Friday, January 04, 2013

The Best of the East End


VIC TURNER - in triumph (above)"it was the trade union movement that got us out" . 
and retrospective . (below) at 2007 'Pentonville Five' commemoration, with Steve Hart of Unite, and chairman, Martin Gould of Southern and Eastern Region TUC.

THE year ended with sad news of the death of a real East Ender. Not one of  the less than lovable mockney losers and wide boys in a TV soap, but a man who starred in some real dramas, remained modest about his own role, and never changed from what he was, a champion of the working class.

Vic Turner was born in Custom House, an area of Newham which took its name from the custom house of the Royal Victoria Dock, in 1927. He was the youngest of five boys and two girls. His father William Turner was a docker, and so were his brothers, and that was where Vic went to work.

  He married Jean (nee Agass) in February 1951. She died in 1973.

From an industry where workers were expected to scrap for a day's work, the dockers fight for regular work and decent conditions and pay had produced a strong union tradition of sticking together with your mates and standing firm against the employer.

Vic was told to join the union the day he started work, and he went on to become a shop steward in the Royal Group, and eventually a leading figure in the national ports shop stewards committee. This brought together members of the Transport and General Workers Union ( like Vic Turner and the National Association of Stevadores and Dockers (NASD), the "blue " union (so called from the colour of its membership card). But Vic and Royal group colleague Jack Dash faced opposition from their own union at first, because though they had both been elected enthusiastically by the dockers, they came up against the TGWU's ban on Communists holding office. Fellow stewards refused to leave them out, and the union had to get rid of the ban.

 It was four years later however that the dockers' struggle propelled Vic Turner into headlines. Both Tories and Labour had tried to tame the unons with White Papers and legislation. But workers were in a fighting mood, and learning their strength in new ways, from the shipyard workers who occupied UCS to the miners and engineering workers who combined to close Saltley gates.

Vic Turner had helped raise support for the UCS workers and the miners. But the dockers now faced their own battle as employers used containerisation to take away dockers' jobs and undermine union strength, and wages and conditions.  The dockers picketed container depors. The employers used the new National Industrial Relations to get injunctions against picketing, and hired private detectives to spy on dockers meetings and pickets, so that individuals could be singled out for prosecution.

In July 1972 five shop stewards - Vic Turner, Bernie Steer, Tony Merrick, Derek Watkins and Connie Clancy - were arrested. Most were lifted in the Railway Tavern at Stratford, though hearing that he was "wanted", Vic Turner went and presentd himself for arrest. They were sent to Pentonville prison.

 While they sat in Pentonville, fellow trade unionists were not idle.  A demonstration was called outside the prison, and many workers left work to attend. Printers occupying their own plant in a separate dispute produced posters in support of the jailed dockers. Dockers who had come out on strike sent a deputation to Fleet Street to persuade trade unionists there to join them.  They won support there and at other places - there was talk that Heathrow airport might stop. There were strikes around the country, affecting docks, engineering factories and building sites.

  Meanwhile Jack Jones of the TGWU had gone to the TUC for support. The General Council issued a statement saying that unless the dockers were released, a one day general strike would be called. It was scheduled for Monday, 31 July.  But now something remarkable happened. A figure called the Official Solicitor appeared, applying to the Court of Appeal for the men to be released, on the grounds that the National Industrial Relations Court had no right to have them locked up, and the evidence from private detectives was insuffient.

On July 26, after less than a week's incarceration, the gates flew open, and the amazed five dockers walked free to a joyous reception.    

The dockers' struggle was not over. Vic Turner continued to play a part in it. With fellow stewards he argued that they were not against modernisation, quite the contrary, but it should not come at the expense of jobs and workers' rights.  They proposed incorporating technical changes, employing dockers, meeting environmental concerns by using river transport and using gains in available dockland space for ordinary Londoners.

Vic Turner had to take redundancy when the Royal Group of docks closed down. He started working for Newham council.He stood as a Labour councillor and was elected for Beamerside ward in 1984. In 1977 he became mayor of Newham.But he never let this honour take him away from ordinary working people, his fellow dockers, or the defence of union rights.

In 1998 Vic was elected president of the United Campaign for the Repeal of Anti-union Laws, a post in which he remained. It was the Labour government's retention of these restrictions, which the Tories now want to reinforce, that helped prevent solidarity with the Liverpool dockers, thus further sapping trade unionism in the docks, as well as later penalising airport workers who wanted to support the Gate Gourmet workers. Had the TGWU, and its successor Unite, not to mention the TUC and the other unions, not retreated from taking on these attacks, we would be in a far better position to fight back against what this government is doing.

Happily, the young workers taking part in the new wave of struggle such as threw back the big electrical employers last year seem not to have heard of the laws with which the bureaucrats excused their timidity, and treat the bosses and the authorities with the disrespect they deserve. This has even started to infect some of us old 'uns. And to give credit where due, Unite under new management seems to be going along with some change.   

 Vic Turner was always willing to talk to young trade unionists and took a keen interest in political developments. I heard him speak on the anniversary of the Penrtonville 5 battle in 2007, and again last July on the 40th anniversary, when he spoke alongside Tony Merrick and Derek Watkins at a rally on the Isle of Dogs. Already the recipient of the TGWU's gold medal Vic was presented with a silver "docker's tanner", which commemorates the famous 1889 strike - demanding 6d an hour - which established trade unionism on the London docks.

Among those who came to the event was Jimmy Nolan, leader of the Liverpool dockers fight. And besides assorted old codgers like myself there were some younger people, including a couple of guys who came along from the anti-Olympic demo that had been taking place that day, to discuss what can be done.. 

 Leaving it to others to reminisce about the events of 1972, Vic Turner spoke about what he had learned over the years, about working class tradition, and about passing it on, for the future. 
He said: "It's a fight we have to continue. It doesn't depend on any individuals - it's about all of us."

Vic Turner's funeral is on the 18th January at 2.45 at the City of London crematorium.

Some sources, and tributes from Roger Sutton, of Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils, who organised the 40th anniversary event, and Bob Crow of the RMT

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At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Sue Katz said...

Fascinating history I knew little about Charlies. Thanks so much.

At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Ian said...

I attended the 40th Anniversary of the freeing of The Pentonville 5 last July .
Vic very kindly autographed a pamphlet about the event - it was a deep privilige to meet such a great Hero of the Trade Union Movement - and Vic was a really nice bloke as well .
We will continue to Struggle for the Trade Union Rights that Vic Fought so hard for !


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