REAL LIVES Vic Turner All that is go
Docker Vic Turner always stood his ground – even if that meant going to prison
The death in December of Vic Turner, the docker’s leader who was one of the Pentonville Five jailed by the Heath government in July 1972 for secondary picketing, was a reminder of the extraordinary events of that summer just over 40 years ago, a major landmark in recent trades union history.
Born in 1927, Vic Turner, a powerful and charismatic leader, was awarded the TUC’s gold badge for his work for the trade union movement. He was one of five TGWU shop stewards on the London docks imprisoned for five days in July 1972 for defying an injunction to stop secondary picketing of the Chobham Farm container depot in Newham.
It was the climax of a long struggle to stop dockworkers’ jobs being taken away by the container firms and Ted Heath’s government had decided to bring things to a head by taking on the unions through a new wheeze – the national industrial relations court (NIRC). By the end of the Pentonville Five affair the NIRC was as redundant as an obsolete dockside crane and the Tories would never again target individuals, preferring in future the route of sequestering union assets.
No one could have predicted the extraordinary events of 40 years ago which led to the TUC calling a one-day general strike on July 31, to a surge of sympathetic action from other unions, and to street demonstrations throughout the country.
The five union leaders, Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Derek Watkins and subsequently Vic Turner,
were imprisoned after warrants were issued for their arrest by the NIRC for contempt of court when a company called Midland Cold Storage, part of the multi- national Vestey Group, applied for an injunction to halt secondary picketing.
The Vestey Group, as Vic’s fellow union activist, Kevin Hussey, explains, were in no mood to conciliate dockworkers who were getting in the way of their profits and so hired private detectives to identify the ringleaders who were named in Vestey’s submission to the court.
After the four were jailed on July 21 mass demonstrations broke out; the tolerance of the trades union movement had been tested. The following day Vic joined a march from Tower Hill on Pentonville where he too was arrested and immediately imprisoned. “He didn’t shy away from it; he knew it was coming,” Kevin Hussey says of that Saturday.
The TUC general council now called for a one day national strike on July 31 and a general strike seemed imminent as one union after another joined in the action. The print unions halted the papers, miners in other parts of the country came out, as did engineering workers, bus and lorry drivers and Inland Revenue workers.
“The big bonus for us was when the print came out,” Kevin remembers. The government, no doubt looking for a way out of the situation they had created, sent in the official solicitor, Norman Turner, who decided the NIRC was wrong to have jailed them and the evidence of the private detectives was
30 uniteWORKS May/June 2013 BY NICHOLAS MURRAY
inadequate. All five were immediately released on July 26. The NIRC was now a dead duck.
Vic Turner was a popular and effective union leader who began his career in the traditionally militant Royal group of docks in East London where legendary rank and file leaders like Jack Dash had fought to improve conditions for workers. Bernie Steer believes he got his politics from his mother who took the young Vic to a meeting in Poplar Town Hall that he never forgot.
He was one of seven children and his four brothers all worked in the docks as their father had before them. Vic’s son, also called Vic, told me that it was “a very hard-working family” and a happy one. “He was a good listener as well as a good speaker,” he says of his father. “When he spoke you could always tell that it was what he believed in. He never asked anyone to do what he wouldn’t do himself.”
He adds that mostly the dockers were fighting for improved conditions rather than higher wages. It was hazardous work in those days, with workers often handling raw asbestos or frozen New Zealand lamb in freezing holds. “Conditions were terrible.”
Vic resisted the chance to move up through the union hierarchy into an office job and preferred to stay at the grass roots level.
“He always wanted to be with the men; that was where you knew what was going on,” says his son. He also played a big part in the struggle of the Upper
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