1972: When unions defeated the courts and Tories

In July 1972, five striking trade unionists – the Pentonville Five – were imprisoned, only to be released within a week amid solidarity strikes, protests and a threatened general strike. Danny Bee tells the story.

Pentonville docker released from prison

In the summer of 1970, capitalism in Britain was going through one of those regular crises which always seems to catch the capitalists by surprise – and they then insist that workers pay for it. The Tories had unexpectedly won a general election in June with a load of bluster about ‘curbing the power of the unions’. Within weeks, the Tories were threatening to use troops against a strike in the docks, a threat which Labour supported. The optimism and carnival spirit of the sixties was over.

But something crucial had happened at the end of the sixties, even though it only seemed of interest to those involved and small groups of revolutionary socialists. In 1969 there took place what became known as the Revolt of the Low Paid. Groups of workers who had not taken strike action for many years, or who had never before gone on strike, started to join unions – to organise, strike, picket and demonstrate – and, most importantly, to win. It was this spark – rather than the political confusion inside the Labour Party and its inept leadership, or the soul-destroying bureaucracy of the right-wing trade union leaders – which lit the fires of strikes, struggles and factory occupations for the next five years. The whole period demands close study, but here we will focus on one year: 1972.

In January the miners came out in the first national strike since the General Strike of 1926. Then the miners had lost and were starved back to work. But not this time. The 1972 miners’ strike ended in a clear victory, as did the 1974 miners’ strike which bought down the Tory government. The 1972 strike was characterised by a free-flowing militancy which achieved impressive results. The flying picket was invented, where miners would encourage solidarity action by picketing workplaces other than their own, including coal-fired power stations. The greatest victory was at the Saltley Gates coke depot in Birmingham. For weeks pickets had been trying to close it down. On the morning of 10 February, following many discussions and visits by delegations of miners to other workplaces, 50,000 engineers went on strike, and a huge march now moved towards Saltley Gates. The police inspector in charge pointed to the gates and ordered they be closed. Mass, united action had won.

One of the best-known events – though few are familiar with the detail – was the action which became known as the Pentonville Five. The key issue here was containerisation in the docks. Containers – the huge metal boxes which today get turned into everything from homes for homeless people to pop-up shops – were first used in a small way in the 1930s and their use was accelerated during the Second World War. Before then, goods transported on ships were packed in all kinds of ways. In the late 1940s and 1950s, shipping companies and ships engineers experimented with design, materials, standards and the optimum ways to load and unload. By the early 1960s ships, trains and lorries were being built to specifically carry containers. It became known as the container revolution.

Why did this matter to dock work? Dockers in Britain had overcome decades of horrible, brutal  and dangerous conditions, including poor pay, lack of facilities such as toilets, no pensions, no sick pay and no guarantee of employment. Dockers earlier in the century, like workers today on zero-hours contracts, hadn’t known from day to day what hours they were going to work. Over many years the dockers had built up strong union organisation. In docks including the Port of London, the National Dock Labour Scheme controlled what could be handled by registered dockers, where the handling of goods could take place and what was dockers’ work. Shipping, warehouse and wharf owners wanted to break this power. They suggested that the commodities inside containers could be packed and unpacked anywhere, thus avoiding all the controls over rates of pay and the conditions which dockers had. One of the key people involved in this was Lord Vestey – who, unsurprisingly, was a major donor to the Conservative Party.

Flash points developed around two depots outside the National Dock Labour Scheme: Midland Cold Storage in Hackney, owned by Lord Vestey, and Chobham Farm in Stratford. Picketing started to take place in early 1972, clearly in defiance of the Tories anti-union legislation. On Friday 21 July, the state made its move. The police appeared and eventually arrested five named dockers (it took two attempts). The police had been helped by private detectives supplied by Lord Vestey with advice from Scotland Yard. There were around 400 dockers at Midland Cold Storage and they watched while the dockers were driven away in police vans to Pentonville Prison. What to do? One of the dockers, Tony Delaney stood on an upturned tin bath and shouted, ‘We’ll picket the fucking prison!’. This went like an electric charge through the people there. There were no objections, no-one tried to deflect discussion to a later date and no-one even called for a vote. While some dockers started to arrange the picket of the prison, others spread the word to the docks. In London and around the country there were soon thousands of dockers out on strike.

The dockers were aware that few people would be in work over the weekend. Still, they did try on the Friday night to get the Fleet Street printers to come out on strike. The printers listened to the case but took no action. On the Saturday night it wasn’t so much a ‘delegation’ of a handful of people that turned up – thousands of dockers appeared – and the printers went on strike. There would be no Sunday papers. Over the weekend the ‘picket’ at Pentonville Prison became something akin to a never ending demonstration and a carnival. It was so loud that prisoners asked the jailed dockers if they could ask their friends outside to keep the noise down a bit at night so they could get some sleep.

A huge demonstration started from Tower Hill on Tuesday 24 July.  As the crowd moved off, people joined in from the streets, builders walked off construction sites and people came out of offices and hospitals to cheer. The dockers inside Pentonville heard it a long time before it reached the prison. Above the chants and whistles and cheers and shouted demands, the songs of a Welsh miners’ choir could be heard. On the Wednesday morning, the TUC meet to discuss a one-day general strike for the following Monday. In a state of panic, the Tories discovered a legal official, the previously unknown ‘official solicitor’, who apparently had the power to release the dockers. They were released that afternoon. This was a fantastic victory. Some of those who took part said these were the best five days of their life.

Not all of the strikes and sit-ins and factory occupations during the year were successful.There were plenty of problems with the right-wing union bureaucracies and vacillation from the Labour Party. There were still many other victories during the year, including a successful national building workers strike which won a good pay claim – the builders too adopted the tactic of the flying picket.

Well you might say, there aren’t miners or dockers anymore: things are different now. But the period between 1970 and 1974 also saw strikes among groups of workers who still exist in their thousands. In 1971 postal workers took part in a national strike, as did rail workers in 1972. There are still plenty of post and rail workers, as well as thousands of cleaners, clerical workers, civil servants and teachers, all groups of workers who took strike action in 1969. In fact there are more workers now in Britain than there were fifty years ago. There are thousands of construction workers, engineers, shop workers, lorry drivers, bus drivers, health workers, computer technicians, call centre workers, council workers and many more, often bought together in large workplaces. Each on their own has immense potential power as we are beginning to see with the increase in strikes across Britain. What’s more, women, black and LGBT people are central to our unions now, which wasn’t at all the case in the seventies. Unity of those groups of workers would be something no amount of anti-union rhetoric, management intimidation or police violence could stop.

There is a rich and powerful history of workers’ struggles in Britain. As the class begins to move that history will be rediscovered. Then we will discover another tool in the box: inspiration.







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