Vic Turner: Trade Union Leader And Docker Who Was Part Of The Imprisoned Pentonville Five

Throughout history, a handful of labour leaders leave a huge legacy in the struggle for workers’ rights. Vic Turner was one of those leaders, as people throughout the world testified after his passing in December.

Image - VicTurner.jpeg  
[Picture: Victor Turner, trade unionist and docker: born London 3 October 1927; married 1951 Jean Agass (died 1973; one son); died London 30 December 2012]  

Vic Turner was probably best remembered as one of the dock leaders known as the Pentonville Five, a group of picketers who were jailed in July 1972, triggering one of the largest labour demonstrations in London’s history. The men were arrested and jailed at the direction of the government’s National Industrial Relations Court. The dispute over their jailing was a central moment in postwar industrial relations. 

The Pentonville 5 were released from prison when the Government of the day sent its Official Solicitor to the High Court and 'purged the contempt' that the Pentonville 5 were supposed to have committed when they refused to obey an order from the NIRC (National Industrial Relations Court) to desist from picketing (or organising picketing) at two sites, the Midland Cold Store (which was owned by Lord Vestey) and Chobham Farm (which was a former International Rail Depot) that was owned by Port Employers (T.Wallis & Sons), who were using the site to stuff and unstuffy containers. Following their release,  the NIRC was left without real authority, and very soon afterwards the Tory Government removed the NIRC from Industrial Policy. The Tory Government only acted to purge the contempt because tens of thousands of workers laid down their tools in support of the Pentonville 5 and the government feared a general strike was soon to follow.

“Vic Turner was driven by a deep commitment to socialism but his passion and militancy was powered by an even bigger love and loyalty towards the regular worker,” said Paddy Crumlin, National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia and President of the International Transport Workers Federation. “He always stayed close to the rank and file because of his determination to advance the working conditions of dockers. Wherever he went, in communities or political gatherings, his voice roared on behalf of workers. His lifelong accomplishments stand as a beacon for all of us who continue the fight for dockers rights everywhere.”

Crumlin’s observation of the character of Turner was echoed by his mates around the globe. In an obituary in The Independent , 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.”

Upon bestowing on Turner in 1997 the highest award given by the UK Trades Union Congress, the Men's Gold Badge, 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.”

In accepting the award, Turner reaffirmed what stoked his passion and activism. “Even when we successfully conclude the issue of low pay and reach an agreement on that subject, namely, the minimum wage, that wage will, in relative terms, still be low pay,” he said. “We must never, ever forget that if we achieve something on a Monday, on a Tuesday we should be striving to enhance that gain, because that is the way employers are…I am concerned for anyone who is unemployed because, although I had a regular job so-called in the docks, I suffered in any one year months of unemployment. I know what it means. I know how it gets to people.”