On 20 April 1968, leading Tory politician Enoch Powell made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech in which he attacked mass immigration from the Commonwealth. Quoting from the Latin poet Virgil, he proclaimed: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” The speech caused a political storm, making Powell one of the most divisive political figures in the country. Tory leader Edward Heath immediately sacked Powell from the Shadow Cabinet, though it is widely believed that Powell’s speech played a crucial role in the Tories’ surprise victory in the 1970 general election.
There was an immediate reaction to Powell’s sacking. Thousands of dockers and meat packers marched and struck in his defence. “Back Britain, not Black Britain”, read one placard on the march on 22 April. However, a great majority of dockers did not strike for Powell. One London docks militant, International Socialists member Terry Barrett, would not cross the picket line but marched up and down the docks’ entrance with a placard denouncing the strike and, assisted by students, handed out leaflets denouncing Powell as a rich Tory.
The dockers’ support for Powell occurred against the background of their defeat in a bitter nine-week strike against containerisation. The introduction of containers in UK shipping in the late 1960s suddenly and profoundly changed the labour market for dock workers. Containers required far fewer workers to load and unload cargo, and therefore greatly reduced the employment of dock workers.
Containerisation had other impacts on UK ports as well. Port activity became much more concentrated in a few locations, rather than being distributed widely around Britain. Containers required deep-water ports and integrated road and rail networks. Many older ports (such as the Port of London) were unsuited to the new technology and declined, while new ports expanded in more suitable locations such as Felixstowe.
The port districts in east London lost some 150,000 jobs between 1966 and 1976 due to the closure of the London docks, around 20 percent of all jobs in the area. Micky Fenn, a Communist Party docker who later joined the SWP, emphasised that demoralisation had opened space for the right.
In July 1972, five dockers’ shop stewards were jailed by the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) for refusing to obey a court order to cease picketing a container depot in Newham, east London.
The TUC called for a national strike demanding the immediate release of the five. Thousands of striking workers marched through north London to Pentonville Prison. The “Five” were released within a week of their arrest when they successfully applied to the Court of Appeal. The official legal grounds for their release was that the NIRC lacked sufficient grounds to deprive them of their liberty, and that the evidence of the private investigators was insufficient.
But everyone on the march knew that nothing moves the ruling class more than the threat of a general strike. The dockers’ heads were held high in the confidence regained over the four years since the 1968 defeat.
Four years later, in 1976, a strike erupted at the Grunwick mail order photo processing factory in north west London. The firm employed 440 people, 80 percent of whom were Asian.
The strike began after bosses dismissed Devshi Bhudia for “working too slowly”. Three others walked out in solidarity. By the end of the week 170 workers were out of the door — the strike would last nearly two years.
The woman who came to lead the strike, Jayaben Desai, took the time to issue a warning on her way out. “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals,” she said. “Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”
Workers faced down thuggish violence meted out on behalf of boss George Ward, while the state colluded to undermine solidarity: the police regularly attacked the picket line and arrested strikers.
The TUC naively believed that the law would be on the Grunwick strikers’ side, a view that was exposed at an industrial tribunal. It ruled that the workers had been “fairly” sacked. The TUC responded by recommending that their members stop using Grunwick products! The strike committee called for mass pickets: police punched, kicked and dragged pickets away by their hair.
The following week miners from Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent led thousands from across Britain to Grunwick. They overwhelmed police by sheer force of numbers and successfully blocked the plant.
And crucially, dockers from around the country were among the pickets supporting the Asian workers. London docker Bob Light described “an impressive sight — shop stewards’ banners from the four biggest ports in the country. Hull, London, Merseyside and Southampton lined up right across the road”.
The political lessons are clear: the greater the confidence among workers, the greater the potential for unity against racism. The anti-racist fight is inextricably linked to the struggle against capitalism.