On 31 August 1972 the strike committees of North Wales building workers’ met in the upstairs room of the Bull and Stirrup in Chester.
This was to be a fateful day for these men. They would go on to be the victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice seen in Britain since the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. They would be vilified and hounded by parts of the press, convicted by a court as a deterrent to strikers, and abandoned by their own union leaders and the TUC.
Six of them would go to prison and one of these would die later as a result of the treatment he received while there.
The strike had begun in June 1972 on selected major building sites, the first of these being Marks and Spencers in Liverpool. Pressure from the rank and file soon forced the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) to call all their members out.
The strikers wanted a 35-hour week, a national minimum wage and an end to ‘The Lump’, a system of paying workers illegally, cash in hand, which undermines union organisation and safety.
In the Bull and Stirrup, Ricky Tomlinson says, the strike committees:
…”discussed picketing in the Shrewsbury area, where many of the big sites had still not come out. We voted to organise a big picket for the following week, with coaches bringing building workers from the surrounding districts.”
Police outriggers escorted the coaches from site to site, and apart from minor scuffles everything was peaceful. Most of the sites they visited supported the strike and there were no arrests.
Des Warren was even congratulated on his conduct of a meeting by the officer in charge, Police Superintendent Meredith, who shook his hand.
The strike ended on 15 September with the biggest pay increase ever recorded for workers in the building industry, although it didn’t remove ‘The Lump’.
In October 1972, the Home Secretary Robert Carr instructed chief constables to investigate violent picketing. Carr was responding to a dossier, almost entirely made up of press cuttings, handed to him by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers.
This set in train a massive operation by the police to find ‘Terror Pickets’ – a term used by the press – raiding dozens of ordinary building workers’ homes and subjecting them to intense questioning.
Although we now refer to them as the Shrewsbury 24, there were actually 31 North Wales building workers charged. The first trials were in Mold and they were used as a dress rehearsal for Shrewsbury.
Only minor charges were upheld by the jury and all the pickets walked free. But five of those cleared were to appear again at a later trial.
In his opening address at the first of three Shrewsbury trials on 3 October 1973, prosecuting counsel, Maurice Drake QC, told the jury that the pickets would be described as being, ‘like a swarm of Apache Indians’.
One of their witnesses said he heard pickets shouting ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’.
The pickets had actually been shouting ‘Kill! Kill! Kill! The Lump’.
Unlawful assembly and conspiracy to intimidate had been added to the earlier charge of affray. The conspiracy charge, using an act of 1875, allowed for an unlimited jail sentence.
Drake explained the incredible nature of this charge. You didn’t have to meet, you didn’t even have to know each other; a conspiracy could be arranged ‘with a nod and a wink’.
Three of the pickets – Warren, Tomlinson and McKinsie Jones – were found guilty and given prison sentences of up to nine years (three years on each charge). McKinsie Jones hadn’t even been in the Bull and Stirrup at the time of the decision to picket the Shrewsbury sites!
At the end of the trial, and before sentencing, Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson spoke from the dock. Both speeches laid out clearly their thoughts on how the trial had been set up to criminalise picketing, that it was a political trial.
Warren told the court:
“Politically motivated interference by governments acting on behalf of and under political pressure from employers now means that no trade unionist can enter freely into negotiations with employers. They cannot withdraw their labour – the only thing they possess as a bargaining lever – without being accused of setting out to wreck the economy, of challenging the law. The building employers, by their contempt of the laws governing safety regulations, are guilty of causing the deaths and maiming of workers – yet they are not dealt with by the courts.”
The pickets had become victims of the government’s push to shackle union activity, and they had every right to believe, as they were led away, that the movement would fight to get them out.
The leaders of UCATT and TGWU, though, had abandoned the pickets. They had refused them representation at the outset of the trial. And now three had been jailed, they wouldn’t support the calls for action to get them released, nor even appeals against sentence.
Although hampered by the response from trade union leaders, the groundswell of support for the pickets gained momentum. At the time of the trials there had been industrial action in support, notably from the Liverpool dockers. And in early 1974 workers stopped work in London and Glasgow, and 25 major building sites in Manchester.
Pending appeals Warren and Tomlinson (McKinsie Jones having been released) were allowed bail in June. When, in October, they were sent back to prison, with the appeal court verdict that the sentences were a deterrent to others, workers on building sites all over the country spontaneously walked out, only to be told to get back to work by their unions.
In early 1975 Lancashire building workers marched from Wigan to London calling for a general strike for the release of the two pickets still in jail.
By this time a Labour Government had been elected and the trade union leaders did not want to “rock the boat”. The TUC did meet with the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, only to be rejected. Jack Jones, General Secretary of the TGWU, declared that the General Council of the TUC would not even consider the call for a general strike.
Warren and Tomlinson continued their sentences, Des in 14 different jails, encountering squalid conditions and hostility from prison staff in most of them. As part of their campaign to prove their innocence and that they were political prisoners, both men went on hunger strike and ‘on the blanket’ for long periods, and refused to do prison work. Warren, in particular, was singled out for punishment, with many months of solitary confinement and cuts in visits from his wife, Elsa, and the children.
When Tomlinson came out of jail in July 1975, he joined the campaign for the release of Warren but, once again, there was a lack of support from the trade union leaders.
Des Warren served all but four months of his sentence and was released on 5 August 1976.
Warren died on 24 April 2004 of Parkinson’s disease. He laid the blame for his illness squarely on the ‘liquid cosh’, the tranquillising drugs administered to difficult prisoners like him while in prison.
The Shrewsbury Pickets Campaign was renewed in August 2006. The demand is justice for the pickets, and a public inquiry to expose the real conspiracy. There are still many questions that remain unanswered about the events surrounding the Shrewsbury trials, not least the role of MI5.
Such a campaign has a clear relevance for workers in today’s casualised construction industry with its appalling safety record.