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EDITORIAL Pentonville Five offer a valuable lesson – when workers are organised they can win

FIFTY years ago today, five shop stewards were released from Pentonville prison in London. 

They had been locked up five days earlier, having defied a ruling of the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) to cease picketing an east London container depot during an unofficial strike against job losses and the casualisation of labour on the docks.

Vic Turner, Bernie Steer, Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick and Derek Watkins came out through the prison gates, to be hailed as heroes by the waiting crowds. 

On the application of the government’s official solicitor, the Appeal Court ruled that the evidence of private detectives could not justify the five’s loss of liberty, especially when prime responsibility for their action lay with the Transport & General Workers Union.

This touching concern for civil liberties could not conceal the real reason for such a stunning victory for the organised working class over prime minister Ted Heath’s Tory government, its anti-union Industrial Relations Act and the capitalist class generally.

Outraged by the use of naked state power to put trade union activists behind bars, strikes had broken out in ports across Britain, quickly joined by walkouts in other industries. Railway workers and engineers had already taken industrial action in defiance of the law. 

The release of the Pentonville Five saved the Tories from an all-out confrontation with a working class which would have included a 24-hour general strike called by the TUC general council. The powers of the NIRC had been shredded. Solidarity won the day.

A second miners’ strike finished off Heath’s government just six months later.

While conditions are different today in some important respects, the lessons remain in essence the same. 

When workers are organised at the point of production and distribution, with determination and a clear sense of direction and strategy, they can win. When they act in solidarity with workers in other workplaces, industries and unions, the likelihood and impact of victory are all the greater.

This is true even when strikers face the power of employers, government, the law, the courts, the police and the intelligence services.

However, in the 1970s, we had much stronger workplace trade unionism — notably in the private sector — as well as an extensive network of well-supported trades union councils. 

The Communist Party had scores of workplace branches in major factories, depots, ports and mines. A militant network of union shop stewards, branches and district committees provided the basis for the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. In many unions, broad left organisations also helped raise the level of working-class political as well as industrial consciousness.

All this now needs to be rebuilt with a new emphasis on organising in the private, precarious, service and technology sectors, re-establishing and strengthening trades councils, building and linking up union broad lefts, and involving and supporting part-time, women, young, migrant and ethnic minority workers.

As reported in the Morning Star, Bernie Steer died last Thursday. 

Today, as sections of the working class prepare for a fresh round of strikes over pay, conditions, pensions and public services, the last words of union organiser and migrant worker Joe Hill spring to mind. 

In 1915, on the eve of his execution in the US on a trumped-up murder charge, he wrote: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organise.”


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