Interview with Micky Fenn, a socialist and trade unionist on the London Docks, discussing how he and other dock workers confronted racism among their workmates, particularly after the notorious dockers' strike in support of Enoch Powell and his racist, anti-migrant politics.
Abstract: This hitherto unpublished interview with left activist and trade union organiser Micky Fenn (1938–1996) was carried out in 1990. He recalls how he, as a member of the Unofficial Shop Stewards’ Committee in the London Docks, dealt with fellow trade unionists’ racism (even turning the racist vernacular to his own ends). The interview covers the critical episode which reflects the nadir of British trade unionism when, in April 1968, Dockers downed tools and joined the London Smithfield Meat Market porters’ strike and march in support of MP Enoch Powell who had become the mouthpiece of anti-immigrant sentiment, warning of ‘Rivers of Blood’. Fenn describes the quandary this posed militant organisers who believed in collective responsibility: not wanting to strike-break but completely opposed to the basis of the strike, not wanting to put up the usual pickets against strike breakers, but not wanting to cause a precedent. He goes on to show how elements in the unofficial trade union movement learnt from the 1968 debacle and went on to tackle racism on the Docks to ensure that extreme rightwingers never again got a foothold and black workers could. Fenn explains why he later felt the need to take to direct action against growing fascism in East London.
Liz Fekete: How long were you working in the London docks, I believe it was at Royal Docks?
Micky Fenn: I went into the docks in 1965 and worked there for twenty-four years. I got the sack last July. At the moment we are at an industrial tribunal. I was a shop steward, at the time our major concern was conditions. We had no shop stewards’ committee, we had no voice. The official union, although it had the links for it, seemed to be very slow in functioning, so we had an unofficial committee which primarily fought for conditions and amenities, wages, toilet breaks, anything that was on the ground, we fought for it. That committee had six members on it, one or two you’ve probably heard of: Jack Dash was one, then Danny Lyons, Ernie Rice.
Well, I was elected on to that committee in 1966 and at the time the primary concern wasn’t racism. There was no racism for one simple reason – that there were no black Dockers! Because it was restricted recruitment, there was no black labour as, for example, at Ford’s. I’m pretty certain what happened in the Dockers’ union on the Enoch Powell demonstration couldn’t have happened at Ford’s because they’ve got a large immigrant population – Asian, black and so on, and once people mix, they all make friends with different racial groups.
The Enoch Powell march was in 1968. We had a long strike in 1967 which went on for nine weeks and in the end we lost it. We were isolated in one dock and we lost. But we still had the liaison committee formed. And then, I think it was over East African Asians, Powell happened, it just blew up.1 Certain individuals who weren’t stewards in the dock – it was before the Shop Stewards’ Committee – started going out with leaflets on behalf of the Anti-Immigration League, which was centralised in Smithfield Market. These indi-viduals were giving out these leaflets about a demonstration about all these blacks coming over. The average trade union man would say, ‘Oh, piss off.’ But it flared up and a meeting was called. Our unofficial committee was caught off balance, we didn’t expect it at all, it came out of the blue, we were more worried about getting more money than discussing the racial problems or situation. It blew up, as I said, about Asians coming in and we had to coun-terattack. Anyway, we put out leaflets, and put about six or seven names on, all from the unofficial committee, saying to our men, don’t have nothing to do with it. I thought then we had the situation under control – maybe not, maybe it’s all very well to be wise after the event.
Danny Lyons, member of the Communist Party, as I was too but since left, he called a meeting. It wasn’t that well attended – say five, six hundred people. But he got this priest to go forward to the stage. And that was like a fire just going out, embers dying off and someone chucking a can of petrol over it and it blowing up. And my blokes were really, really sick, because they had never had a situation in the dock when anybody came from outside intervening in our affairs. Anyway, it completely flared up, and then they said they’re going to have a march. It was the only time I felt really ashamed to be a Docker and when I watched it on the televi-sion I felt really sick, I mean it was disgraceful.
The unfortunate thing about it was, there were good trade unionists on that demonstration who, a few years later, turned back. Because once we started arguing with them and explained to them what it was all about they changed their views. A lot of them after that demonstration felt really ashamed to be honest. I mean we were going back to work and saying, ‘why?’
