Steer, Bernie

Bernie Steer

A measure of how sensitive were docks strikes is shown by the revelations that came when cabinet papers covering 1970 were released under the 30-year rule at the start of 2001. It seems that, throughout one dispute, Prime Minister Heath had been getting regular reports from MI5, based on information from agents, phone tapping and bugging. It included accounts of private meetings between leading Communist Party officials and dockers’ shop stewards and even internal discussions about the editorial line of the Morning Star.

After Jack Dash retired from work in 1968, the mantle of leadership of the London docks, which Communists had been holding on and off for half a century, had been passed to Bernie Steer. MI5 knew that this had happened before the ban in Communists holding office in the TGWU had been lifted and it would take the cycle of elections within the union to resolve this from 1970. 

We now know that a leading London docker, one Brian Nicolson, had been an informant for MI5 at least as early as this dispute, providing information to the state on the tactical plans of the dockers and the union. Big chunks of the publicly released documentation were blacked out in released MI5 documents, including phrases around the name of Brian Nicholson. Although he was just one of a number of rank and file leaders – and not an especially significant one, in industrial terms, his opinions are quoted in detail.

His information, especially his judgement on the role of Communists clearly informed the British State’s tactics and strategy when it came to dock strikes. As far as the 1970 dispute went, the judgement of the state’s spies, fed to the cabinet, was that introducing the 34,000 troops needed to break the strike would be feasible since the Communist Party had not had time to build an extensive support and solidarity network that might make this a political step too far. 

The view expressed to MI5 from a high level within the TGWU was that the absence of Jack Dash from the scene had led to the Communist Party being “caught by surprise”. TGWU sources tended to blame Bernie Steer, a Communist but who was a member of the National Association of Stevedores and Dockers (NASD) for the conflict. But the truth of it was wider than this simple calculation.

The NASD was largely fixed on the London docks. It had the nickname of the “blue” union (arising from the colour of its membership card) but the abiding difference since 1948 (until 1968) was that the NASD did not ban Communists from holding office, unlike the TGWU.

The founding in 1967 of the unofficial National Port Shop Stewards movement, which united NASD and T&G dockers, was a critical moment for changing the dynamic associated with the foregoing. When, in January 1968, London dockers assembled for mass meetings to elect a joint shop stewards committee for each firm, these were joint meetings of the NASD and the TGWU. The dockers demanded that no political bars be adopted, for the NASD had no such ban. 

Thus, Bernie Steer was National Secretary of the CP controlled Port Shop Stewards Movement by the time of the now we’ll-known incident described as the Pentonville 5, when five shop stewards were jailed in July 1972 by the National Industrial Relations Court for refusing to obey a court order to stop picketing a container depot in East London. (Midland Cold Storage Co. Ltd. v Steer [1972] (ICR)) 

The five dockers’ shop stewards —  Bernie Steer, Vic Turner, Connie Clancy, Derek Watkins and Tom Merrick, only two of whom were TGWU members — were supported by many hundreds of thousands unionists across the country who walked off the job in protest forcing the TUC to consider a national general strike. 

When a mass march reached Pentonville prison on July 26 1972, the five were released, as the government found a device to back down. 

Tipped off by MI5, the News of the World ran a major campaign against Bert Ramelson and his links with Bernie Steer. 

Despite the importance of these events and the leadership of the Communist Party, the Port of London workplace branch of the CP was down to twelve members as 1973 began and was very weak by 1975. 

The NASD merged into the TGWU in 1982, by which time posterity had forgotten the role of the NASD and Steer in particular, with the Pentonville 5 erroneously seen in more recent years as having been led by the TGWU. 

Sources: Our History No 7 on Pentonville 5 by Graham Stevenson 

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