[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

The Road to Pentonville

Of all the great working class victories in history, the miners’ strike of 1972 stands out as one of the greatest. Since the beginning of the century, the miners had been at the centre of all important working class struggles in Britain. However the defeat of 1926 struck a heavy blow against the miners, who saw their communities crucified by hunger and unemployment. After decades of keeping their heads down, the miners had finally emerged victorious and given the ruling class a bloody nose. It was their revenge for the heavy defeats of the past. Moreover, since they were regarded traditionally as the advanced guard of the British proletariat, the miners’ victory was regarded as a triumph of the whole working class.

The miners’ victory had set alarm bells ringing in upper class circles. The government was profoundly worried by the general spread of industrial and civil disorder. A secret government report a few weeks after the miners’ strike revealed, “A majority of shop floor workers lacked appreciation of the risks of lawlessness and were easily led by comparatively few but energetic elements intent on subversion.” Another observer, Paul Ferris, stated: “The trade union movement is more left-wing than at any time in its history… The idea of ‘direct action’, of using unions for political ends, has revived after half a century.”[1]

The Civil Contingencies Unit was established under Brigadier Richard Bishop in the spring of 1972 to deal with any such potential disorder. The CCU was kept secret and its very existence was still officially denied a decade later. A report in The Times revealed that “by early 1973 ministers had detailed estimates of 16 key industries, their capacity for disruption, their importance to the country’s well-being and the possibility of using alternative military labour in the event of strikes.”[2]

In the spring of 1972, after some trouble on the railways, a battle flared up on the docks. The Tories had made no secret of the fact that they were keen to get rid of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which protected dockers from the indignities of casual labour. The Tory Cabinet nevertheless decided not to press ahead, because, according to an internal report, “union officials were having difficulty retaining control, in the face of increasing militancy at a local level”. However, their caution was upset by the news that two haulage firms, Heaton’s and Craddock’s, had taken legal action against the TGWU for allowing their members (unofficially) to boycott their haulage business in protest against containerisation.

Typically, the NIRC under the chairmanship of Tory judge Sir John Donaldson proclaimed that the TGWU nationally was responsible for their stewards’ actions at the Heaton’s terminal and were in breach of the law. In the light of union policy, the TGWU refused to attend the court hearing and was fined £5,000 for contempt. Then, with the blacking still in place, an additional fine of £50,000 was imposed with the threat of total sequestration of the union’s assets if the union failed to comply with the order to lift the boycott. The capitalist courts had thrown down the gauntlet. But instead of calling a national strike of the TGWU, which would have brought the country to a complete standstill within hours, the union leadership decided to take its case to the TUC.

If the union leaders had gone at first to its own rank and file with an appeal to defend the union, there is no doubt they would have been met with a massive response. Then a call for solidarity could have been made to other unions. Given the size and influence of the TGWU, a strike by this union alone would have been equivalent to a general strike. But the leaders were not prepared for this kind of showdown and decided on what they regarded as a safer route. This proved a fatal mistake.

“The union was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”, stated Jack Jones. “From the dockers there were increasing calls for a national strike; on the other hand the threat of sequestration posed a challenge to the very existence of the TGWU. Because of its size the TGWU was very vulnerable, but I was still convinced that a collective response by the whole trade union movement could defeat the challenge…

“In the event, when the General Council had had spelled out to it the need to back the TGWU with all the consequences that might follow defiance of the court, some of the members – according to one commentator – ‘ran like rabbits frightened by gunfire’. A motion I proposed – ‘that the TGWU be advised to continue the policy of non-co-operation with the National Industrial Relations Court; that any financial penalty involved is accepted as the responsibility of the TUC; and that a fund be organised for this purpose – was ruled out of order by the chairman.

“At a later meeting a similar motion by Dick Briginshaw was shelved. The majority on the General Council decided to hedge its bets; the TGWU was advised to pay the fines and it was decided that unions should have the right to be represented at the NIRC, without prior consultation with the General Council, ‘where offensive actions were taken against unions or their members’. To sugar the pill it was also agreed that, in the case of the TGWU, ‘a measure of financial responsibility should be accepted by the TUC.’ In fact, when it came to the point, a paltry £20,000 was paid to the TGWU. It was offered reluctantly and I accepted it as a token rather than engaging in a dutch auction with Vic Feather. I felt let down. I realised then how weak an instrument the General Council was, and tried to get approval for the calling of a special congress so that the whole movement could determine its position. I said there was a need to re-establish unity against the Industrial Relations Act and to adopt positive policies which would show that the movement meant what it said. Although I was supported by Hugh Scanlon and others, we were defeated by fifteen votes to eleven.”[3]

Jack Jones, who was a genuine left-winger and a very sincere man, nevertheless demonstrated a lack of understanding when he writes that the size of the TGWU was a source of “vulnerability”. This demonstrated a lack of confidence in the ranks of the union on the part of even the best of the Lefts. Some weeks later the dockers showed that they were clearly prepared to struggle against the Tory government. But they now looked for a fighting lead from the top. Unfortunately, no such lead was forthcoming, and the workers were left to their own devices.

