Picketing At Shrewsbury

Chief Inspector Gradwell and Chief Superintendent Meredith in attendance at the Brookside Site.

Chief Inspector Gradwell and Chief Superintendent Meredith in attendance at the Brookside Site. © David Bagnall Shropshire Star 2011

The building industry, by its very nature, was based upon temporary construction sites. Once a contract had finished on one site the workplace became the next site, which might be many miles away and have a different mix of trades and individuals. It was rare for somebody to have a permanent contract with a building firm. Instead, you were employed for the length of the building contract. As it came to an end you were on the lookout for the next contract, which might not be with your current employer.

This characteristic of the industry meant that trade union organisation was very different from organising in a factory or other fixed workplace. In the big cities – London, Liverpool, Manchester etc. – union support was stronger and industrial action quickly won concessions. But in the smaller towns it was a different matter. Pickets themselves were a mix of building workers from different sites and trades e.g. bricklayers, plasterers, painters, steel fixers, carpenters etc. who worked on many different sites spread over a wide area.

The unions decided to call out the bigger building sites, where membership was strong. Some employers agreed quite quickly to make pay increases. On the smaller sites, spread out all over the country, trade union organisation was weaker and the employers were not under the same pressure to settle the claim. They remained hostile to any settlement. In August 1972 the main unions, the Transport & General Workers Union (T&GWU) and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) decided to use the tactic of flying pickets. This had proved to be successful during the 1972 miners’ strike including the mass picket at the Saltley coke works in Birmingham.

On 31st August 1972 the North Wales strike committee held a meeting in the Bull & Stirrup pub in Chester. The committee was a mixture of members of UCATT and the T&GWU. At the meeting there was a request for support from union members in the Shropshire, Telford and Shrewsbury area. Seemingly there were many sites in these areas that they had not managed to visit to explain the union case.

As Des Warren describes in his book, The Key To My Cell,

So many sites down there were on the ‘lump’, and still working, that local T&G and UCATT members – thin on the ground – were finding difficulty in getting their case across. They were all experiencing intimidation by employers.

The meeting in the Bull and Stirrup was the first time that many of those that were later arrested had met each other. It was agreed at the meeting that on the 6th September 1972, picketing would take place in those areas. The pickets arranged to meet local trade union members at the Oswestry Labour Club to receive details of the location of the sites at which workers were not on strike, as the pickets were not familiar with the Shrewsbury area.

Shrewsbury Picket

© David Bagnall Shropshire Star 2011

On 6th September 1972 the first site they visited was Kingswood. Des recalled that:

We were greeted by the son of the contractor on site. He had a shotgun in his hands and was threatening to use it.

One of the pickets took the gun off him and immobilised it. The pickets reported this to the police. They then went to a further seven sites that day. On each occasion the police escorted them to the site. On arriving at each site the pickets would find the site agent or whoever was in charge and ask if they could call a meeting of the building workers on site to explain the dispute. There are photographs showing the pickets addressing building workers on these sites with the police standing listening to the speeches. Amongst the sites that were visited was one at Brookside which was operated by McAlpines. It was to figure prominently in the subsequent trials.

None of the pickets were cautioned or arrested during the whole of the day. As far as the pickets were concerned it was just a normal day’s picketing. The unions did not receive any complaints from the police about the conduct of the pickets. The police did not complain to the union representatives about the conduct of any of the pickets. There is photographic evidence showing that the police were present throughout the day.

The main contractor on the Kingswood site was never prosecuted for threatening behaviour or for carrying an offensive weapon.