Vic Turner and the call for a general strike

January 2, 2013 at 6:58 pm (Jim D, solidarity, unions, workers)

Vic Turner died on December 30th. He should be remembered and honoured because he was one of the ‘Pentonville Five.’

The Pentonville Five were T&G docks shop stewards jailed in July 1972 under the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Act. They had been illegally picketing the Chobham Farm container depot in Newham. Their jailing, and the reaction to it, forced the TUC into calling a general strike – a particularly useful historical precedent now that the TUC is mandated to consider the “practicalties” of a general strike. I strongly suspect that Vic Turner would be in favour of any discussion of a general strike, but deeply cynical about the 

Above: Vic Turner (Bernie Steer in background) carried in triumph from jail by supporters

way that present-day “left” union leaders are misusing and devaluing the slogan, turning it into empty rhetoric about a one-day token gesture rather than a potentially revolutionary challenge for power.

Anyway, back to Vic Turner:

On Friday 21 July 1972 five dockworkers – Vic Turner, Bernie Steer, Tony Merrick, Derek Watkins and Connie Clancy – picketing a container depot in a dispute over job security, were jailed in Pentonville Prison, London, under the Industrial Relations Act which the Tory government of the day had finally brought into law ( after big trade-union demonstrations against it)  in August 1971. Within a few days of the jailings, and despite the fact that many factories were on summer shutdowns, around 200,000 workers across the country struck in protest.

The TUC, under pressure, called a one-day general strike for Monday 31 July. At that point the Tory government buckled and found a legal device (the intervention of the previously unheard-of “Official Solicitor“) to release the five dockworkers. It was a historic victory for our class and marked the effective end of the Industrial Relations Act, which the 1974 Labour government formally abolished.

Forty years on, it’s a salutary reminder to older comrades, and evidence for younger people interested in left-wing politics, that our movement can win major victories, forcing a Tory government to back down, the TUC to call a general strike, and an incoming Labour government to repeal anti-union legislation. Working class solidarity is possible, and it can achieve great victories.

Here’s what Workers Fight (forerunner of today’s AWL) had to say at the time, about its own role and that of the rest of the UK left.

Here‘s quite a good factual account of events leading up to the release of the dockers.

Rare footage of the strike, demonstrations and mass meetings in suppoert of the Pentonville Five, here

Morning Star tribute to Vic here and account of the Pentonville Five from a CP perspective, here

10 Comments

  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    “despite the fact that many factories were on summer shutdowns”

    The past truly is a different country.

  2. Laban said,

    “Forty years on, it’s a salutary reminder to older comrades, and evidence for younger people interested in left-wing politics, that our movement can win major victories, forcing a Tory government to back down”

    But forty years ago there was full employment, and free movement of labour from outside the UK was impossible (perhaps those two things were related). It was a seller’s market for labour then – it’s a buyer’s market now.

    History’s unlikely to repeat itself unless as tragedy or farce.

  3. Robin Carmody said,

    Indeed.

    As I keep saying, the working class would be in a far stronger position now if Labour had *not* “won” the February 1974 election. The post-U-turn Heath government’s conciliatory approach towards working-class power would have been vindicated from the Tory perspective rather than seen as a surrender of *their* class (which is how the proto-Thatcherite movement emerged).

    The working class might, at least, have been stronger in subsequent wars had it not won those illusory victories.

  4. Robin Carmody said,

    … and it should also be mentioned that Labour might not have “won” the February 1974 election without Enoch Powell, the arch anti-socialist (and arch opponent even of Tory acceptance of nationalisation), urging his supporters to vote Labour because they were, at the time, the more Eurosceptic of the two main parties (and also because he’d do anything, anything at all, to spite Heath). One of the main reasons Labour won five more seats than the Tories was that they won by a few hundred votes in what I believe to be the largely middle-class (and usually Tory) West Midlands constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills – more, I would suggest, because of Powellites hanging on their hero’s every word than because of the power of the organised working class.

    Not to deny the importance of what the working class could achieve in 1972 – just to suggest that the battles it would win over the next two years actually accelerated its long-term defeat in the war.

    • Andrew Coates said,

      True, but there was a real feeling in the labour movement behind the strikes, which I can just about remembers.

      By contrast those calling for a General Strike, other than what is effectively a Day of Action, do not have much support on the ground.

      Mind Mind you some SWP people (a minority it;s true) are inulding in some extraordinary language at the moment which recalls the WRP at its worst (just posted): http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/how-one-swp-cadre-operates/

  5. Jimmy Glesga said,

    I seem to recall Powell actually telling people in certain areas to vote Labour at the 74 election.

  6. Jimmy Glesga said,

    Maybe I will be corrected but I recall the Heath Government index linking wages for a period. Something like 50p a time when there was a rise in prices!

  7. Jim Denham, said,

    I notice that today’s Morning Star carries an article on the Pentonville Five by Graham Stevenson http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/127852
    in which he states “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. I could make a guess as to who Stevenson means (the late Brian Nicholson would seem to fit the bill), but does anyone know for sure?

  8. Jim Denham, said,

  9. Jimmy Glesga said,

    Looks like you cannot trust Catholics that pretend to be socialists. But you can understand Nicholson because in his young brainwashed mind the Papacy is first and last as always. Something to do with saving the soul!
    Lech Walesa maybe had the same problem, look at Poland now the workers are now in Britain.

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