The T&G leadership was split with Jack Jones unfortunately arguing to support the line of the TUC. When the vote was taken on the executive committee, the decision of the TUC to pay the fines was carried by a wafer-thin majority. The opposition to the Tory anti-union laws, so heroically taken up from below, was coming apart at the top of the movement. Nevertheless, despite the wobbling of the leadership, the dock shop stewards remained defiant and refused to lift the boycott of the haulage companies.

Pentonville Five

A worried Tory Cabinet met to review the situation and discuss tactics. Its memorandum of the 18 July 1972 recognised that an “unofficial shop stewards committee still has support from many moderate-minded dockers because they fear for their jobs.” Options were then discussed: a state of emergency, rationing of essential food, and the requisitioning of vehicles to transport food around the country. But as the Cabinet wracked its brains for a solution, events began to overtake them.

The haulage bosses sought a court order to halt picketing at the Chodham Farm container depot, but were turned down by the Court of Appeal. However, the Midland Cold Storage Company, which was also being blockaded, succeeded in bringing its own injunction. On hearing the news, the dispute rapidly spread throughout the London docks. On the evidence of private detectives, five dockers were arrested and imprisoned in Pentonville Prison on 21 July. As the news spread about the “Pentonville Five”, the working class erupted. 44,000 dockers and 130,000 other workers immediately downed tools in protest. Docks were brought to a complete standstill at London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea, Glasgow, Bristol, Felixtowe, Leith, Chatham, Ipswich, Middlesborough and even King’s Lynn. This was the magnificent spontaneous answer from the working class to a direct attack on their organisations.

The movement spread like wildfire from below. Tommy Hilton, the spokesman for the Swansea dockers said: “People must realise that this is not a dockers’ strike, but a strike in defence of trade union rights against the Industrial Relations Act.” Pressure mounted rapidly on the TUC General Council to act. Belatedly they were forced to call (by 18 votes to 7) a one-day general strike scheduled for 31 July. This was in complete contrast to the platitudes of TUC general secretary Vic Feather, who had some weeks earlier dismissed the idea of a general strike as a complete fantasy: “Such things happen in Italy and France, but not in Britain”, he had said.

The marvellous movement from below had the potential to develop into an all-out general strike. Either the Tories would make big concessions, or the whole situation threatened to spiral out of control. The TUC was reluctantly forced to put itself at the head of this movement. They wished to steer it into safe channels, but this was also extremely risky because if the one-day general strike had gone ahead, there was no guarantee that it would last 24-hours. The whole situation was extremely volatile.

Panicking, the Tory government called in the Official Solicitor, an obscure unknown legal figure, to bail them out of the crisis. The law was now reinterpreted to state that the Courts held the unions, rather than individual pickets, responsible for their actions. The Pentonville Five were immediately released and the general strike, to the utter relief of the TUC leaders, was called off. The Times humorously compared the actions of the Tory government to a “disordered slot-machine, which produced a succession of unforeseen results, mostly raspberry flavoured.”

On 28 July, when dockers struck again over job security, the government declared another state of emergency. The question of sending in the troops to break the strike was raised, then dropped like a hot potato. A few days later, a government contingency group reported, “If troops were used there is a real danger of sympathetic action by lorry drivers and others which would be more damaging than the present situation.” The dockers’ national shop stewards committee stepped up their campaign to close all ports using unregistered labour. By mid-August the Tory government was forced to accept a deal to end the action.

A further skirmish over the Industrial Relations Act occurred when the engineering union, the AUEW, was fined £55,000 on 1 December 1972, for refusing union membership to James Goad, a scab, lay preacher, and crusader for the “freedom of the individual”. The union’s refusal to pay resulted in the fine being sequestrated from the union’s funds by the Courts. In the face of this blatant attack on trade unionism, 750,000 workers struck unofficially. The AUEW leadership, however, confined themselves to verbal protests. In reality, as the dockers had shown, the only effective means of crippling the anti-union laws was through the militant actions of the mass movement. But the leaders of the trade unions, both right and left, did not relish the prospect of a direct challenge to the Tory government, and they recoiled.

