Shrewsbury 24: learning the lessons

Submitted by martin on 6 April, 2021 - 5:12 Author: John Bloxam
Workers' Fight

On Tuesday 23 March 2021, the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 14 North Wales trade unionists who had been sentenced for picketing in the 1972 building workers national strike. They were part of the "Shrewsbury 24": 24 workers were originally put on trial 48 years ago.

The appeal was granted because original police trial statements had been destroyed and the defendants had not been informed of that, or of the reason why. The secret destruction was uncovered a decade ago by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign’s researcher, Eileen Turnbull. The discovery included the following note between the police and the chief crown prosecutor – “In most cases the first statement was taken before photographs were available for witnesses and before the officers taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.” (emphasis added). For the police, government and bosses, “…knew what we were trying to prove” meant convicting the pickets and in an exemplary way, as part of a crackdown on effective trade unionism.

The statement of political motivation against the pickets was part of the evidence submitted to the Court of Appeal, but not accepted by the judges, who also rejected the claim that a "documentary" (Red Under the Bed, focusing on the Shrewsbury 24 case) shown across ITV regions on the day the prosecution ended their evidence in court could have prejudiced the outcome!

There is written evidence that the Tory government at the time had a direct hand in the production of Red Under the Bed – “The prime minister has seen the transcript (of the TV programme)… He has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing.”

It was a clear political trial and aimed at the whole trade union movement. The government had been defeated twice in the first part of 1972 – the miners' strike and then the freeing of five dockers jailed under the Industrial Relations Act. In these and other working-class actions at the time, effective picketing to spread the fight, get solidarity, and prevent strike breaking were essential elements. The Shrewsbury 24 trials were a major example of the bosses’ attempt to change this situation. For this purpose, and after the failure of their Industrial Relations Act, they used common law and 19th century conspiracy law against trade unionists for the first time.

Two of the North Wales pickets were jailed for lengthy terms. Des Warren got three years, and died in 2004 partly because of the prison treatment he received. Five of the other trade unionists also convicted died before the court decision. Ricky Tomlinson, now an actor, got two years, and was in court to hear the vindicating result.

In July 1972 militant rank and file working class action, of near general strike proportions, forced the government to free five jailed dockers after a few days in prison. Although many working class activists fought hard for similar action to free the Shrewsbury building workers, we were unsuccessful in the end. There was widescale rank and file fund raising, publicity, support meetings. Local defence committees were established. There were a number of strikes: building workers, car workers, dockers and others. But nothing on the scale needed to free the jailed pickets.

The responsibility for this defeat lies first with the trade union and labour bureaucracy. Grudging, half-hearted support at best, while saying that the "law" – the naked class justice on display – must take its course. At worst, open hostility to the victimised pickets. This despite the fact that those charged acted during the strike on official union instructions.

The building workers' national strike was in the second part of 1972. Weeks later the police brought charges against a number of North Wales pickets, which were then dropped. It became clear that suggestions about any real damage on picketed sites, and even violence, were baseless. In fact, on one of the main sites the police were there all the time, without making any arrests, issuing cautions, or even calling for reinforcements. The state then, in early 1973, brought much more serious "conspiracy" charges against 24 of the pickets in early 1973. At that point the leaders of the two unions involved (TGWU and UCATT, now both merged into Unite) abandoned their members completely after legal advice about the charges (e.g. "illegal assembly" and "conspiracy to intimidate") and likely costs.

19 of the charged pickets were TGWU members. Initially, they were offered legal support only if they handed their cases over to the union solicitor. Later, when the conspiracy charges were brought, the TGWU Executive withdrew any support. That was changed to financial support after the strength of rank and file feeling was made clear at the 1973 Delegate Conference.

Five were UCATT members. They faced the most openly hostile union leadership. General Secretary George Smith wrote to the Shotton branch secretary to say: “it would be doing the Building Unions a great disservice… (to) demonstrate or call a national stoppage in regard to these matters as the charges range from civil offences to criminal acts.” In June, Smith wrote to all UCATT branches saying he would report Lambeth Trades Council to the TUC. Lambeth’s "crime" was to be the first Trades Council to form a defence committee and fund for the North Wales 24. Smith said that no money from UCATT branch funds should be given to the defence of the victimised pickets.

In early June 1973 Flint Trades Council wrote to the TUC about the North Wales 24 case. Ken Graham, TUC Organisation Department Secretary, responded and referred to cases under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act brought against pickets “who have in the view of the police officers on the spot committed acts outside the definition of peaceful picketing. Trades Councils should not encourage delegates or affiliated branches to take part in any industrial action in support of workers before the Court on charges arising from the Act unless requested to do so by the NECs [National Executives] of the Unions concerned”.

