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