Road to Pentonville.

The freeing of the Pentonville Five on 26 July was met with a wild celebration. The left had every reason to be optimistic that revolutionary change was possible. After all, the dockers had engaged with thousands of workers in a strike against the government and the state. The reactionaries within the labour movement had failed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and the revolutionary left had shown their worth.

But as fantastic as that summer of 1972 was it was still only a victory around one section of the class. Although the dockers and miners had smashed the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act the state and the forces of reaction within the labour movement were left intact, and this would roll back the gains workers had made. The working class as a whole was not ready to face the next stage of the struggle.

From hope to despair

By the end of the decade the unthinkable happened. Margaret Thatcher, the darling of the Tory right, was in Downing Street. Neoliberalism was embraced and descent from the heady days of 1972 was underway.

The trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party paved the way for Thatcher’s victory.

The TUC needed to take back control from the rank and file. In the days following the release of the Pentonville dockers they called a general strike. They jumped on the bandwagon of the prevailing militancy in order to take back control and apply the brakes.

In every dispute throughout the 1970s the TUC, including the left officials like Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, did everything they could to contain the action and prevent the emergence of an independent rank-and-file leadership.

The exception was the National Union of Mineworkers, whose rank and file would make a heroic stand against Thatcher in the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.

The Labour government of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan were determined to deliver for the bosses. Callaghan was the first Prime Minister to embrace neoliberalism telling the unions that his government would not ‘spend its way out of the crisis’. The opinion of the IMF was to have more influence over Labour policy than the TUC.

The disaster about to unfold was captured by the Sunday Mirror. Callaghan ushered in Thatcher.


Lessons for today

The resurgence of trade unionism over the last twelve months has seen workers calling for strike action in the face of draconian anti-trade union legislation across different sectors.

The cost of living crisis means workers have no choice but to take action in defence of their living conditions. The success of these strikes will depend on the extent to which workers become aware of their common grievances and collective power – the extent to which workers become conscious of themselves as a class.

The ruling class understand the class struggle and our side has to match it.

The leadership of left officials, Mick Lynch in particular, has been a crucial factor in winning ballots for action and articulating the arguments against the Tories and the bosses they serve. They are currently the spearhead of working class action, and we defend them from the slurs and misrepresentation of the Tories.

But class consciousness goes beyond trade unionism and the necessary sectional organisation of workers. It has to be forged from the rank and file itself, from the fighting capacity of shop floor militants who understand the need to join up the struggles happening across different sectors. We are more effective when we come out in support of common aims and interests, and we are more likely to build on successes we win.

Successfully opposing the Industrial Relations Act in 1972 was achieved by many workers fighting for a working-class cause.

Ultimately, working-class consciousness goes beyond the immediate issues we are forced to fight over, and starts to tackle the core injustices that capitalism creates. The class conscious worker is by definition anti-racist, anti-imperialist and for a meaningful democratic solution to these ills.

The rank and file of 1972 were defeated because their momentum was broken by the reactionary forces within Labour. We have to keep the movement going, build it and develop it if we are to win.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

Tagged under: