Kevin Halpin and the fight against anti-union laws
An excerpt from Kevin Hapin's Memoirs of a Militant.
THE year 1972 was a busy one for LCDTU (the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions).
In February a conference was held to oppose the National Industrial Relations Court, set up with the power of injunction to stifle industrial action; followed by another in June against the Industrial Relations Act which banned non-balloted strikes and introduced cooling-off periods.
These measures, of course, gave employers the time to defeat a strike by finding alternate production facilities and recruiting scabs.
Any talk of industrial relations strategy being equal was condemned. When was there ever a ballot on wage caps, or sackings by employers? This was the message of the June Declaration, which pledged action if anyone in breach of the Act was jailed.
Right-wing commentators tried to portray this position as one determined by ultra-left union executives. This was rubbish. The position was wholly rank and file.
A total of 1,235 credited delegates attended the June conference. The Declaration was carried unanimously.
Betty Crawford, convener at Ferranti electronics and LCDTU Treasurer, took the traditional conference collection and raised thousands of pounds.
Then the London dockers took action. The issue was the transfer of container processing to Chobham Farm in Stratford. The dockers objected that the work was being done by unauthorised labour on lower wages, undermining the National Dock Labour Scheme.
The National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) ruled against the objection and sent a tip-staff to arrest three dock leaders, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Derek Watkins, for contempt.
The day before the threatened arrests 35,000 dockers in ports across the country went on strike. The Official Solicitor suddenly ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict and the arrest warrants were held back.
The common union for dock workers and container drivers was the TGWU. The drivers continued to work the depot and drove past angry picket lines.
The NIRC and the government decided to have another go.
On Friday 21 July Steer, Turner and Watkins, together with fellow dock stewards Conny Clancy and Tony Merrick, were arrested and taken to Pentonville Prison.
As soon as they heard the news the rest of the docks walked out in solidarity. I went down to Pentonville with a large crowd to be told by the dockers to leave it to them, they could handle it.
We rejected this as it wasn’t solving the problem. The CPGB called a meeting of leading trade union activists at King Street.
We crowded in and were addressed by the general secretary, John Gollan. We were told to press for the LCDTU’s call of national strike action.
We had the good fortune to have a major print dispute happening at the same time in London. For several weeks the SOGAT members at Briant Colour in Old Kent Road had successfully held a sit-in at their factory to resist closure.
The LCDTU had been backing the workers. I was in touch with leading stewards led by Bill Freeman, convener and leading LCDTU member.
The Briant factory printed all the high-quality posters for the dockers’ dispute. Their most famous poster was of the Pentonville Five, naming them (Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Derek Watkins) and behind bars.
The whole of the printing industry was holding a solidarity mass meeting for Briant workers at Clerkenwell Green. Jim Hiles, Bill Neary, myself, and others decided to go to that meeting and call for a march up the road to Pentonville.
The intention was to march to the prison directly the speeches had ended. However, immediately after the last speaker had sat down Bill Freeman was up and introducing a street theatre group.
They weren’t bad but they were enjoying the audience of 2,000 people more than audience was enjoying the entertainment, and there was a consequent drift to the pubs.
I asked Bill if we could cut it. He agreed so I moved a vote of “Thanks to the Theatre Group” (a bit unkind but there was a bigger cause at stake) and managed to divert the crowd towards the jailed dockers.
After the demonstration outside Pentonville we met up with dockers’ leaders and agreed we would march on to Fleet Street, picket the Sunday titles and stop the presses.
The idea that no-one would have a poisonous paper on Sunday morning would alert trade unionists of the need for action.
The Fleet Street electricians needed little prompting: even though they were under a notoriously rightwing ETU leadership, they were angry and powerful enough to resist executive control.
Mike Hicks at SOGAT, and Ann Field, leader of the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants, followed this by bringing out their members in unison and the print shops fell silent.
On Sunday I had a phone call from Derek Fullick, leader of Waterloo Station Aslef. There was a meeting that evening. I should get to the Rose of Denmark, round the back of Waterloo station.
