|Volume 51 Number 4, February 6, 2021||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
The Shrewsbury Pickets are to again take their case for exoneration to the Court of Appeal. Forty-seven years ago, workers and trades unionists took on the state and its police powers, used at that time, and declared that they would never give up. The workers' vow to overturn the prosecution of 24 building workers followed the first ever National Building Workers' Strike in 1972. Terry Renshaw, a convicted picket, said: "We are looking forward to finally having our day in court, to show that we were victims of a miscarriage of justice."
There were three historic trials and convictions. In October 1973, six pickets were charged with conspiracy to intimidate, organise unlawful assembly and affray, with Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and John McKinsie Jones convicted of all three charges and sentenced to three years, two years and nine months of imprisonment, respectively. In January 1974, nine were charged with unlawful assembly and affray. Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce were found guilty of both charges and were sentenced to six months' imprisonment for affray and four months for unlawful assembly. In February 1974, nine further building workers were charged with unlawful assembly and affray, with several defendants on this occasion given suspended prison sentences.
The High Court refused appeal, Warren and Tomlinson served sentences in 14 different jails under squalid and hostile conditions. Both workers wore only blankets for long periods, rather than prison uniform, and refused to do prison work. They held hunger strikes. Warren was singled out for special punishment, with many months of solitary confinement and cuts in visits from his first wife, Elsa, and children.
Forty-seven years on, the Appeal Court on February 3 heard evidence uncovered by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign that original witness statements had been destroyed by the police, a fact that had not been disclosed to the defence counsel or the court. Furthermore, the documentary Red under the Bed, broadcast on ITV during the first trial, contained prejudicial content contributed by the Information Research Department, a covert Foreign Office agency. "Part of its remit was to provide anti-communist material to journalists for broadcast and dissemination," said Piers Marquis, the barrister for Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray, of the covert department. They sought to paint the picture, under the conditions of the Cold War, that the defendants were extremists and part of a communist conspiracy, likened to terrorists and tarnished with the same brush.
In a speech to the annual Durham Miners' Gala on July 13, 2013, Ricky Tomlinson said: "The release of the full documentation, relating to the convictions, will be withheld until at least 2021, for reasons of 'national security', justice secretary Chris Grayling said earlier this year." The same excuse was made by Jack Straw, the once Labour Justice Secretary, when he was in office under Tony Blair's administration. Even when the Labour government came to power in 1974, Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, refused calls for their release.
Ricky Tomlinson said: "It will have taken nearly 50 years for us to have our day in court, and for the truth to come out. People will be shocked to know the lengths the establishment went to, in order to punish the working class for trying to improve their working and health and safety conditions. The building sites were, at the time, known as the Killing Fields."
Unionised workers used flying pickets to seek support from workers on the "lump". The national strike demanded a minimum wage of £1 an hour, an end to the industry's appalling safety record, and an end to the lump, a system of gig work rife on non-union building sites at the time. Under this method, workers were paid a lump sum for work done, with no tax or National Insurance deductions, and no employment rights because they had no proper contracts of employment.
On September 6, 1972, UCATT and TGWU bussed members from North Wales and Chester to picket building sites in Shrewsbury.
Five months after the strike, at a time when some of the strikers' aims had been largely settled, several building workers were investigated for alleged sabotage and vandalism during the dispute. Some were subject to high-profile police investigation. Under pressure from major contractors and politicians, anxious to suppress the emergence of organised labour in the building industry, 24 building workers were convicted and six jailed because of their picketing activities. The Conspiracy Act was used against them at their trial, centring on a flying picket sent to Shrewsbury during the strike.
The longest sentences were given to Ricky Tomlinson, a plasterer and TGWU strike leader, and Des Warren. Tomlinson and Warren became known as the "Shrewsbury Two". Warren was a steel fixer, (placing steel for concrete reinforcement on building sites), and leading lay official of UCATT. Having been given sedatives on a continuous basis while in solitary confinement, he later developed serious health problems, and died in Chester on 24 April 2004.
In his speech from the dock, Des Warren said:
"Was there a conspiracy? Ten members of the jury have said there was. There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets. The conspiracy began with the miners giving the government a good hiding last year. It developed when the government was forced to perform legal gymnastics in getting five dockers out of jail after they had only just been put there. The conspiracy was between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police. It was not done with a nod and a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory Members of Parliament who demanded changes in picketing laws.
"Of course, there was a very important reason why no police witness said he had seen any evidence of conspiracy, unlawful assembly or affray. The question was hovering over the case from the very first day: why were there no arrests on the 6 September? That would have led to the even more important question of when was the decision to proceed taken. Where did it come from? What instructions were issued to the police? And by whom? There was your conspiracy.
"I'm innocent of the charges and I shall appeal. But there will be a more important appeal going out to every member of the trade union movement in this country. Nobody here must think they can walk away from here and forget what has happened here. Villains or victims, we are all part of something bigger than this trial.
"The working-class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallenged. It is yet one more step along the road to fascism, and I would remind you that the greatest heroes in Nazi Germany were those who challenged the law, when it was used as a political weapon by a fanatical gang for a minority of greedy, evil men."
After the end of the 1972 national building workers' strike, the Daily Mirror reported: "Police chiefs have sent an elite corps of detectives to smash an army of pickets." The officers spent 10 weeks scouring North Wales and the Chester area for evidence. They carried with them sets of photographs with certain faces ringed in ink. One of the faces was that of Des Warren.
The use of overt police powers was not an isolated event. The Pentonville Five, dockers' shop stewards jailed in 1972, were a case in point. Vic Turner, a leader at the time, said there is a "direct parallel" with the dockers' struggle for jobs, when employers used containerisation to move cargo handling inland - away from organised ports. These were crucial struggles for workers' rights and rights to effectively organise. Direct suppression was used. It was known how effective picketing could be. What was termed "secondary" action was solidarity action, and "flying" pickets were highly effective as they could not easily be anticipated. It was therefore singled out as a tactic and eventually prohibited. Sudden or surprise actions were considered as violent or "intimidatory". The reaction was suppression and spying by state agencies.
The actions were to lead to measures and rules controlling pickets, sequestration of union funds for "unofficial" action and strike laws involving numbers on picket lines and flying pickets. These were brought into law by the Thatcher regime as the neo-liberal anti-social offensive got underway, and thereafter continued by successive governments of all persuasions.
The Shrewsbury campaign now demands a public inquiry into the prosecutions and the release of government documents from 1972 and 1973 that detail the involvement of the security services, including MI5.
The court case is an exposure of the police powers of the state. The struggle of workers to repeal laws that violate their right to organise is a just cause. The Shrewsbury campaign has been long and protracted and has even gone to the centre of the legal system.
The case is particularly relevant today, when the extent and nature of such covert activity is only just beginning to come to light, and is indeed being officially instituted as the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (the "Spycops" Bill) nears becoming law. In the present, all that remains of the public authority is the police powers; the need is to block the path towards permanent rule by exception. The struggle is part of the battle of democracy; workers demand their rights be upheld and guaranteed as a matter of principle.
For further information, see the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign, https://www.shrewsbury24campaign.org.uk