That the campaign in support of the victimised Shrewsbury workers was much weaker from the beginning than it should have been had much to do with the Communist Party (CP). At the time, the CP was strong in the building workers unions and led the powerful Building Workers’ Charter rank and file movement. They had members among the victimised North Wales workers. They were also a strong force in other major unions.

However, it was left to rank and file North Wales building workers – many working as contractors at the Shotton steel works – to set up the North Wales 24 Defence Committee in March 1973. This was suggested and assisted not by the CP but by Workers’ Fight, a forerunner of Workers' Liberty, which was doing political activity around the steel works. Workers’ Fight printed the Shotton Building Workers Solidarity Bulletin, and then the first bulletins of the NW 24 Defence Committee. The aim here was to initiate a powerful national rank and file campaign, based on the victimised workers themselves – publicising the case and threat to all workers, getting financial support and laying the basis for widespread working class action and strikes in support of the pickets.

Nationally, the Communist Party – together with the Building Workers Charter – moved very slowly and cautiously. At first the Morning Star would not publish reports of the police frame-ups, and articles from local CP building workers were "lost". Concerned above all not to disrupt relations with trade union leaders, the Morning Star printed an interview with UCATT boss George Smith, despite the UCATT leadership’s scab attitude towards North Wales building workers.

Local CP building workers were involved in the Defence Committee, but some weren't, including Des Warren. He did not work at Shotton but had a lot of credibility with his long record of militancy and 29 charges against him for picketing. At this stage, much of his work was aimed against Workers' Fight (WF), to marginalising the influence we had in the Committee and establish CP control. There was pressure on other building workers to cut any ties; factional abuse against "Trots"; and the popular front type argument that we would lose "liberal" support if WF was involved. As though "liberal" support had freed the jailed dock workers!

Later in 1973 there was a public shift in the national CP approach towards the Shrewsbury case, in part in response to the anger amongst many CP members and rank and file workers. Articles regularly appeared in the Morning Star, and the Building Workers’ Charter made it their central campaign. However, pushing the trade union leaders to the "left" still remained central for them. They wanted to ensure that any rank and file response was kept under their control, was consistent with their strategy, and therefore largely tokenistic. The alternative approach, guided by the idea that if "the leaders won’t lead, the rank and file must", and campaigning from the start for the kind of militant industrial action that alone could free the victimised pickets, had been argued for by Workers’ Fight, but we had been pushed aside by the CP.

When the sentences were confirmed just before Christmas 1974, there were a number of strikes against the jailings, some led by CP members. But the CP controlled Defence Committee advised they should go back to work pending promised future action, which did not happen.

Communist Party domination of the Defence Committee was established in late summer 1973 – it was renamed the North Wales Defence Committee (sometimes Charter Defence Committee), supported by the Building Workers Charter but still with the same fund address and contact details as before, and also the official support of the victimised pickets. The Committee was wound up in January 1975, and fell in behind the general call for a Public Inquiry (also supported by George Smith!) The Public Inquiry never happened, although called for again in 2007 by a TUC resolution.

The conviction and jailing of the North Wales pickets, without the required working class response, was a major working class defeat. The individual pickets paid a heavy price, both in their sentences, then being blacklisted and many unemployed. For the working class as a whole, the basic class weapon of effective picketing had been demonised and pronounced "illegal". That laid the basis for Tory government anti-trade union legislation with the same aim and effect, supported by subsequent Labour governments and still in place.

However, since the defeat in the 1970s, there has been a rearguard action on behalf of the victimised pickets. In 2006 the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign was established, including those jailed pickets still alive. The campaign was supported by the majority of trade unions. It called for the release of all relevant documents and an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In 2014 backbench MPs voted overwhelmingly for the government to release all documents relating to the jailing of the pickets. The government, quoting "national security" refused. The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign’s researcher, Eileen Turnbull, still managed to unearth the documents critical to the Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn the convictions.

The 23 March legal decision is an important and welcome decision for the victimised pickets – "innocent" even in the bosses’ courts – and should be celebrated for that. But the best memorial for the victimised North Wales pickets, dead and alive, will be for the court victory to spur a renewed effort to learn the full lessons of the Shrewsbury 24 case and prevent anything similar happening again.

That calls for renewed activity on campaigns like Free Our Unions, aimed at overturning the unjust present anti-trade union legislation, aimed to prevent effective picketing and the type of working class action used by the building and other workers 49 years ago.

Some documents of the campaign

An early Shotton solidarity bulletin

Defence Committee bulletin no.2

UCATT letter denouncing Lambeth Trades Council for raising funds to support the pickets

TUC letter to Flint Trades Council

Workers' Fight sums up its coverage

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