1972: When dockers fought the law—and the dockers won

05 July 2022

By Bernie McAdam

THIS SUMMER marks the 50th anniversary of the dockers’ strike when five shop stewards—the Pentonville Five—were imprisoned by the National Industrial Relations Court. The Tory government had set up the court to weaken trade union power. Instead, it triggered mass strikes, and like many of the militant workers’ struggles against the government in the early 1970s, forced a humiliating climbdown as a wave of unofficial action freed the Pentonville Five.

Edward Heath’s Tory government was elected in 1970. Within three years it was faced with the first post-war global recession. The British economy was already suffering from a severe decline in its industrial competitiveness. Heath immediately sought to make workers pay for this growing crisis in a manner not too dissimilar to the previous Labour government.

Under Labour, the bosses had been given free rein to launch a ‘productivity’ offensive against the workers. This attempt to drive down wages and drive up profits continued under Heath, alongside a fresh attempt to curb trade union power.The Industrial Relations Act (1971) was designed to weaken unofficial action and restore full management control. A central part of the Act was the setting up of a National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) that could fine unions and freeze their funds.

The NIRC could impose ballots before strikes and a 60-day cooling off period before or after them. It also ruled against the closed shop (compulsory union membership) and banned secondary picketing. Collective agreements would be legally binding contracts. It allowed for the arrest of shop stewards or union officials for contempt of court.

The problem for the British ruling class was taming the organised workers. Throughout this period, a massive shop stewards movement had developed, strengthening workplace organisation. This was relatively independent of trade union leaders and meant that real gains for workers on wages, conditions, etc. could be achieved at plant-wide level through unofficial walkouts or even just the threat of them.
The TUC rejected strike action against the Industrial Relations Bill. However, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), in which the Communist Party played a key role, was able to organise unofficial strikes against the Bill of up to one and a half million in 1971.

The Bill was not killed but its future implementation was now a serious concern for Heath. His next challenge was the miners’ strike of 1972, which forced a major climbdown as a 20% pay rise was secured rather than the 6% offered.

Dockers enter the fray
Since the late 1960s thousands of dockers had lost their jobs due to the spread of containerisation in the ports. This was a massive sea change in the port industry as the cost of trade was slashed and profits rose. Of course, many ports and industries associated with ports became victims. London was one of the largest ports in the world, but suffered a dramatic decline. Liverpool too declined as new container ports at Tilbury, Southampton and Felixstowe grew.

The employers sensed a major opportunity to restructure the industry along the lines of a dramatic deskilling and the spread of low wage, non-union jobs. To facilitate this technological ‘shock’ to the workers, the government and bosses moved against protections for workers enshrined in the National Dock Labour Scheme. This prompted the creation of the National Ports Shop Stewards Committee (NPSSC), which lost no time in organising unofficial strikes and picketing of container depots. Throughout 1972 there was ferment across the industry.

The NIRC had ruled that dockers picketing the depots were violating the Act. Fines were handed out to dockers in Liverpool and Hull, which the TUC advised them to pay. On 4 May at a special conference in London, TGWU delegates voted in favour of a national strike, giving 28 days’ notice. This strike was postponed a couple of times, much to the chagrin of the NPSSC, who stormed Transport House (TGWU HQ) with the cry of ‘scabs’ and ‘you have sold us out’.

The NPSSC called a one-day unofficial strike for 16 June, in response to the NIRC’s order against three London stewards to stop picketing Chobham Farm container base. Around 35,000 dockers struck in solidarity. Despite the stewards refusing to appear in court, the charges were suddenly dropped. Picketing continued throughout the country; it was only a matter of time before the law would be used again.

Pentonville jailings
In July, the NIRC ordered the removal of pickets from Dagenham Cold Storage and Midland Cold Storage. When the dockers ignored the order, five pickets were arrested and sent to Pentonville prison on Friday 21 July. Three of the five, Cornelius Clancy, Tony Merrick and Derek Watkins, were arrested outside Midland Cold Storage in East London. Bernie Steer was taken from home and Vic Turner was escorted from a picket outside Pentonville prison.

The response was immediate and effective as workers sprung into action. The entire dock labour force of around 42,000 went on strike, unofficially picketing out Fleet Street printers.

