The Shrewsbury Pickets And The Criminalising of Trade Unionism.
By Peter Farrell, Shrewsbury Pickets Campaign, April 2012
The essence of the Shrewsbury pickets and their jailing, was not just a Tory Government seeking revenge on trade unionists for the defeat inflicted on them in the early 70s by the National Union of Mineworkers over wages; or the Transport and General Workers Union (now UNITE) for the dockers defeating them over the Industrial Relations Act. Or that building workers, traditionally poorly organised, had organised a 13-week national strike, and had virtually shut down every site in the country and had won a large pay increase.
The necessity to launch attacks on the working class and their organisations lay in the break-up of the post-Second World War economic agreement to stabilise capitalism. Europe had waged war and its industries and economies and cities lay in ruins. The United States financed the rebuilding of the world’s economies. It was called the Bretton Woods agreement, named after the town in New Hampshire, USA, where a new international monetary system was set out. The US dollar replaced Sterling as the world’s trading currency on the basis of Washington’s gold reserves. The working class had returned from the slaughter of war being told they would return to a land fit for heroes. They swept the Tories from office in a landslide victory for Labour on a mandate to build homes, jobs, better wages, schools, a National Health Service.
They had to borrow on a massive scale – the USA economy dominated. The probelm was that the amount of cash loaned no longer matched the amount of gold the USA had. A 2-tier system developed and gold prices began to rise. In particular the Oil producing countries weren’t happy to be paid pieces of paper which no longer could be guaranteed. So in 1971 came the break-up of Bretton Woods – and inflation began to rise. Wages were eroded, oil prices soared fuelling increased production costs .
In order to compete and cut production costs on the world markets the need for wage cuts was deemed vital. But this meant that the Trade Unions had to be stopped from defending their members’ wages. Laws limiting wages had to be backed by laws stopping TU’s from taking action to defend these. The NUM smashed the wages laws and the TGWU dockworkers defeated the Tories after blacking containers which were taking their jobs.
Defying the Industrial Relations Act, the dockers continued blacking a container port. Five dockers were arrested and imprisoned in Pentonville jail and became known as the Pentonville 5. Dockers stopped work bringing ports nationally to a standstill. An estimated 60,000 workers surrounded Pentonville prison amid the threat of a general strike as more and more workers stopped work, forcing the Tories to release the Dockers. The Dockers’ leader Vic Turner, knew that there was only one answer – as the Dockers had demonstrated – that was action by the whole TU movement. The TUC and other major unions refused to mobilise their members in solidarity with the dockers, and sold out.
The Shrewsbury Pickets were then doomed to remain in prison. Des Warren’s book “The Key to My Cell” was so named because it revealed the key to their cell lay on the desk of the TUC. This book is a must for Trade Unionists wanting to understand the trials and the conspiracy. It is all in there. Des Warren did what should have been applauded by the TUC, UCATT and TGWU – but the top leaders of the trade union movement accepted them being criminalised by a State Conspiracy.
As Des Warren stated from the dock at the trial, “we are all part of something bigger than this trial. The Working Class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallanged”. He led the way in refusing to except anything other than he was a political prisoner. Des was given the longest sentence of all the pickets, 3 years. During his imprisonment he spent 6 consecutive months in solitary confinement; during four and a half months of that time he wore only a towel around his waist. He was in solitary another 2 months, as well as at other times. On 36 occasions he was put on report for breaches of discipline. Des was moved 15 times between 12 different prisons – every attempt was made to try and break him, and inflict misery on his wife and children.
From prison he led the fight for Justice and yet every attempt to mobilise union support was met with either lies or deceit by the official TU. Because the State had used charges alleging criminal conspiracy, the TU and Labour leaders used that to squirm out of doing anything, saying Judicial reviews and an incoming Labour Government would release them. Des and Ricky Tomlinson – who had been jailed for 2 years – had decided when they were sent down not to except the sentence and fight back. Apart from “Key To My Cell”, the defence QC, John Platts Mills, in his book “Muck Silk and Socialism” and Jim Arnison’s book on the trials, the fit-up was ignored by the media. John Platts Mills wrote, the trial of the Shrewsbury pickets is the only case I know of where the government has ordered a prosecution in defiance of the advice of senior police and prosecution authorities. Police had accompanied the pickets from site to site and saw no reason to intervene, no arrests were made.
