Ben Gliniecki discusses the lessons for today of the historic struggle of the arrested dockers, where the threat of a general strike forced a Tory retreat.

On Friday 1st December, dozens of trade union activists gathered in the East Ham Working Men’s Club to commemorate the 45th anniversary of that famous labour movement victory, the Pentonville Five. Ben Gliniecki reports on the contributions made, including by speakers such as Len McCluskey, and the lessons of this historic struggle for today.

On Friday 1st December, dozens of trade union activists gathered in the East Ham Working Men’s Club to commemorate the 45th anniversary of that famous labour movement victory, the Pentonville Five.

The Five were dockers who were among thousands taking strike action in the summer of 1972. They were arrested for exercising their trade union rights and sent to Pentonville prison on Caledonian Road in North London.

The response from the labour movement was magnificent: tens of thousands of people across dozens of workplaces and industries stopped work immediately, not just in London but all over the country. Thousands marched on the prison, demanding the release of the Five.

Under enormous pressure from below, the TUC was forced to call a general strike. The Tory government, terrified of the movement that had been unleashed, immediately released the Five who were carried shoulder-high from Pentonville by the jubilant crowd.

Memories of struggle

At the meeting were a number of speakers who were involved with the events of July 1972. One comrade recalled the march on the prison, and the euphoric feeling when the Five were released. The lesson, he said, is that when workers act in unity and solidarity with each other there’s nothing that can stop us.

Another speaker, from the print workers’ union, described the solidarity strike action taken by print workers at the time. She explained how they shut down the publication of all newspapers for the whole week until the Five were released.

She also described how Thatcher’s anti-union reforms specifically targeted the methods used to free the Five, such as solidarity strike action and secondary picketing. She insisted that the labour movement needs to reconquer the right to organise in this way. But, she warned, “this won’t come just by asking for a change in the law - it will come by us taking action.”

The need for fighting unions

Len McCluskeyA comrade who had been part of the unofficial shop stewards committee, which led the strike leading to the arrest of the Five, made a very interesting contribution. He described the inadequacy of the trade union leadership at the time, and explained how the bureaucracy of the union had only stepped in to take over the coordination of the dockers’ strike in order to wrest control of it away from rank and file workers.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, echoed this point in his contribution and emphasised the need for the most radical layers of rank-and-file workers to be the ones leading industrial action - although workers in places like the Grangemouth refinery might be forgiven for wondering whether Len’s actions are as bold as his words.

Len also spoke about how Unite is a “fighting union” and that it would never hesitate to stand up for itself and its members if trade union rights were attacked. But, Len said, “Unite doesn’t go looking for a fight”.

This sentiment seems a bit out of step with the mood of many workers and young people. The Corbyn phenomenon suggests that people want to take the fight to the Tories.

Unite needs to stand up for its members, not just if their union rights are attacked, but also when their wages are collapsing and living standards deteriorating. The militancy of 1972 could easily resurface, and even reach a higher peak, if a fighting lead were given by Unite and other unions.

Len said he’s longing for today’s TUC to call a general strike. As leader of Britain’s largest union, however, he is in a very strong position to build the movement and the mood for that kind of action. We need to stop longing for it and start building for it.

Support Corbyn! Fight for socialism!

The best speaker of the evening was the film director Ken Loach. He explained that Corbyn could reintroduce many of the trade union rights that have been lost over the last few decades. But, he said, it will take a struggle to get him elected, and that this is a struggle that requires us to get rid of right-wing Labour MPs who don’t support Corbyn.

As Ken explained, “when the bullets start flying” - after Corbyn comes to power - “some of these people will be running for the hills”, instead of sticking by Corbyn and defending him against the economic and political sabotage of the capitalist class, which will inevitably come.

The meeting was an excellent commemoration of the events of July 1972. It’s essential that we learn the lessons of our labour movement history so that we can avoid the mistakes of the past and instead replicate the successes of previous generations.

Socialist Appeal are proud to publish this education guide to help focus your studies of Marxist theory and practice. Visit the various tabs below to find links to introductory articles, classic texts, videos and audio talks for different topics. Read More
Check out this selection of writings for an excellent introduction to many of the fundamentals of Marxist theory, providing a strong basis for those wishing to equip themselves with the ideas necessary in order to fight for socialism. Read More
Dialectical materialism is the philosophy or methodology of Marxism. We must seek to understand the laws of society and nature in order to change them. Read More
Historical materialism is the general theory of how and why society develops in the way it does. Each social system has its inherent laws of motion. If we want to overthrow capitalist society, we must understand how capitalism works. Read More
Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society, allowing us to understand why capitalism perpetually goes into crisis, where inequality comes from, and what the alternative is. Read More
The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in world history for Marxists. Studying the events of 1917, and understanding why the Revolution degenerated into Stalinism, provides vital lessons for revolutionaries today. Read More
For Marxists, the state is not at all neutral. We must understand the state’s real basis and strip away its mysticism by treating it historically - taking in its origins, rise, and eventual fall. Read More
Anarchism is naturally attractive for those wanting to abolish capitalism. But only Marxist ideas can explain why bureaucracy and oppression exist - and how to overthrow the exploitative capitalist system. Read More
Marxists are irreconcilably opposed to the oppression of women and fight determinedly for liberation and against discrimination. We believe this will be achieved through the class struggle - to abolish the oppressive capitalist system. Read More
The madness of fascism expresses the historic crisis and dead-end of capitalism. But it could have been avoided if the working class had a united revolutionary leadership, prepared to take power. Read More
Nations have not always existed, nor will they always exist in the future. Marxists are internationalists, fighting for world socialist revolution as the only way forward for humanity and our planet. Read More
Wars represent the sharp extreme of capitalism’s impasse. Imperialism, Lenin said, was the "highest stage of capitalism". As long as the profit system exists, there will be wars over markets and spheres of influence. Read More
All written history, Marx stated, is the history of class struggle. Our task is to learn the lessons from history in order to prepare for the revolutionary events taking place today and in the future. Read More
Our aim is to spread the ideas of Marxism, in an organised fashion, amongst workers and youth. In order to do this, we must study the history and traditions of the working class. Read More
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