Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Gold and Silver go to Victor


BY sheer coincidence, I picked up that HSE report on an accident at Tilbury docks on the exact fortieth anniversary of the TUC taking the rare step of calling a national strike, and that was connected with dockers.

Dockers fighting to defend registered jobs had been picketing Chobham Farm container depot, in Newham, and defied an injunction issued by the government's National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) following an application by Midland Cold Storage.

Private detectives hired by the company spied on the pickets, and on their evidence the court issued warrants to arrest five shop stewards – Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Derek Watkins -on contempt charges. The five were imprisoned on July 21 1972.

Following their arrest, a rolling series of strikes began, not only on the docks but in other industries. Fleet Street newspapers were stopped, and there was the likelihood it might spread to Heathrow airport. By the time the TUC decided to act on July 31 it was only setting the seal on what was already happening.

Earlier in the year the striking miners had succeeded with support from Birmingham engineering workers in shutting Saltley coke depot in that city, in spite of its heavy police guard.

Once again the government had to climb down, and find other ways of attacking the unions. The Official Solicitor, a post not many people had heard of, discovered that the evidence provided by private detectives was not enough, and that the NIRC should not have jailed the five. He had the Court of Appeal agree to release them.

Thousands of striking workers who had marched through North London to Pentonville prison were delighted when their heroes stepped out free to be chaired in triumph, and address them.

Vic Turner continued to work in the docks, transferring from the Royal Group to Tilbury. After he left the docks under the voluntary redundancy scheme he went to work for Newham borough council. He was then elected as a Labour councillor and served for many years before being elected as Mayor.

Vic was awarded the Transport and General Workers Union Gold Medal for his years of service to the union, but last weekend in a ceremony at the Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club he received another award, a silver Dockers' Tanner, which commemorates thefamous dockers' strike of 1889 when they fought for a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour.

As well as some good-humoured but heartfelt reminiscences of the 1972 events, we got an opportunity to see the film 'Arise Ye Workers', and between informal socialising and celebration we had a good discussion on the lessons of Pentonville but also on how we can revive trade union militancy and solidarity today in the fight against the Con Dem coalition. Recent struggles by electricians and London bus workers were mentioned.

With many activists out campaigning against NHS cuts and closures last weekend, as well as a counter-Olympics demo against the corporate interests, attendence at this event was not as high as it might have been, though I did not stay on for the evening social. But among those there besides old dockers and their families were young people from UK Uncut and Occupy who had come from the demo to join our discussion.

I was pleased to meet Jimmy Nolan again, remembered from the Liverpool docks struggle, and taking part in our discussion were also brothers from the Dublin trades council and the Norwegian dockers' union, the latter introduced by docker's daughter Jessica Fenn who works for the International Transport Workers Federation.

Roger Sutton of the Cities of London and Westminster Trades Union Council which did much to organise this event also chaired the discussion, and mentioned the importance of not letting union rivalries get in our way. In which context I'm pleased to report that Unite members were joined by UCATT members, with the banner of the Justice for Shrewsbury Pickets campaign to remind us of unfinished business from 1972, We also had RMT president Alex Gordon joining the discussion.

Talking of which Alex was first to give the news that Steve Hedley has been elected assistant general secretary of the RMT. Having seen Steve in action, particularly for low-paid cleaners, I think this is both well-earned and a welcome sign that the changes we were talking about are afoot.

Enjoying a pint in the Poplar Rowing Club, watching the sailing ships go by, and cathning a glimpse of the Greenwich equestrian event across the river, before seeing Vic Turner collect his silver - that's the nearest you will get me to the Olympics!

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