Within four days of the jailings, 250,000 workers across the country walked out in a series of mass rolling strikes. They knew this was a class-wide battle and not just a sectional dispute. Workers were not prepared to wait for their leaders to act. They needed to strike whilst the iron was hot.

The TUC finally got to meet on Wednesday 25 July, by which time unofficial action was in full swing. The pressure on the TUC to call a general strike was immense, and engineering workers’ leader Hugh Scanlon successfully moved a resolution for a one-day strike and demonstration for the dockers’ release on Monday 31st. TGWU leader Jack Jones moved to extend the strike’s demands to include the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act, but withdrew after right wing opposition.

Jack Jones later revealed that this rare feat of TUC courage was done knowing that the government was about to release the Five and the call for a one day General Strike was made ‘in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be necessary’. Sure enough, the Official Solicitor was rushed to the High Court to free the Five on a technicality. The men were carried shoulder high from Pentonville.

General strike
The Five had been released from jail and the Tories had been forced to surrender due to a mounting wave of unofficial action, but the Industrial Relations Act which had put them there in the first place was still on the statute books. It was well within the reach of the TUC to have organised a general strike to smash the Act at this time of mobilised working class anger, but not one of the right or left leaders would dare to go down this road.

The left groups fared little better in this regard. The CP could only trail the left union bureaucrats and offered no independent rank and file alternative. The International Socialists (now SWP) was certainly involved in spreading the strike, but failed to go beyond ‘Free the Five’ into generalising the struggle against the Act.

Under the leadership of Tony Cliff, they tailed the militants, advising them only to do what they were already doing. The slogans of ‘General Strike to Smash the Act’ and ‘Build Councils of Action’ were key to advancing the struggle politically and organisationally. Yet only a small left group called Workers Fight clearly argued for such a perspective.

The strike starkly posed the question of the class nature of the state and the law. IS failed to draw any lessons from this, happy to tail the existing movement. They abandoned their previous calls for Councils of Action, which would have been essential to wrest control from the bureaucrats, and only called for a general strike after the TUC had already done so! It was opposition to this economism that would play a role in the formation of the Left Faction of IS shortly afterwards, which later became Workers Power.

As soon as the Five were released, the union leaders called a national dockers’ strike which brought industrial action under their control. After three weeks Jack Jones struck a shoddy deal against the wishes of furious rank and file dockers. At a press conference in Liverpool, when Jones refused to explain himself to a demonstration of 8,000 dockers outside, a group of them burst in, tore up his papers and poured a jug of water over him. Although it was a deal that retained certain protections for the dockers, as enshrined within the National Dock Labour Scheme until it was abolished in 1989, it was unable to stop the whittling down of dockers’ jobs as containerisation and unregistered ports continued to spread their wings.

Lessons of the 1970s
The limits of the left union leaders were now clear, but the rank and file had no means to take the leadership themselves. While the LCDTU organised the rank and file, it was not controlled by them. It played no direct role in the dispute after a 10 June LCDTU conference, where delegates were prevented from putting amendments to a CP sponsored motion. This was a ‘communist’ party in name only, having shielded the TUC ‘lefts’ from rank and file criticism and initiative since the 1926 general strike onwards.

A key lesson to be learned from the 1972 events is that union leaders need to be under the control of a powerful and organised rank and file movement, one willing to act with the officials when they fight and without them when they do not. Mass unofficial action was absolutely essential in combating the Tories and freeing the Five, but unless such action is turned into a militant democratic movement that can hold the existing union leadership to account and replace them, then it will cede the initiative in the battles to come.

Even the greatest workers’ victories cannot prevent a ruling class coming back to seek revenge, if they fail to realise their full potential. It fell to Thatcher to exact her revenge in the form of even more draconian anti-union laws before and after defeating the miners in 1985. These laws hamper effective strike action to this day. The lesson of 1972 is that these shackles can only be broken by defying them, standing up to jail sentences and repression, and by taking class-wide action, up to and including a general strike.

The 1970s also teach us that, if decisive moments and golden opportunities are not to be lost, we need a new revolutionary workers’ party, willing and able to organise against the ‘left’ leaders, like Jones and Scanlon then or indeed Sharon Graham and Mick Lynch today. It must give a political alternative to reliance on a Labour government to reform capitalism, by directing workers’ resistance towards its revolutionary overthrow as part of an international communist revolution.

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