By Cormac Kelly, West Yorkshire Socialist Alternative

The recent Court of Appeals judgement that all of the Shrewsbury pickets’ criminal convictions of 1974 was based on inadequate evidence and should be overturned must be welcome. After 47 years, it is a stunning exoneration of trade unionists who suffered imprisonment and criminal convictions as a result of a vindictive and systematic campaign by the state.

Nearly five decades of persistent campaigning has led to these sentences being put to one side. It is chilling to see the lengths to which bosses in the building industry, a Tory government and the deep state went to, in attacking these working men in the first place.

Edward Heath and his Conservative government had been elected in 1970 with a mandate to take on the unions. However, by 1972, the Tories were smashed by a victorious miners strike in a struggle for higher wages. Heath, humiliated and licking his wounds, decided again to take on the miners – the elite of the trade union movement. At the beginning of 1974, over half a million workers were laid off as unemployment rose. A victory for the government would put the working class in its place, reducing resistance. But the trade union movement stood by the miners, despite Heath openly publicising the training of the army and police in intimidation and riot control techniques. The miners triumphed over the Tories in a second strike in 1974; Heath and his government fell.

Building workers were perhaps an easier target. Sites in the UK had appalling conditions for workers. Often there would be a single toilet for many men and no shelter or drying facilities. In 1972, building workers were on their first national strike to increase wages and abolish the ‘Lump’, a casual employment system similar to that used in the gig economy now. Further construction sites were notorious for a high number of injuries and deaths. One person was killed or seriously injured every day in the 1970s. In the Shrewsbury area, militants Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were the leaders of 24 building workers determined to spread the strike.

They already had some success in their campaign through the use of flying pickets. Coaches were hired to go from site to site to persuade workers to take action. Although they were accompanied by police, none were arrested at the time and the picketing was peaceful, as Ricky and Des simply spoke to workers to persuade them to join the strike.

Out of the blue, five month later, they were charged with conspiring to intimidate workers, tried and found guilty. So what was behind this notorious court case? Heath had faced more problems. His Industrial Relations Act, which was designed to shackle the unions had been shredded when five dock workers’ leaders were jailed. With the threat of a general strike, the government backed off.

A secret government unit – the Information Research Department, which was run by the Foreign Office was established. Its job was to disseminate anti-socialist and anti-trade union propaganda. It provided intelligence about trade unionists to an ITV television production team who went on to make Red Under the Bed, a hostile attack on the union movement. This was broadcast during one of the trials and undoubtedly influenced some of the jurors. This kind of tactic is similar to the notorious BBC Panorama programme attacking Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite a few years ago. 

After three trials, 22 trade unionists were convicted of unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray. Two were cleared. As Des Warren said while facing sentence, there was no conspiracy by the pickets but there was one “between the home secretary, the employers and the police.” 

Ricky Tomlinson got a two year sentence and was held in solitary confinement after refusing to work or wear clothes; he was released after 18 months. Des Warren got three years and, because he would not cooperate with the prison authorities, was forced to drink a cocktail of tranquillisers. Despite being released after 30 months, his health was broken, leading to Parkinson disease and he never worked again, dying in 2004. All convicted pickets then faced blacklisting. No boss in the building industry would employ them.

In 1974, a new Labour government came to power and precisely nothing was done to get the imprisoned trade unionists released, in spite of huge protests. Their appeal was also turned down. Glasgow shipyard workers, construction workers and others marched to the building workers union offices in Glasgow, Liverpool, Edinburgh and elsewhere with no success.

Roy Jenkins, the Labour Home Secretary refused to look at the case. Trade unionists made the point that it was they who got this government elected and in return the convictions should be overturned. Jenkins was later to jointly found the ‘scab’ Social Democratic Party, whose sole aim was to stop a Labour government coming to power in the 1980s. The imprisoned Shrewsbury picketers were left to rot as Labour and the Trades Union Congress abandoned them.

Six of the 14 who have now had their convictions overturned are dead; their relatives carried on for years with the battle for justice. Eventually, Eileen Turnbull, the researcher for the campaign found in the Public Records Office a document in the prosecution’s paperwork that proved the police had maliciously destroyed some of the original witness statements which would have helped the pickets case, had they been known about. The Appeal judge decided that this was unfair and overturned the sentences. Even at the time of the original trial the available evidence against the pickets was so unconvincing that two of the jurors stormed out of the courtroom in protest at Ricky Tomlinson’s guilty verdict.

Ricky went on to be an actor and appeared in some memorable Ken Loach films, along with Brookside and the Royle Family. He also made a TV documentary about the Shrewsbury 24 and was the public face of the campaign for justice.

In the years after, working people were shackled by draconian anti-trade union laws. Secondary picketing is illegal, with huge ballot thresholds required to be crossed before industrial action can be taken. More legislation to ban strikes in certain industries is coming down the line.

The police have been ordered to be far more aggressive in dealing with protestors in future. The latest proposed Tory Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, if passed, would give the police the power to arrest demonstrators, based on the opinion of an officer of whether a person is causing a ‘serious annoyance’. A nurse in a demonstration for decent wages shouting ‘Give Boris the clap and give us the cash’ could get ten years!

The new ‘mood’ is summed up by the recent violent attack at Clapham Common on mainly female protestors remembering Sarah Everard. The police expect women to hide in their homes and if they have the audacity to go out and protest they are kettled, forced to the ground, handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police van.

The war on protest goes on. Examples include Extinction Rebellion activists who organised a small socially distanced protest being arrested, a nurse fined £10,000 for organising a demonstration against poor pay, four legal observers arrested in a demonstration against the policing bill and recently the attacks on ‘Kill the Bill’ campaigners in Bristol. Police were still spitting heads open in Bristol a few days later. 

The original ‘Kill the Bill’ campaign was against Heath government, when he introduced the Industrial Relations Bill. He came to power to break strikes and render impotent the trade union movement. A campaign by trade unionists and the TUC was launched against the bill, including agitation and vast demonstrations across the country. With industrial battles being fought everywhere, a heightened atmosphere of class consciousness and combativity permeated the advanced working class, who gained tremendous confidence in taking on the Tories and the rich. In the end the Bill was ‘killed’.

Nothing has changed since the early 70’s: brutality, arrests, intimidation, the use of the media to spread lies, dodgy courts, tampering with evidence are all tools designed by the ruling class to maintain their power. We must fight again to defeat another Conservative government, hell bent on stopping any kind of protest to improve our lives and create socialism.