The springing of five dockers from Pentonville in July 1972 was class struggle in the raw. Sabby Sagall (Feedback, November 2019) suggests that the unofficial strike movement “was certainly crucial but, arguably, the dockers’ release would not have happened without the TUC’s intervention”. Ralph Darlington and I detailed the sequence of events in Glorious Summer (Bookmarks, 2001), building on Fred Lindop’s account. All three of us challenged the mainstream opinion that the TUC’s general strike call was key.
Part of the disagreement comes perhaps from Sabby conflating the events of Friday 16 June 1972, when three dockers were due to be arrested at Chobham Farm, east London, with those a month later, when the Pentonville Five were released after five days.
In the former, the Official Solicitor did apply to the Appeal Court to set aside the committal orders as there were not, in Sabby’s words, “sufficient grounds to deprive them of their liberty”. High level political and legal intervention sought to defuse an unofficial national dockers’ strike, called against the impending arrests. But this only afforded temporary respite.
When the TUC General Council met on Wednesday 26 July, for its scheduled monthly meeting, there was a much broader unofficial strike against the jailings on the previous Friday. Its call for affiliated unions “to organise a one-day stoppage of work and demonstrations” on 31 July must be judged against the background of even greater legal manoeuvring than in June.
One contemporary account noted “there was no one in the room who did not realise…that the dockers were likely to be released…that very afternoon”. The TUC’s move was symbolic, and an important precedent, but merely the icing on the cake.
Finally, and rather curiously, Sabby suggests that I claimed the 1967 London dockers’ strike was about housing despite me writing that “the main concern of those dockers who demonstrated their racist sentiments in April 1968 was over housing” (Feedback, September 2019), a quite different point. It would have been ground-breaking, indeed, to have had such a long strike over housing!