40 years ago: the “Shrewsbury 24”

Submitted by Matthew on 16 October, 2013 - 12:47

1972 saw a major wave of industrial action in Britain. There were more work days lost to strike action in that year than in any since the General Strike of 1926.

Big strikes by dockers, car workers, steel workers and miners won major concessions from the bosses and rocked the Tory government. Key to the success of working-class struggle was the high level of union organisation in big industries, and a militant, democratic culture of solidarity that had developed in the rank-and-file. An important tool had been “secondary” picketing and solidarity action, where one group of workers would come to the aid of another. When striking miners tried to close the gates of the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham, thousands of local engineering workers came out to support them, and the gates were successfully shut.

Panicked by this industrial revolt, the Conservative government tried to use the law to break the unions’ strength. States of Emergency were declared during both the miners’ and the dockers’ strikes, and the Tories tried to use the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 to undermine the position of trade unions. However, since most of the unions disregarded the Act, this legal challenge was largely unsuccessful. Frustrated, the government set its mind to picking a legal battle it thought it might win. It found such a battle in the construction industry.

Traditionally, construction workers had been far worse organised than others. The nature of the building industry made it more difficult for workers to organise collectively than it was for workers in large, stationary factories or offices. The workplace would shift from one building site to another as each job was completed, and many construction workers were only contracted for the duration of one job. This meant that a new group of workers might be thrown together randomly every few months, and new negotiations over pay and conditions would start all over again.

The situation was not helped by the narrow, “craft” orientation of the existing construction unions. Any given building site might have different workers in all sorts of different, small-scale unions, representing them as painters, as electricians, as scaffolders, or as some other specialism. Rather than being faced with a solid, united workforce, the employers had been able to make different deals with different trades and balance one group of workers off against the others.

As a consequence of the workers’ organisational weakness, conditions in construction were dangerous and unpleasant. Toilets, washbasins and canteens were often not provided on site, and injuries and deaths at work were very high.

In a bid to cut corners and squeeze out extra profits, the bosses would often ignore health and safety regulations. Only coal mines were a more dangerous British workplace!

But all this was beginning to change. A merger of smaller unions created the new Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) which, together with large industrial unions like the TGWU and the NUMGW, created a far more unified and powerful union force in the industry. By 1972, there were 262,610 members of UCATT alone.

The newly strengthened building unions formed a National Joint Council to better co-ordinate their activity. They agreed to make a demand for £30 a week, and shorter week of 35 hours. The construction employers’ federation refused. In response, the unions called a strike.

The strength of construction unions, though greatly increased, was very uneven. In big cities like London, Liverpool and Birmingham, the workers were well organised and the strike held up well. The workplaces there were large and the unions had established deep roots. More difficult was the situation in small, isolated towns in more remote parts of the country. When a strike committee met in Chester, they received a request from union members in Shrewsbury, Telford and Shropshire for support. The strike had been slow off the ground in these relatively isolated areas — many workers weren’t familiar with the union and knew little about the dispute. A decision was taken by the strike committee to send “flying pickets” to the area, groups of strikers to visit the local building sites, bolster the picket lines and argue the case for striking.

Pickets arrived in the area on 6 September 1972. They met up with local trade unionists and set out to visit building sites not yet on strike. The pickets would arrive at each site, ask the manager if they could have a meeting with the workers about the dispute, and make speeches in support of the strike. Police officers were present throughout, and no arrests or even cautions or complaints were brought against the trade unionists by the police. It was regarded by those who took part as fairly routine picketing in the course of a national dispute.

Indeed, the nearest to anything that could be construed as violence or intimidation on the day seems to have come from management itself! At the Kingswood site, the son of the contractor, presumably swept up in the excitement of the times, met the pickets brandishing a shotgun and threatening to use it. Miraculously, a picket was able to grab the gun off of him and put it out of use before anyone was hurt. The pickets reported the incident to the police — one of the few incidents to be reported all day.

Though the picketing took place peacefully and with little incident, this was small consolation for the bosses. The picketing may have been peaceful, but it was also effective — mobile militants were succeeding in spreading the dispute far beyond the metropolitan centres. Towards the end of the strike, the federation of construction bosses, the NFBTE, sent round a letter to its members asking for information on incidences of “intimidation” and “violence” which could then be compiled and sent to the Home Secretary, the Conservative Robert Carr.