I saw Derek at the bar and asked where the meeting was. “Right here,” he said. “Get up on the stage: all the pub are members or family.” He called the bar to order and I called for a stoppage. An unanimous “hear, hear!” came back.
I asked Derek what happened next. “There are no trains from Waterloo from tomorrow,” he said.
My telephone rang at about 4am on Monday morning. I had always believed it was tapped. When I lifted the earpiece this time I heard a voice: “Why are they using the phone this early in the bloody morning?” Then the line was connected and Eric Rechnitz, the drivers’ leader, came on.
The ruling class wanted to know what the LCDTU was planning. Eric wanted my loudspeaker gear to address container drivers at the Royal Docks. We needed a car to get us there.
Luckily Bill Edon, a friend and comrade, had just bought a new Triumph, although he was at first a bit dubious about such a trip, fearing our wheels would be turned over by disgruntled lorry drivers.
That morning I had a decommissioned wooden stage delivered to my house on Cable Street to be filleted for the restoration. Time was pressing so it had to be left in the road.
Eric, Bill and I arrived at the Connaught pub close to the Royal Docks. The first to speak was a dockers’ leader. He was given a rough reception from the drivers.
Eric then called for me to say some words. I didn’t usually speak without notes, but this time I was completely unrehearsed.
There was a bit of rumbling from the crowd as I climbed to the top of a pile of dumped asphalt (the traditional speaker’s podium in the docks).
I decided to give it to the drivers straight. I said that the dockers were not as glorified as sometimes presented — I had worked in ship repair, and had experience of stoppages as a steward, and they could be an overbearing lot.
I said that after the five arrests I had asked the dockers if we should keep all members out, but was told that it was none of our business, the dockers could win any dispute on their own.
Such arrogance that the disdainful dockers had! This admitted, I asked the drivers to ignore it, although it was hard when all in the union were falling out.
Like a family we should settle things amongst ourselves, not give an excuse for the police to be called in.
The jailing of trade unionists, above any other issue, was an attack on us all, every working person.
I ended by asking for a vote in support of a solidarity picket. It was going to be hard. I got some “hear-hears” and applause, mainly because I wasn’t a pro-docker sentimentalist.
The vote was put and it was carried. I was in shock. The press had prepared headlines: “Drivers turn down dockers.” It would have a bad effect on solidarity. But now even the drivers supported the dockers. It gave the campaign a significant boost.
I went home to free Cable Street of timber. It wasn’t mine, I told the Old Bill, but I would take it in. OK, he said.
All that Monday reports of stoppages came in to the Morning Star. Stenographers were constantly taking down the messages. Each place that came out I could name and I knew the comrade responsible.
I was asked to go to Scotland to talk to Raymond McDonald, regional secretary of the TGWU. The structure of the TGWU was changing but the regional secretary was still king.
Raymond said he would bring out TGWU in Scotland. It was a big call. How would he do it? Was there a meeting of officials to get agreement? He just pointed to the phone and said that would do. I said what about democracy, people having a say?
“Do we want to talk about democracy,” Raymond replied, “or stop all Scotland T&G?”
I quickly decided that stopping Scotland T&G was the reason I was there. Sometime in the future we could have the democracy debate. Raymond’s action was as good as his word: Scotland stopped. He must have had enormous power.
Meantime the rest of Britain’s rail, buses, airports, mines, engineering and shipping stopped work.
In line with our strategy to not just be rank and file, a meeting of the TUC was called.
The Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers moved a vote for a general strike. The motion was successful, for the first time since 1926. The strike was to begin on Monday July 31.
Immediately the NIRC was convened. It stated it was not influenced by pressure from the TUC, but the Official Solicitor again had to come out from behind his desk.
He attended Pentonville Prison with an instruction to release the five dock stewards. They were freed to a jubilant crowd that cheered the actions of the LCDTU.
They were cheering themselves and all the others who in a decisive expression of class solidarity had won a memorable victory.
Jail for contempt of the Industrial Relations Court was never tried again.