But Building contractors had complained to their federation, who complained to Tory MPs who complained to the Home Secretary. The 2 police forces involved, North Wales and West Mercia, questioned some 800 witnesses before deciding that proceedings couldn’t go ahead because it was impossible to identify any wrongdoers. The home secretary, in defiance of the advice he had received ordered the police to bring proceedings and in February 1973, 31 men were arrested, and 24 were prosecuted some 6 months after. Throughout their imprisonment there were numerous strikes and calls for action for their release. The most famous being the campaign launched by Wigan Builders Action Committee, which marched from Wigan to London demanding a general strike to get them out. It culminated in a demonstration in London with over 5,000 workers marching.
There were numerous attempts to get Justice and answers once Des and others were released, including exposing those TU and Labour leaders and left apologists who sold out. Des had been given Largactyl – a heavy sedative – in prison which resulted in him developing Parkinson’s disease which would eventually cause his early death. Des’s son Nick describes his struggle and his determination and gives an insight to Des in his funny and moving book “Thirty Years in a Turtleneck Sweater”. Many people helped Des and attempts were made for him to go to Cuba for treatment, but he was unable to go because he was too ill.
In 2003 Des Warren was awarded the Robert Tressell Award for services to the working class at the Construction Safety Campaign’s AGM in Liverpool, together with other Shrewsbury pickets. Des Warren died in 2004 but before he died Mike Abbott who had helped look after him, promised he’d fight to clear his name. So in 2006, after 30 years and under the 30 years’ Freedom of Information act, a meeting was organised with Ritchie Hunter and Harry Chadwick. It was decided that they would relaunch the Shrewsbury Campaign. Meetings were held which were well attended and the beginnings of the present Justice for Shrewsbury 24 pickets Campaign was born. Other meetings were held and more people wanted to help.
In London following a packed meeting where Arthur Scargil, John McDonnell MP, John Hendy QC, Ricky Tomlinson and others spoke, the London Committee was formed. A National Committee was started and a constitution agreed and things began to move forward . Many of those who became involved were not new to Shrewsbury. In London alone 2 had participated in the London to Wigan march as had Mike Abbott, 4 were full-time UCATT convenors, 1 was chair of UCATT London region, 3 had been involved in Shrewsbury committees in the 70s, and 2 had been involved in the launch of Des’s book .
Considering that UCATT had moved a successful resolution at the TUC. It certainly was not followed up. When the Labour government was approached and Jack Straw was asked to release the papers relating to the case, the National Committee was told that for reasons of national security they could not. Consider Bloody Sunday and revelations that troops murdered 13 civilians, Hillsborough police altering statements, Orgreave police violence. The National Committee has organised a lobby of parliament, 2 Early Day motions, and 2 fringe meetings at UCATT conferences.
Fringe meetings were held at the Labour conference in Brighton, speakers at fringe meetings organised by the Blacklisted Workers Support Group went to the Manchester TUC congress and spoke at 3 meetings. We’ve produced a forty minute DVD which has been shown around the country; spoke at numerous trades councils; recently raised 1,150 pounds towards the CCRC; joint benefit do’s for Blacklisted workers; stood shoulder to shoulder with the 6 months Besna dispute and the Crossrail sackings. We’ve aslso organised meetings with TU leaders and the TUC leadership. We have participated at all the hugely successful annual Shrewsbury pickets marches, through Shrewsbury organised by Telford and Shropshire TUC.
Today the lessons of the Shrewsbury pickets and the state conspiracy and criminalisation of the TU’s are vital lessons for Trade Unionists, who are facing an unprecedented attack on our democratic rights and the very welfare state workers fought for by this coalition. It’s not just simply a case of clearing the names of the Shrewsbury pickets as Des stated from the dock. Victims or Villains, we are all part of something bigger than this trial . The National Committee fully participated in the Criminal Case Review Commission the CCRC. And we fully supports it physically and financally. But the campaign must be wider, involving the whole workers’ movement, it can’t be left to a small sectarian undemocratic group based in the North West. With occasional support of 1 or 2 TU leaders and 1 or 2 MP’s speaking on platforms, no matter how sincere they may be. The TUs could have and should have made available facilities and money for a massive campaign if they really wanted to do something.
We refuse to believe that anybody can separate all the issues that workers face today from the questions of Justice for the Shrewsbury pickets, they are intrinsically linked. Just read the evidence . The National Committee knows from messages that UCATT and UNITE officials – as well as ALL rank and file members – want to see the campaign reunited. The workers movement has been divided time and again, employers always seeks to divide and split campaigns to weaken them. we’ve always left our door open for anyone to talk constructively. Democracy in action is maintaining differences yet fighting the common enemy on decisions agreed by all.
By Peter Farrell, April 2012. (Reproduced without permission)