Shrewsbury trial

1972 saw not only the first official miners’ strike but also the first official building workers’ strike since the 1920s. Building workers, whose separate unions merged to form the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) in 1971, staged their national stoppage for £30 for a 35-hour week, and for the abolition of lump (self-contract) labour. The 13-week strike resulted in increased union organisation and the biggest single rise ever negotiated in the building industry. Again, the key weapon in this struggle was the use of flying pickets that toured around the construction sites ensuring the strike was solid.

The Tory government was desperate to contain the situation and stop the mass picketing. They decided to achieve this by making an example of those guilty of mass picketing, by framing them on charges of intimidation, violence and conspiracy. They hoped this would stop the militant workers and act as a deterrent to others. As a consequence arrests were made of two-dozen leading building workers in the North Wales area. The trial of the “Shrewsbury 24”, as it was called, was a political trial. It was a deliberate conspiracy of the Employers’ Federation, government and state, to frame the men and demonstrate to everyone that militancy does not pay.

“I have heard the judge say that this was not a political trial, just an ordinary criminal case, and I refute that with every fibre of my being…” stated one of the accused, Ricky Tomlinson. “I look forward to the day when the real culprits, the McAlpines, the Wimpeys, the Laings and the Bovis’ and their political bodies are in the dock facing charge of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right – picketing.”

Des Warren was just as defiant.

“Mr Bumble said ‘The law is an ass’. If he were here now he might draw the conclusion that the law is quite clearly the instrument of the state to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against the majority.”[4]

In the end, six men were found guilty in the capitalist courts of unlawful assembly and three of affray. On appeal, the charge of affray was quashed. McKinsie Jones, Des Warren, and Ricky Tomlinson were found guilty of conspiracy. The latter got nine months, three years and two years respectively. In the subsequent trials, pressure was brought on defendants to plea guilty to unlawful assembly to avoid the charge of conspiracy. Some accepted the deal, while others steadfastly refused. Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce were subsequently found guilty on unlawful assembly and affray and were given sentences of six months and four months concurrent.

In the last of the trials, Terry Renshaw, John Seaburg and Lennie Williams again refused to plead guilty to unlawful assembly. Seaburg was found guilty on both charges and got suspended sentences of six and four months, while Renshaw and Williams were found guilty of unlawful assembly and given suspended sentences of four months. These were class laws passed against those who challenged the employers and their state, every much as those against the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the Glasgow spinners. Now as then, the spirit of these men was not broken.

Des Warren wrote optimistically from his prison cell:

“I was greatly encouraged by the sentiments expressed in it as in all the other messages of support my family and myself have received from comrades and fellow workers from all over the country. I tend to be something of an optimist and so tend to put setbacks such as the position Mac Jones, Eric Tomlinson, me and our families find themselves in, in their right perspective and gauge them against the advances made.

“Through their attack on the trade union movement and workers’ reaction to it, in the form of ‘Free the Three’ campaign, new links, contacts and friendships have been made and unity is being formed as with the miners’ fight, which will last until long after we are out of prison and which will stand the movement in good stead in the continuing struggle, for these reasons I believe our time in prison will not have been in vain and I look forward to my day of release so that I can rejoin that struggle, not with a feeling of bitterness or revenge but with a strengthened resolve to help bring about a socialist Britain.”[5]

Scandalously, despite the campaign of protests, Warren and Tomlinson were left to serve the remainder of their prison sentence under a new Labour government, which came to power in February 1974. The Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins (who crossed the floor and ended up as a Lord) refused to “compromise the law of the land”. Ricky Tomlinson was released on 25 July 1975. Des Warren was then left isolated in prison. At the end of his sentence Des Warren served six months in solitary confinement, was reported on 36 occasions by prison officers and moved 15 times through ten different prisons.

Maltreatment in prison undermined Warren’s health and destroyed his family life. Tragically, he contracted Parkinson’s disease. Such was the pressure on Warren and his family that in February 1976 his wife Elsa suffered a nervous breakdown and their five children were taken into care. The stress finally resulted in a family break-up and eventual divorce. Today, Des resides at home in the North East, crippled by illness, and remarried to his former carer Pat. The last time Des Warren appeared in public was three years ago at the Durham miners’ gala, but since then his health has continued to deteriorate. The expense of his care was met by a trust fund set up by the Durham miners’ mechanics and the Wear Valley and District Trades Council. Eric Tomlinson, who was blacked for his union activities, subsequently became famous as a result of his acting career, but remains true, now as then, to the cause of trade unionism and the working class.

