Sunday, 1 November 2009

Context of the times (No.2)

The Pentonville Five

Thirty-five years ago, towards the end of July 1972, five London dockers were rounded up from picket lines and from their homes by the police, arrested, and put into Pentonville Prison in North London. Their crime? Secondary picketing or trying to get support for their dispute at another workplace in defiance of a court order.

They had been identified, with the help of a private detective firm, as taking part in unlawful picketing of various storage depots in East London, illegal that is under the Tory anti-union legislation of the time. The main site in question was the Midland Cold Store.

Edward Heath’s government that took office in 1970 quickly came face to face with a growing mass movement after introducing laws that abolished the legal immunity from damages enjoyed by unions for 70 years, outlawed secondary picketing and set up a special National Industrial Relations Court.

The Five dockers - Bernie Steer, Vic Turner, Tony Merrick, Cornelius Clancy and Derek Watkins - had been tried (in their absence) by the new court and ordered to desist. Their union, the Transport and General Workers union (T&GWU), refused to recognise the court, but at the same time had not given official approval to the dockers’ campaign.

The dispute itself had its origins in the claim by dockers that some large depots around the docks area were using cheap labour to do work that belonged to the dockers under the terms of the National Docks Labour Scheme, which had been introduced after World War II.

What happened next, after the Pentonville 5 were dumped in jail, truly shocked the government and shattered its plans (for a while) to limit and then break the power of organised labour. Dockers round the country stopped work and all the major ports came to a standstill, an action that historically had always struck fear into governments because of the stranglehold on imports and exports that this represented.

But the action did not stop there. Fleet Street printers came out and most newspapers did not appear, and a series of rolling strikes started, with miners, Heathrow Airport workers, car workers, all poised to join in. Finally, after days of silence, and more in a bid to control the spontaneous walk-outs than to lead them, the TUC called for a one-day general strike for July 31. The previous and only General Strike in Britain had taken place in 1926, and had resulted in a great betrayal of the miners by the TUC leaders.

On Friday July 27, a huge march of trade unionists behind the London docks shop stewards committee banner with its slogan “Arise ye Workers”, headed for Pentonville Prison. Once there it did not break up and disperse. The marchers kept up a strong presence day and night (one of The Five jokingly complained after his release that he could not sleep because of the noise).

The Heath government, faced with this threat, was forced to act fast, or risk losing control of the situation which could easily spiral into a challenge not just to the government but, much more dangerously, to the TUC as well. A mysterious court official - the Official Solicitor - whom nobody had ever heard of until then, was produced, as if by magic. He freed the dockers and the House of Lords quickly ruled that the unions themselves were responsible for the secondary picketing, even if it was unofficial. The five were carried out shoulder-high to a tumultuous welcome from the crowd on Saturday July 28.

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