On the day itself [23 April] some men went to work and some didn’t. There was no pickets on the day. We didn’t think it was right to start picketing the docks. A lot of men went to work. I didn’t go to work. Now everybody had to make their minds up. Obviously I didn’t go on the demonstration. But there was no way anyone who went to work that day was called a scab since, because I think their intentions were sound. It was very difficult for us because we were an unofficial committee, there was a vote taken at the Connaught [pub] – and a show of hands voted to take the day off. If we started saying the vote was invalid, in future we could be accused of ‘oh, well it’s OK when it suits your purposes’. I think on reflection I was wrong. I felt I should have gone to work, but I didn’t. But the issue was about collective responsibility as well, even though we wasn’t part of the collective.
LF: How many went on the march do you think?
MF: I don’t know, I wasn’t on it, I would imagine the TV would say there was more than there was, when in normal demonstrations they would say there was less. I don’t know, couple of hundred, five hundred – a massive proportion didn’t. There was a lot of men at the docks at that time. In the Royals there must have been over six-and-a-half thousand people. Some Dockers said they were intimi-dated by some rightwing group. If we had chosen, we could have stopped that demonstration with violence, but it didn’t seem the right thing to do – it would have played into the hands of the Anti-Immigration League.
What for me was more interesting than the Powell demonstration – that was the negative side – was what happened after that, on the positive side. In fact the Shop Stewards’ Committee stopped racism in the docks. Basically what hap-pened was, there was a wharf closed down and two men working there were black. They got their books through what was termed limited registration. They were transferred into the Royal Group for full registration. We had a couple of meetings. This was about ’72, a long time ago. What happened then was these leaflets started coming out. When I took the leaflets it was a complete London shop stewards’ meeting at Tilbury, about seventy shop stewards down there. (Now the only time we had big meetings like that was during the time of the Pentonville Five.2 ) I chucked the leaflets on the table and said, ‘Has anyone seen this?’ I passed them round and they were about these two blacks in the docks and that. And everyone read it, and I moved the motion that under no circumstances do any of our members support any demonstration. The leaflets called a march from Smithfield Meat Market and back. The resolution was carried and all the stewards who covered Tilbury, the Royal and West India Docks and all the river-side wharfs were to take action against anyone participating. In other words, go back and tell their men to have nothing to do with it.
On the Monday, some said they’d go on strike. There were certain individuals down there, one who was a member of the National Front and he had got a kind of status by protecting, I think Tyndall,3 at Oxford University and beating up students with an iron bar – a low-level thug. They said they were going to start picketing the dock on Monday morning. Now we’d already told our members under no circumstances were we going to participate in any racist demonstra-tions. But he was shouting ‘we’ll have pickets on the day’. There were a couple of people down there who were, you could use the term nasty, very violent, but good trade unionists and good anti-racists. They went in there and just said, ‘we’re telling anybody who wants to listen to us that, if there are any pickets on the gate Monday morning, we will personally beat them up, we will tread over them and go to work. Now we don’t want to see any pickets on this gate and we don’t want any of our members going on any racist demonstration.’ The demon-stration went away. That’s the sort of thing you’re dealing with.
At the time a bloke came up to me on a Thursday or Friday, ‘what are you going to do about these blacks coming into the dock on Monday?’ So I said, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, the stewards aren’t doing nothing about it, you ought to call a meeting.’ And I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘We don’t want any blacks in the dock.’ And I said ‘That’s OK, I’ll do that … we’ll move a resolution we don’t want any blacks working in this dock.’ ‘Lovely, lovely’, he said. Now working on our part was a bloke called David Emmanuel who was half-caste [sic] but he looked black. So I went to him and told him what I have told you. And I said, ‘Dave, I want you on the platform.’ So he said, ‘I’ll have that. What time is it? Before work Monday? OK.’
The next day I told the bloke who had asked for a meeting, ‘We’ve got a speaker.’ He said, ‘Who?’ ‘His name’s David Emmanuel and he’s lived in Custom House all his life and his whole family’s grown up there. David Emmanuel is going to put a recommendation that we don’t want these two black people com-ing off the river and we don’t work with him.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, “with him”?’ And I said, ‘Well David Emmanuel, he’s black.’ And he said, ‘What do you mean, he ain’t black?’ And I said,’ he’s black, he’s got visibly curly hair, big lips, a flat nose. He’s black and we ain’t working with him. As from 8 o’clock Monday morning we’re going to recommend that none of our men work with David Emmanuel.’ He said to me, ‘You’re mad.’ So I said, ‘No I ain’t mad, you are mad. What’s the difference between David Emmanuel and these two geezers from the riverside who you don’t even know?’ I ask, ‘Do you still want to have the meeting?’ He said, ‘No, no, forget about it, forget it.’
