Saturday, July 14, 2007

When workers forced government to free Pentonville Five

1972 was an annus horribilis for Britain's bosses and Tory government.
Workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupied in a work-in to defend their jobs, miners waged a successful strike,
and there was the first national building workers' strike.

There were smaller but nevertheless significant local struggles, sometimes in quite unexpected places . Women at a shoe factory at Fakenham, Norfolk staged an 18-week occupation and work-in, eventually forming a workers' co-operative. It wasn't all victories, but it was a time when working people were suprising themselves with what they could do.

One of the biggest explosions then or since began with a rearguard action by dockers defending their skills and right to work in a changing industry, as containerisation was used to remove cargo handling inland, away from organised ports. It climaxed in thousands of workers across the country walking out and forcing the government and state to perform a humiliating retreat.

Haulage bosses had tried to halt picketing at the Chodham Farm container depot, with a court order, but were turned down by the Court of Appeal. However, the Midland Cold Storage Company, which was also being blockaded, succeeded in bringing its own injunction. On hearing the news, the London dockers all came out. Then five dockers were arrested, and on evidence from private eyes hired by the companies, imprisoned in Pentonville jail, on July 21.

The five were Tony Merrick, Conny Clancy, Derek Watkins, Vic Turner, and
Bernie Steer.

Thousands of dockers and other workers came out in support of the "Pentonville Five". The ports around Britain were closed, and factories affected too. Workers saw the struggle as one in defence of union rights against not just the employers, but the Heath government with its Industrial Relations Act. TUC general secretary Vic Feather had claimed a general strike could not happen in Britain, that it was a "fantasy", but as workers came out anyway, the TUC was forced to call an official one-day general strike scheduled for 31 July.

By then the wave of walk-outs had spread, affecting Fleet Street and Heathrow airport. Printworkers and building workers were joining dockers in a massive picket on Pentonville prison. Suddenly a figure few people had ever heard of, the Official Solicitor, appeared on the scene, to let the government off the hook by letting the five dockers out of jail. They had been in less than a week.

The five were chaired in triumph by cheering crowds. The government might have pretended they had been freed because of a legal technicality, but nobody believed this. The struggle over docks jobs and union rights went on, but the government was on its way out. Working class solidarity had triumphed.

Part of that solidarity were the posters like the one above, produced by printworkers at Briant Colour Printing, in the Old Kent Road, who were themselves in struggle and occupying their workplace. They recently had a reunion in a Clerkenwell pub to commemorate that fight.

The Pentonville Five and their struggle will be commemorated on Saturday, July 28, with a meeting from 2pm-5pm at Congress House, Great Russel Street, WC1 (nearest tube Tottenham Court Road). It is organised by the Cities of London and Westminster Trades Council together with Transport and Genral Workers Union Region No.1 Speakers will include one of the famous five, who went on to be mayor of Newham, Vic Turner, and Ann Field, a print union activist now national officer for Amicus.

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