The story of the legislation that led to the jailing of the Pentonville Five, the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. Published as follows during 2012 in the Black Flag, issue 235.
July 26th marks the 40th anniversary of the release of dockworkers Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Derek Watkins from prison. Better known as the Pentonville Five, they served a grand total of five days inside before a wave of demonstrations and wildcat strikes forced the government to send the Official Solicitor round with the key. Now would seem a good moment to revisit why they were sent to prison, how they got out, and most importantly, what led to the law that put them there being abolished two years later.
The Industrial Relations Act of 1971 was an attempt by Ted Heath’s Conservative government to reconstruct the relationship between trade unions, employers and the state. For many years governments of both parties had set up inquiries, Royal Commissions, written white papers and put bills before parliament, all with the express aim of breaking the power of workers on the shop floor.
The problem for the ruling elite was that the industrial peace guaranteed since the 1930s by austere authoritarians like Ernie Bevin, Arthur Deakin and Bill Carron had begun to break down around the beginning of the 1960s. Taking little notice of their moderate leaders, workers in the docks, the car plants, the engineering factories and the building sites had begun setting up their own rank-and-file organisations, organised around combinations of their workplace representatives (their shop stewards). They’d spent the best part of a decade fighting to get their people recognised by employers and now they were taking action off their own bat to get pay rises and better conditions.
In the mid-‘60s “experts” were complaining that although Britain didn’t have a particularly high strike rate in global terms, key workplaces were “plagued” by a culture of rapid wildcats, which they called “lightning strikes,” representing 95% of all the stoppages affecting industry. This in turn was preventing management from raising efficiency and productivity, that is, forcing the workers to work harder, and employing less of them. As a result the profits generated weren’t fat enough to keep the investment flowing and the economy growing.
The first attempt to solve the problem was put forward by the Labour government in 1969 in a white paper written by a well-known Labour left-winger and Minister of Employment Barbara Castle (later Baroness Castle of Blackburn). In Place of Strife proposed to give the government the right to suspend strikes for 21 days and force the union to have a secret ballot on the outcome, with the promise of fines for trade unionists who disobeyed. Sadly for her, the trade union bureaucracy swung into action and the proposals were withdrawn after a series of back room deals.
The real fight was yet to come. The following year the newly-elected Conservative government put into action their own plans for reform. They proposed a new register for trade unions, like Castle, the right to suspend strikes and order compulsory ballots, as well as the right to sue unions and their members if they engaged in “unfair practices,” such as enforcing closed shops, picketing workplaces other than their own and refusing to do certain jobs in support of other workers or to protest certain policies (“blacking”). All of this was to be enforced by a new National Industrial Relations Court which had the power to fine or even imprison workers.
The official trade union movement set about employing their standard tactics to protest the bill. On January 12th 1971 there was a trade union demonstration against it, and in March a one-day token protest strike in engineering.
And that was as far as the trade union leaders really wanted to go. George Woodcock, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon (heads of the TUC and the two biggest unions, the TGWU and the AEU), had marched their troops to the top of the hill and marched them down again.
Months passed with no meaningful resistance to the Act, until in December the Port Shop Stewards Committee called a meeting. The meeting was unrecognised by the official union and totally outside of union rules. It was organised through the connections that the most active dockers in the country had built over their years of struggle in the docks. At the meeting the stewards resolved to start an all-out war against “containerisation,” a modernisation programme in the docks which would eventually see the number of dockers reduced to just a few thousand.
Their programme for action was ambitious. Without the unions’ help they would organise a wildcat strike of all the dockers registered under the National Port Scheme, they’d send a delegation to lobby their own elected representatives and they’d start a “blacking” campaign against lorry companies that were taking containers straight off the docks and putting dockers out of work.