1972 could be accurately described as the year of industrial insurrection. 23,909,000 days were lost through strikes – excluding about 4 million lost through political action. Even if the figures for the miners’ strike are excluded, only once, in 1919, was the number of strike days greater. Old traditions of militancy were being reborn. This titanic movement on the industrial front was also shaking up the Labour Party. Under the impact of this militancy, Labour’s NEC also began to swing to the left. For the first time since the 1920s, a left grouping emerged simultaneously on both the TUC General Council and the Labour Party NEC.

As always, the right wing on the TUC General Council was still interested in collaborating with the Tories. In April 1972, the TUC was invited to Downing Street to meet Ted Heath and discuss the economic situation.

“Before this was reported to the General Council Vic Feather had a word with me in a heavily confidential way”, stated Jack Jones. “At that stage I was opposed to such a meeting and I quizzed Vic, saying: ‘Why do you keep having these private meetings? They may give the impression that we’re weak, when it’s the government that’s taking a battering!’ His reply was: ‘We’ve got to talk. Ted’s coming our way.’ He knew he was on an easy wicket with a majority of the General Council, who at that time were opposed to confrontation with the government. A motion objecting to the talks was defeated by 21 votes to 9.

“Should we talk to the government, if they want to talk to us? That question became an issue the General Council debated over many months.” However, in due course, Jack Jones succumbed to the pressure and went along with it. “I became convinced that it was in our members’ interests not to miss an opportunity of changing the government’s mind.”[6]

The right wing was desperate to avoid a confrontation with the Tories and attempted to curtail the growing militancy from below. However, the Lefts had no perspective for the movement. Instead of preparing the ground and mobilising the workers to bring down the government, they dithered and prevaricated, and eventually capitulated to the right wing on the General Council. When it came down to it, they all had illusions about how they could influence the Tories through discussion. They treated the whole affair as a polite conversation, rather than a struggle of mutually antagonistic class interests.

These illusions did not take them very far. To their utter bewilderment, the trade union leaders were shown the door by the government.

“Proposals and counter-proposals were argued over the table. The TUC and the government spokesmen did most of the talking, the CBI contribution was very limited”, continued Jones. “Then, after countless hours of meetings, there was an abrupt ending. To the surprise of the trade union side, Ted Heath declared that certain important items we had been emphasising – pensions, rents, the impact of EEC membership, Industrial Relations Act – were outside the scope of negotiation. Such matters, we were told, were for the House of Commons to determine. A rigid posture was suddenly adopted by the government; even to this day I am unable to understand why.

“No one could have been more disappointed than Vic Feather. He had been a firm supporter of the talks throughout and had taken at face value the government’s claim that it was prepared to enter into a real partnership with both sides of industry in the management of the economy. He felt that Ted Heath had thrown away a golden opportunity.”

Here Jack Jones reveals the real face of Toryism: “In place of talks we had confrontation.” But still the General Council, fearing the alternative, wanted to convince Heath of the error of his ways: “The government must be given a chance to get off the hook,” pleaded Len Murray, the new general secretary of the TUC. But it did not do them a bit of good. The door of Number Ten was firmly closed.

In November 1972, the Heath government imposed “Phase One” of a statutory incomes policy, which was met with muted response. This was later followed by “Phase Two”. After the tremendous struggles of the previous two years, there was an inevitable ebb on the industrial front. The mass movement, which had reached unprecedented heights, could not be sustained indefinitely, especially as no clear alternative was coming from the top. After a period of prolonged militancy, workers had to “take a breather” and take stock of the situation.

This lull in the movement continued for most of 1973. The number of days lost through strikes declined dramatically. From a peak of 24 million strike-days lost, the figure plummeted to just under 8 million. Despite the pause, the number of shop stewards had risen to around 300,000 and trade union membership was rising substantially, especially amongst white collar and professional workers. With practically every layer of the working class involved in strike action over the previous few years, confidence was very high. The possibility of a general strike, given the provocative behaviour of the Tories, was implicit in the situation. Britain had entered an epoch of sharp turns and sudden changes, politically, economically and industrially.

