Vic Turner was one of the dock leaders known as the Pentonville Five, whose imprisonment for picketing in July 1972 led to one of the largest mass demonstrations in London, and the threat by the Trades Union Congress of a general strike. The men were arrested and jailed on the orders of the Heath government's newly set-up National Industrial Relations Court; the dispute over their jailing would be one of the defining moments in postwar industrial relations.
The dockworkers were secondary-picketing the Chobham Farm container depot in protest at proposals by employers to move their jobs to the depots; another company, Midland Cold Storage, part of the multi-national Vesty Group, applied to the NIRC for an injunction to stop further picketing; the dockers defied the injunction. MCS hired private detectives to identify the mens' leaders, and five Transport and General Workers Union shop stewards – Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Derek Watkins and Vic Turner – were named as ringleaders. Warrants for their arrests were issued by the NIRC for contempt of court, and four were arrested and imprisoned on 21 July; Turner, seen as the most prominent, was arrested and imprisoned as he led a demonstration outside Pentonville, where the men had been taken.
Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite (formerly TGWU), was a young shop steward in the Liverpool docks at the time, and remembered what an inspiration Turner had been. "Vic Turner," he said, "represented all that is good about the dockers in particular and working people more generally. To go to prison in the cause of trade union freedom is not something many of us have had to face, we can only hope that we would live up to the example that Vic Turner set."
There was uproar throughout the UK with demonstrations and walk-outs; the TUC General Council called for a one-day national strike to take place on 31 July, after Prime Minister Heath ignored their plea for him to intervene. A march and demonstration was organised which saw thousands march on Pentonville. Faced by the threat of a general strike and looking for a way out of the confrontation, the Official Solicitor was sent in by the Government to look at the case. He applied to the Court of Appeal on the grounds that the NIRC had "insufficient" grounds to deprive the men of their liberty, and that the private detectives' evidence was also insufficient.
The men were set free on 26 July. The role of the NIRC was discredited; although the Industrial Relations Act remained on the statute books, it was largely ignored. Thatcher would learn from the case and later target funds rather activists.
A clever, determined man, Victor Turner was born and brought up in East London, he followed his father and his brothers into the dockyards, becoming a docker. His socialism was learnt from his mother, who took him as a child to meetings at Poplar Town Hall. He joined the TGWU, becoming a steward in the Royal Group, and also a member of the Communist Party, taking part in the battles to end casualisation.
Immensely popular with fellow dockworkers, he turned down offers of advancement to remain near his roots. His son Vic recalled: "He never wanted to be one step away from the men. He never courted adulation or esteem, he led the way because it had to be done. Dockers never went on strike for money, only for better conditions, and that's what he wanted."
The introduction of the Industrial Relations Act led to full-scale conflict between unions and employers. Turner played a prominent role in organising support for the dockers fighting to keep the Upper Clyde Shipyards open and in helping others such as the miners' children affected by the 1972 miners dispute. He was to continue his fight against the loss of jobs within the shipyards, but the days of the docks came to an end as containerisation took over, resulting in large-scale redundancies; Turner lost his job when the Royal Group finally closed.
He went to work for Newham Council as a Trade Refuse Officer and joined the Labour Party. He was elected to the council in 1984, serving as Mayor. Len McCluskey said: "There was life after the docks for Vic. Active in the Newham Labour Party, he continued to represent working people in their communities. Vic Turner, whether active in the workplace or in the community, never lost sight of working class interests and was never swayed from supporting that cause."
He was awarded the TUC's gold badge for his work in the trade union movement. TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady remembered the impact that Turner had made: "For Vic Turner, trade unionism was about working class people looking after each other. It was a simple belief, but it was one that led him to organise in support of his fellow dockers when jobs were threatened, it was a belief that resulted in him being jailed; and soon afterwards it was a belief that led to him being released when workers across the country decided they should look after him and the other Pentonville Five.
"The same belief lay at the heart of his work on the docks and later as a councillor in Newham. And that is why I am pleased that Dan Jones' painting of the Pentonville demonstration hangs outside the TUC's General Council Chamber."
It was good to see the respectful obituary of Vic Turner (19 January), writes Eddie Johnson. I knew him for over 50 years, first when I served as the Tally Clerks representative on Jack Dash's unofficial London Docks liaison committee when Vic was one of Jack Dash's most trusted lieutenants. Later, when I'd left the docks to run the Two Puddings pub in Stratford he was a regular.
I remember when he was the Mayor of Newham he came to a charity night we ran for Terry Spinks and he let me wear his chain of office to have a photo taken. What was so good about Vic Turner was that he was incorruptible, and always true to his beliefs of the solidarity and honour of the working class. He never sold out, as many did in those days. I will raise a glass in his memory.
Victor Turner, trade unionist and docker: born London 3 October 1927; married 1951 Jean Agass (died 1973; one son); died London 30 December 2012.