During Britain’s first national builders’ strike in the 1970s, trade union activists spread the strike by travelling from sites in North Wales and Chester to Shrewsbury, in so-called flying pickets. 24 workers were later arrested and convicted on spurious counts of intimidation, violence and conspiracy, following a crooked trial, at the urging of construction bosses and the Tory-led government of Edward Heath. Several of these workers served jail time. Following a decades-long campaign, the Shrewsbury 24 have had their convictions overturned. Though this provides some vindication, it is not true justice. We must honour the sacrifices of these class fighters by continuing their legacy of struggle.
Following a decades-long campaign by trade union activists, the Court of Appeal has finally overturned the disgraceful 1974 conviction of the ‘Shrewsbury 24’, who were tried and convicted over their involvement in the 1972 building workers strike.
Twenty-four pickets were charged by the state. Fourteen received sentences - two including jail time - in a trial that was nothing short of a scandal.
The court has now been forced to admit that the trial was indeed faulty. It found that witness statements had been destroyed, and that the screening of a hostile TV documentary at the time of the hearing, were both “clearly prejudicial” to a fair trial.
In the words of Lord Justice Fulford:
"If the destruction of the handwritten statements had been revealed to the appellants at the time of the trial, this issue could have been comprehensively investigated with the witnesses when they gave evidence, and the judge would have been able to give appropriate directions… By the standards of today, what occurred was unfair to the extent that the verdicts cannot be upheld."
That is an understatement! Those trade unionists who were sent to trial in 1974 faced no justice at all. The whole system was rigged against them in what was a clear attempt to break trade union militancy.
Government panicked when Tomlinson and his fellow activists took part in the first-ever national building workers’ strike to secure better wages and safety regimes.— John Hedges (@JohnHedges109) March 24, 2021
Ricky Tomlinson: “People don’t realise now but building sites at that time were the killing fields.” #Shrewsbury24 https://t.co/d2vMq87ley
As one of those in the dock, Ricky Tomlinson, put it later: “Our trial was political and we were political prisoners!”
This new judgement has come about purely because of ongoing pressure from trade unionists, not because the establishment wanted to see any sort of injustice righted.
Why were the pickets tried in the first place?
The building strike of 1972 had taken place against a growing background of industrial militancy. Both the Tory government and construction bosses were fearful of this and demanded action to break the power of rank and file union action.
As previously outlined, the Conservative Home Secretary Robert Carr had set the tone when he stated:
“I intend once again to draw the attention of chief constables to ... discuss with them what further action they may take… obstruction and intimidation are illegal… sheer numbers attending can itself constitute intimidation.”
The call was made to use the police to target so-called ‘flying pickets’, who travelled around supporting the strike. The establishment set to work, and in February 1973 arrests were made all around the country.
Initial attempts to find pickets guilty of crimes fell as no actual evidence of any crimes existed. However, intent to commit a crime required far less evidence, if any.
So it was that 24 men duly appeared in court in Shrewsbury, well away from where they had been arrested in industrial North Wales. They were mainly charged not with what they had done but with that which the prosecution argued they intended to do.
The trial was a fiasco from beginning to end. Many of the charges were either dropped or reversed later on. However, the state was determined to set an example, and 14 men were duly found guilty.
Of course, the use of the police as agents of big business was not a new thing. The Shrewsbury 24 trial would be quickly followed by attacks on pickets at Trico, then Grunwick, then the miners a few years later, followed by print workers at Wapping. So it continues through to the present day.
Needless to say, the police were happy to investigate the pickets. But they showed no interest in looking at corruption in the industry or at the use of the Blacklist by the construction bosses. The class war never ceases.
Now, the names of the 14 pickets who received sentences back in 1974 have been finally cleared.
However, the court added a vicious coda by implying that technically the men should now be retried, but that this won’t happen because of the time delay and “public interest”.
The hint from the court is all too clear: OK they are now innocent under law, but only on a technicality.
For the establishment, all trade union militants are guilty of something. For the bosses, trade unionism itself is a crime. And we all know which side the state is always on.
49 years ago, two dozen Shrewsbury builders joined their union's first national strike for safe sites and fair pay. In response, bosses, police and courts trampled over the law to jail them.— Peace and Justice Project (@corbyn_project) March 23, 2021
It's taken half a century to get justice. This morning, every conviction was quashed. pic.twitter.com/cC8CatCjaw
Let us be clear: these men were innocent and should never have been tried in the first place. We should also note that for six of the men, this has all come too late as they are now dead.
This is the case for Des Warren, who was targeted by the state from the very beginning. Given a three year sentence, he undertook a hunger strike and was treated viciously by the prison authorities.
The new Labour government which had then came to power, alongside the toothless TUC leaders, shamefully chose to take no action in support of Des.
Released in the middle of the night after thirty long months, Des’ health was broken. He died long before his time in 2004, as a result of what he alleged were side effects from the tranquilisers administered to him whilst imprisoned.
However, the case of the Shrewsbury pickets has never been forgotten - not by rank and file activists anyway.
Decade after decade, the campaign has been kept going, uncovering new evidence and demanding that the convictions be overturned.
Many have thanked the stirling work of campaign researcher Eileen Turnbull, who did so much to uncover key evidence that led to the appeal being pushed forward.
