The Story of the Shrewsbury Pickets

Orgiginaly published in The Morning Star 6/2/2016

EILEEN TURNBULL looks back on Britain’s first-ever national building workers’ strike

BRITAIN’S first-ever national building workers’ strike took place in 1972. Construction workers faced hostile and powerful employers, lump labour and isolated workplaces that changed constantly whenever a contract finished.

Workers faced dangerous conditions on sites every day and there were no health and safety measures. One building worker died each working day in the early ’70s. Over 70,000 would suffer serious injury or illness each year. Ucatt, the T&G, FTAT and NUGMW were the main unions that had members in the industry.

Many industrial relations commentators thought that their strike was doomed to fail because of the difficulties in organising building workers compared with the highly unionised miners and dockworkers.

Eight weeks into the strike, on August 17 1972, Lee Wilson wrote in the London Evening News: “The only untypical thing about the strike of Britain’s building workers, is that until now few people have been affected. At least visibly, immediately affected.

“Incredibly the dispute has been going since June 26 … After the miners and the dockers, the building workers seem to be as menacing as a walkout by a church choir.”

During the strike building workers, irrespective of which union or trade they were in, organised picketing of sites throughout the country. After a new pay offer from the employers was rejected on August 8 the unions stepped up picketing and called an all-out strike.

At the end of the 12-week dispute, in September 1972, they succeeded in winning the highest-ever pay rise in the history of the building industry.

Five months after the strike ended, 24 north Wales pickets were picked up and charged with over 200 offences, including unlawful assembly, intimidation and affray. Six of the pickets were also charged with conspiracy to intimidate.

None of these pickets had been cautioned or arrested during the strike. There were no police complaints laid against the pickets at the time. There were no picket-line confrontations with the police. The prosecution focused on the picketing in the Shrewsbury and Telford area on September 6, but about 80 police had accompanied the pickets on the Shropshire building sites at all times that day.

At the first Shrewsbury trial, beginning in October 1973, three of the pickets were found guilty of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray. They were sent to prison: Des Warren for three years, Ricky Tomlinson for two years and John McKinsie Jones for nine months. In the second trial, three other pickets were convicted and sent to prison.

THE prosecution of 24 building workers in Shrewsbury in 1973-74 remains unfinished business.

In 2006, a group of trade unionists came together in Liverpool to campaign to overturn this miscarriage of justice. Out of this the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign was born. Terry Renshaw, a convicted picket and lifelong Ucatt member, became a founder of the campaign and sought the support of his union.

At its 2007 conference, Ucatt delegates passed a motion in support of the Shrewsbury pickets. This was the springboard to the TUC, where the resolution was adopted by Congress in September 2007. Although few in number, the campaign decided to adopt a twin-track approach in the fight for justice for the pickets.

Legally, the convictions could only be overturned by the Court of Appeal. The campaign has spent considerable time and effort towards that end.

This legal work is interwoven with the second part of our activity, taking the case of the Shrewsbury 24 to every trade union and labour movement event the length and breadth of Britain. We now have 21 national trade unions affiliated to our campaign, trades councils and hundreds of trade union and Labour Party branches.

We realised that to overturn the convictions and obtain justice for the pickets we needed to get the case back to the Court of Appeal. The only route for this was an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which has the power to refer cases of miscarriages of justice to the appeal courts.

The CCRC’s rules require us to present “fresh evidence.” This could include evidence from the time of the trial but which was unknown to, or could not be obtained by, the defence. After gathering together more evidence, we lodged an application to the CCRC on behalf of the pickets on April 3 2012. We await the commission’s decision.

We are confident that we will succeed in achieving justice for the 24 pickets. The government still refuses to release many files relating to the trials at Shrewsbury, despite repeated requests to disclose them. They claim they can’t publish them for reasons of national security.

We have campaigned tirelessly to get these files released. We launched a Downing Street e-petition and a paper petition which gathered tens of thousands of signatures. Labour MPs have raised two early day motions (EDMs). This culminated in a three-hour debate in the House of Commons calling on the government to give full disclosure. The vote was won by 120-3 to release the documents. Ministers continue to refuse to do so.

We have had consistent support from many Labour MPs, in particular John McDonnell, David Anderson, Steve Rotheram, Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn. Jim Kennedy, Labour Party chair for 2014-15, deserves particular mention for his unstinting efforts.

In its 2015 general election manifesto, the Labour Party said it would “continue to support victims of miscarriages of justice and will ensure there are no barriers to access justice.

“In the case of the Shrewsbury 24 we will approve the release of all papers concerning the Shrewsbury trials and place them in the public domain.”

We ask for your continued support to enable us to carry on with our campaign for the papers to be released and to have the pickets’ convictions quashed.

My Role as Campaign Researcher

WHEN the campaign was launched in 2006 we set ourselves two aims: to have the convictions reviewed, in a bid to get them overturned, and to bring greater publicity to the injustice.

First, we had to submit applications from the pickets to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) as the first step in getting their convictions overturned. We had no idea what the CCRC was or indeed how they considered miscarriages of justice.

Volunteering as the campaign researcher, my remit was to get fresh evidence to present to the CCRC that would persuade them that there was a real possibility that the Court of Appeal would quash the convictions.

It was difficult to know where to start. The case was almost 40 years old; Des Warren, the lead picket who had written pamphlets and a book about the case, had passed away in 2004.It seemed like an impossible task.

For our second aim, we wanted to combine my research with our collective efforts in campaigning to bring the issue of the Shrewsbury trials into the public arena, focusing on the trade union and labour movement. We wanted to explain what happened when the state jailed workers who took industrial action in 1972.

I received support from several pickets and their families, including Des Warren’s son Andy, who provided me with his late father’s extensive archive. Ricky Tomlinson also provided his papers. Press reporting of the strike and the trials was an important source of information but the bias was as apparent then as it is today and their reports have to be treated with caution.

This is to be contrasted with the Morning Star’s industrial correspondent Jim Arnison, who reported on the strike. He attended the trials and wrote regularly about them, which eventually formed the basis of his booklet The Shrewsbury Three, which the campaign recently republished.

My research has taken me to the National Archives at Kew, the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Churchill Archives at Cambridge and many other repositories.

Among the documents I found was a full copy of the 12-week trial transcript of the first Shrewsbury trial, which began on October 3 1973. We lodged the application on behalf of the pickets to the CCRC on April 3 2012. Since then we have submitted three further tranches of evidence, all of which are the result of researching government files.

The files reveal that many documents are missing. I have submitted several Freedom of Information requests in search of them, but the government insists it is only keeping back four documents. Officials claim they can’t release these files because they relate to threats to national security — relying on an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act.

This continues to obstruct our quest for justice for the pickets. I continue to press the government to release the missing documents.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham has taken up the case with the Home Office and together we are pressing them to find the files and release them to the National Archives in Kew for public scrutiny.