All of the above, not coincidentally, counted as “unfair practices” as far as the new law was concerned. So come March, the TGWU was being sued by a St. Helens haulage company, Heaton Transport, first receiving a fine of £5,000 and then another subsequent fine of £50,000 for contempt of court in April. But the dockers kept up their campaign of blacking, while the union leaders worried about the bailiffs coming round and ransacking their offices. The great radical general secretary Jack Jones voted to capitulate on the advice of the TUC and decided to pay up.
Against the advice of their leaders the Shop Stewards Committee kept up the campaign, and sent out pickets to close firms that were taking advantage of the containerisation. Finally it dawned on the Court that the picketing had nothing to do with the union and on June 13th summonsed the pickets themselves, on pain of imprisonment. Instead of attending, the dockworkers organised a wildcat strike over the next two days, and a further large picket on the same firm (Chobham Farm, Stratford) for the 16th (the day of the court case). Hesitant to further provoke the dockers, the court set the case aside.
But the next day another firm, Midland Cold Storage, also victims of the picketing campaign, brought forward another complaint about the dockers “unfair practices,” naming seven of the stewards committee. Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer and Derek Watkins were all arrested and sent to Pentonville Prison, whilst a fifth, Vic Turner was arrested after being seen at the subsequent protest outside the prison!
The leaders of the big trade unions immediately swung into action in an effort to prevent the spread of solidarity action in support of the jailed men. The Port Shop Stewards set about organising a strike as dockers all over the country walked out in support of the Five. The next day strikes broke out spontaneously, with 250,000 taking industrial action and 90,000 on all-out strike. Because the print unions came out, no newspapers appeared the next day. Seeing the strength of the movement, the TUC and the TGWU gradually swung behind the campaign. Finally declaring on July 25th (four days after the initial imprisonment) the possibility of a general strike the following week if the men weren’t released, safe in the knowledge that the disruption of the docks had already convinced the government it was more trouble than it was worth to keep them locked up and they would never have to follow through on their threat.
The following day the Pentonville Five emerged from prison after a humiliating climbdown by the government. Although the Industrial Relations Act technically remained on the statute book, it was now clear to the government and to employers that using it to discipline their workforce was only likely to provoke further disruption and the Court was left utterly powerless. With the fall of the Heath government in 1974 (after further unsuccessful fights with the miners and the railworkers), the Act was repealed.
Forty years on and it seems that many of the lessons learnt in the campaign against the Industrial Relations Act have been forgotten. After repeal it wasn’t until Thatcher that another government dared to try and reform trade union law. Even then, Thatcher’s reforms had to be accompanied by a concerted effort to break the organised working class, and were only introduced piece by piece. It’s arguable that the 1971 act was far stricter, including as it did the possibility of prison for disobeying the National Industrial Relations Court. Yet still the dockers were able to resist.
The official trade union strategy for winning repeal was much the same as the modern unions have pursued in their campaigns against NHS reforms, attacks on pensions and workfare. Have a big demonstration, maybe a token day of action and hope that the government decides that their policies are so unpopular that they have to ditch them.
When it became clear that wasn’t going to be enough they found it impossible to imagine there was appetite for a more direct assault on the legislation, and in any case felt any attempt would damage their Labour Party allies electorally. The reality is, the labour movement leadership was never going to set about directly challenging the state and parliament, and that was what was required to do damage to the Act.
The Act itself failed because self-organised groups set about attacking it directly, and like non-payment and the Poll Tax, this made it unworkable. It was precisely this resistance that meant it failed, as opposed to trying to win the argument in easily manipulated public debates. The Labour Party repealed it when they got back in power not because they were opposed to the basic premises behind it (In Place of Strife was broadly similar), but because of the working class offensive that killed it off as a serious possibility for controlling trade union strife.
If it hadn’t been for such resistance, it would undoubtedly have remained in force indefinitely. Likewise if workfare or NHS reform are in place and not coming under significant attack, it’s most unlikely that Labour will set about undoing what has already been done.
Ultimately we want more than just to undo the anti-working class laws that parliament passes, but even in defensive struggles like the fight against the Industrial Relations Act the lesson is that direct action, through self-organisation and self-management, is the key.