The task was clear: to officially clear the names of all those sentenced back in 1974 - to remove the stain on these men’s reputations. Finally, they have achieved that.
The Shrewsbury pickets were fighters for our class, not common criminals as the bosses and their cronies at Westminster and in the Tory press would have had you believe.
No doubt the state will hope that all this will now be forgotten. We must ensure that it is not.
Extract on the trial of the Shrewsbury 24 from In the Cause of Labour by Rob Sewell
We republish here an extract from In the Cause of Labour by Rob Sewell, which covers the trial of the Shrewsbury 24.
In the Cause of Labour is an excellent history of British trade unionism, stretching back all the way to the industrial revolution. It contains the accumulated lessons of centuries of working class struggle, and is therefore vital reading for activists today.
Buy your copy now from WellRed books, for £14.99 (print), or £4.99 (ebook).
1972 saw not only the first official miners’ strike but also the first official building workers’ strike since the 1920s. Building workers, whose separate unions merged to form the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) in 1971, staged their national stoppage for £30 for a 35-hour week, and for the abolition of lump (self-contract) labour.
The 13-week strike resulted in increased union organisation and the biggest single rise ever negotiated in the building industry. Again, the key weapon in this struggle was the use of flying pickets that toured around the construction sites ensuring the strike was solid.
The Tory government was desperate to contain the situation and stop the mass picketing. They decided to achieve this by making an example of those guilty of mass picketing, by framing them on charges of intimidation, violence and conspiracy. They hoped this would stop the militant workers and act as a deterrent to others.
As a consequence arrests were made of two-dozen leading building workers in the North Wales area. The trial of the “Shrewsbury 24”, as it was called, was a political trial. It was a deliberate conspiracy of the Employers’ Federation, government and state, to frame the men and demonstrate to everyone that militancy does not pay.
“I have heard the judge say that this was not a political trial, just an ordinary criminal case, and I refute that with every fibre of my being…” stated one of the accused, Ricky Tomlinson. “I look forward to the day when the real culprits, the McAlpines, the Wimpeys, the Laings and the Bovis’ and their political bodies are in the dock facing charge of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right – picketing.”
Des Warren was just as defiant.
“Mr Bumble said ‘The law is an ass’. If he were here now he might draw the conclusion that the law is quite clearly the instrument of the state to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against the majority.”
In the end, six men were found guilty in the capitalist courts of unlawful assembly and three of affray. On appeal, the charge of affray was quashed. McKinsie Jones, Des Warren, and Ricky Tomlinson were found guilty of conspiracy. The latter got nine months, three years and two years respectively.
In the subsequent trials, pressure was brought on defendants to plea guilty to unlawful assembly to avoid the charge of conspiracy. Some accepted the deal, while others steadfastly refused. Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce were subsequently found guilty on unlawful assembly and affray and were given sentences of six months and four months concurrent.
In the last of the trials, Terry Renshaw, John Seaburg and Lennie Williams again refused to plead guilty to unlawful assembly. Seaburg was found guilty on both charges and got suspended sentences of six and four months, while Renshaw and Williams were found guilty of unlawful assembly and given suspended sentences of four months.
These were class laws passed against those who challenged the employers and their state, every much as those against the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the Glasgow spinners. Now as then, the spirit of these men was not broken.
Des Warren wrote optimistically from his prison cell:
“I was greatly encouraged by the sentiments expressed in it as in all the other messages of support my family and myself have received from comrades and fellow workers from all over the country. I tend to be something of an optimist and so tend to put setbacks such as the position Mac Jones, Eric Tomlinson, me and our families find themselves in, in their right perspective and gauge them against the advances made.
“Through their attack on the trade union movement and workers’ reaction to it, in the form of ‘Free the Three’ campaign, new links, contacts and friendships have been made and unity is being formed as with the miners’ fight, which will last until long after we are out of prison and which will stand the movement in good stead in the continuing struggle, for these reasons I believe our time in prison will not have been in vain and I look forward to my day of release so that I can rejoin that struggle, not with a feeling of bitterness or revenge but with a strengthened resolve to help bring about a socialist Britain.”
Scandalously, despite the campaign of protests, Warren and Tomlinson were left to serve the remainder of their prison sentence under a new Labour government, which came to power in February 1974. The Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins (who crossed the floor and ended up as a Lord) refused to “compromise the law of the land”.
Ricky Tomlinson was released on 25 July 1975. Des Warren was then left isolated in prison. At the end of his sentence Des Warren served six months in solitary confinement, was reported on 36 occasions by prison officers and moved 15 times through ten different prisons.
Maltreatment in prison undermined Warren’s health and destroyed his family life. Tragically, he contracted Parkinson’s disease. Such was the pressure on Warren and his family that in February 1976 his wife Elsa suffered a nervous breakdown and their five children were taken into care. The stress finally resulted in a family break-up and eventual divorce.
Today , Des resides at home in the North East, crippled by illness, and remarried to his former carer Pat. The last time Des Warren appeared in public was three years ago at the Durham miners’ gala, but since then his health has continued to deteriorate. The expense of his care was met by a trust fund set up by the Durham miners’ mechanics and the Wear Valley and District Trades Council.
Eric Tomlinson, who was blacked for his union activities, subsequently became famous as a result of his acting career, but remains true, now as then, to the cause of trade unionism and the working class.