A document was cobbled together and sent off to Carr. The “intimidation dossier”, as it was called, was met with smirks and raised eyebrows even by some thoroughly Establishment bodies. The Financial Times dismissed it as a “politically motivated” document that alleged “a sinister plot” while only being able to give evidence of “the ordinary spontaneous angry behaviour that might be expected on a building site at any time.”

Nevertheless, the Tory government was determined to use the law to smash the unions as best it could. The Home Secretary announced an investigation into picketing at a McAlpine site in Shrewsbury and a team of detectives were dispatched to a hotel in North Wales from which they would conduct their investigation. They collected 800 statements (of which the vast majority were subsequently discarded) and began to piece together a case against the pickets.

The idea of a team of detectives roaming the quiet, autumn countryside of Shropshire in order to investigate the events of a fairly uneventful day might seem a surreal one. Why go to so much bother over a picket line in Shrewsbury? One factor will have been the great influence and power of the big capitalists of the construction industry. The McAlpine family which ran the site in question was very well-connected on both a local and national scale. In Denbighshire, North Wales, the last nine High Sheriffs (responsible for local law and order) had all been McAlpine family members. When Sir Robert McAlpine hosted a private Christmas dinner in 1970, so many Government politicians were in attendance that the industry press claimed it was “virtually impossible to get a cabinet quorum.” The Construction News proudly asked its readers “...in what other industry can any person boast of such a wide and diverse circle of acquaintances? None.”

24 pickets were accused of a long and varied list of crimes. Most charges were dropped for lack of evidence as the prosecution developed its line of attack. At the first trial at Mold Crown Court, all but the most insubstantial charges resulted in conviction, and only relatively small fines were imposed. A second trial took place at Mold in July 1973, and all three defendants were found not guilty.

An important part of the defence at Mold had been the use of pre-emptive challenges to jury members. Time and time again, the defence was able to weed out candidates for the jury who were building contractors, construction businessmen or those who had some reason to be sympathetic with the bosses. However, at later trials, this was no longer an option — the Tory Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, removed the right to challenge jurors on the basis of occupation only weeks before pickets went on trial again at Shrewsbury.

The prosecution had learnt from their mistakes at Mold. They abandoned many of their earlier charges, and dropped any pretence that the picketers had been guilty of assault or intimidation. The pickets were brought to trial in separate groups. Nine pickets were charged with unlawful assembly and affray — general offences which had the advantage of the prosecution of not requiring evidence of damage to individual pieces of property or assault on individual people. Another six were charged with “conspiracy to intimidate”, a legal relic from an 1875 conspiracy law, and one which, perversely, carried a greater potential sentence than intimidation itself.

After an extremely lengthy and expensive legal process, Des Warren, then a Communist Party member, got three years in jail, and Ricky Tomlinson, now a famous actor, got two.

Throughout the trials, and in the aftermath of the sentencing, many construction workers took part in protests and demonstrations for the release of the jailed pickets and exoneration for the others convicted of crimes.

This was not just a tokenistic gesture — in 1972, tens of thousands had taken marched and taken industrial action for the release “Pentonville Five”, a group of dockers who had been imprisoned under the Industrial Relations Act. The campaign had been a success! If a similar mass campaign could have been launched for the Shrewsbury pickets, a similar victory might have been won.

However, despite all the militancy and determination of the period, and despite the great political and organisational strides forward by building workers, the movement to defend the pickets was held back and undermined by the leadership of the labour movement. It had long been the government’s strategy to divide support for workers in struggle by introducing the issue of illegality, making the cautious and conservative trade union apparatus reluctant to support radical action by breaking the law.

The leadership of UCATT withdrew official support for the pickets on 10 March. Though many construction workers took it upon themselves to fight to defend the pickets, this was opposed rather than facilitated by the union leadership. In a letter to a branch secretary, UCATT general secretary George Smith stated that due to the “lengthy nature of the charges”, it would be doing the trade union movement “a great disservice to demonstrate or call a national stoppage in regard to these matters.”

The conservative impulse of the trade union bureaucracy was strengthened when the Labour Party took power in 1974. Reluctant to cause an irritation to their friends in the Labour government, the union leaderships became even more hostile to the prospect of direct action in defence of the pickets.

To this day, there has been no exoneration for the Shrewsbury pickets. They bravely faced imprisonment, fines and stigmatisation, punishment hurled at them by a panicked and vengeful ruling class.

That their cause was stymied and betrayed by cowardly bureaucrats in the upper reaches of the labour movement should not detract from their example, nor from the relevance of the militant, collective tactics of solidarity that they practiced.

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