The turnaround in the industrial situation took place towards the end of 1973, which coincided with the announcement of “Phase Three” of the Tories’ incomes policy. This now allowed a 7 per cent wage norm – well below the rate of inflation. If accepted, it would mean a significant cut in living standards. Earlier in the year, miners had rejected strike action over wages, however, resentment began to build up. The Left had strengthened its position in the NUM, and Mick McGahey, a leading member of the CPGB, had been newly elected as vice-president. War in the Middle East led to the quadrupling of oil prices, which tipped the world economy into the first major slump since the 1930s. This energy squeeze served to increase the bargaining power of the miners. This was put to full use in a new substantial wage claim. As part of a national campaign, an overtime ban was introduced throughout the coalfields on 12 November.

In an attempt to isolate the miners, the Heath government hit back by announcing a state of emergency and then on 1 January 1974, the introduction of a three-day working week, ostensibly to save energy. Street lighting was cut back and television was ordered to close down every night at 10.30 p.m. “Already the country felt on the brink of a major crisis”, stated William Whitelaw.[7] By the middle of January more than one million workers had been laid off work. A national ballot in early February recorded a massive 81 per cent majority in favour of strike action – far higher than in 1972. The second national miners’ strike was announced for 9 February 1974. Fearing a humiliating repeat of 1972, Heath gambled the fate of his entire government in a new general election. A few days before the miners’ strike was due to begin, the dissolution of Parliament was announced and a snap general election was called for 28 February.

As expected, the capitalist press attempted to whip up a campaign against the miners, talking of an alleged threat to democracy. “Who runs the country? Parliament or the militants?” were the banner headlines at the time. But despite all the attempts by Heath to win a panic election, a decisive section of workers and the middle class, sickened by the Tories, were looking to the Labour Party. Reflecting the radicalisation on the industrial front, the Labour Party had moved sharply to the left. In October 1973, the Party conference had endorsed a radical programme that included the nationalisation of the top 25 monopolies.

Although the right wing still controlled the contents of the election Manifesto and watered down the Party’s socialist commitments, it was still very radical. Labour entered the election promising to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.” Even the arch right-winger Dennis Healey, the shadow Chancellor, threatened to “squeeze the rich till the pips squeaked”.

The ruling class were alarmed by these developments:

“… the Labour Party has become a threat to the constitution, both in Opposition and in government”, stated the ex-Conservative Minister, Ian Gilmour. “Extremists have penetrated it at every level, and swung it violently to the Left. As Lord George-Brown said in April 1972, ‘in the fifties and sixties the men at the head of the unions were genuine social democrats… Now, I think today that the situation is different. The major unions are the subjects of a different kind of leadership, with a different outlook.’ And he added shortly afterwards: ‘We have been taken over. And we have been taken over by a collection of people who call themselves “activists”. But they are for the most part people who do not believe in our way of life or in our social democratic outlook… And these fellows have now captured control of the Labour movement at every level; constituency parties; trade union branches; executives of the trade unions; the General Council of the TUC; the Labour Party National Executive; and the Shadow Cabinet.”[8]

In the end, the whole panic election gamble backfired and the Tory government went down to defeat. The Labour Party won 301 seats to the Tories’ 296. The Liberals had managed to pick up 14 seats, and in theory held the balance of power. Heath desperately tried to cling on to office, holding secret discussions on 2 March with Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party, in an attempt to patch together some form of coalition. This farce turned to dust when the Liberal headquarters was inundated with 3,000 telegrams of protest. The forlorn attempt to cobble together a coalition government to keep Labour out of office fell flat. It was a humiliating episode for Heath. And so on 4 March, with his tail between his legs, he resigned. “This has been an historic dispute. It is the first time that an industrial stoppage has provoked a general election and indirectly brought about the downfall of a government”, stated the editorial of The Times a few days later.[9]

Labour once again came to power in early March 1974. On 11 March, the miners returned to work with major concessions. On the same day, Margaret Thatcher defeated Edward Heath to become the new leader of the Tory Party. The collapse of the Tory government was certainly a turning point in the Labour movement. For the first time in British history, an elected government had been brought down by industrial action. “It was certainly the worst time in my political life”, recalled Tory minister Willie Whitelaw. Now, organised Labour looked to the new Labour government to carry through its radical commitments, and, in particular, sweep away the detested Tory anti-union legislation.


[1] Paul Ferris, The New Militants, p.8, London, 1972

[2] The Times, 13 November 1979

[3] Jack Jones, op. cit, pp.247-48

[4] Quoted in Jim Arnison, The Shrewsbury Three, pp.73 and 75, London 1974

[5] Ibid, pp.10-11, London, 1974

[6] Jones, op. cit, p.255

[7] Whitelaw, op. cit, p.126

[8] Gilmour, op. cit, pp.200-201

[9] The Times, 7 March 1974