So you get through if you gave a perfect example. But the Asian issue flared up, the racism about Asian people says they’re smaller, they’re timid, they’re inoffensive and that’s why they are picked on by the National Front. But during this next period there was no recurrence of an Enoch Powell demonstration. And it was the Shop Stewards’ Committee that stopped it, I’m not saying it was me. Every steward argued, ‘don’t have anything to do with it’. We checked the whole idea.
LF: When did the Dockers Against Racism leaflet come out?
MF: That came later. There was another flare-up over Asian immigrants coming in the country, I was in the Socialist Workers’ Party [SWP] at the time. We started going out, formed a group and got a leaflet together, with no [organisational] names on it, we just put Dockers Against Racism on the back in a box. I started going out weekends, it was just before an election, I think Webster or one of them [NF] was standing in Newham and I lived in Plaistow. And they were getting lots of votes, it was around that time a young Asian kid got stabbed … Well during that period, we started giving out these leaflets. And because of the leaflets we got visited by the Special Branch, an inspector came round and nicked two of us under the Representation of the Peoples Act. What they were trying to say was that there was some conspiracy, the leaflets were supposed to be very similar to some put out in Bolton or Oldham which had our [i.e., SWP’s] name on.4 Anyway we went to see a solicitor and they didn’t eventually charge us, they couldn’t prove conspiracy. But what was interesting about it was that the week we got done, the Newham Recorder had a front-page story saying ‘leaflets slur democratic party in election campaign’ and that was that. Dockers Against Racism. After that we got heavily involved in stuff against the National Front with very successful results.
LF: What about the Kingsley Read march, when he said after the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar, ‘One down, a million to go’?5
MF: There was local opposition from local leftwing groups – the usual. As far as I can remember, there was a couple of hundred of them and about five hundred of us. Normally that balance of forces. In Newham generally at that time there was usually twice as many of us … lots of policemen … But at that time, I was in the SWP and was very active against the National Front, the Anti-Nazi League came out of it.
At that time we moved to Plaistow, and unfortunately for the people who bought the house I’d just moved out of, they [the NF] painted my house with swastikas. Most of our activities were centred around Barking, it was mainly skin-heads up there, we went to protect our paper sellers, that is how it started. We used to go to Stratford, we had different groups – some selling papers and then we had people on the phone ready to protect the people selling papers if trouble broke out. We were selling in Stratford and there were a couple of skirmishes down there where they came off worse. But most of the trouble was in Barking where there was a fairly heavy concentration of these skinheads from the Beckton Estate.
I was arrested in 1975, the Nazis were very active in ’75, and I was nicked in December and up for grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm. Loads of people in our group got nicked. And we had to go to the Old Bailey for about sixteen months. But they were very, very active at the time and the organiser of the SWP, he really had guts. We met, I think it was Ian Anderson,6 once in Stratford Shopping Centre and just said to him, ‘Right, our philosophy with you people, it’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ That’s exactly what we said. ‘If you hit any of our people, if any of our people get hurt at all, we’re going to get two of your people.’ That is when they painted two of our houses with swastikas and ‘NF’ and all that. So we went out and done four of their houses. We just carried out that philosophy, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
- 1During the Africanisation of Kenya (later also of Uganda and Malawi) following independence from Britain, Asians with British passports, because they had originally been taken to Africa by the British Raj, attempted to exercise what they thought was their right to come to the ‘Mother Country’, only to find themselves barred.
- 2In 1972, five shop stewards were imprisoned by the Industrial Relations Court for picketing and became known as the Pentonville Five.
- 3John Tyndall was leader in the National Front from 1972–1980.
- 4Under the Representation of the Peoples Act, one cannot put out material attacking a specific party in the run-up to an election.
- 5John Kingsley Read, who joined the National Front in 1973 and later formed the National Party, though accused of racial incitement for the statement, was controversially acquitted in a retrial.
- 6Ian Anderson was active in the National Front.