Conspiracy, betrayal and flying pickets
On the 40th anniversary of the 1972 building workers strike, Laurence Humphries, a supporter of the National Shop Stewards Network, gives his version of events
Forty years ago, on June 28 1972, the building workers union, Ucatt, called a national strike over pay and the iniquitous system of casualised labour known as ‘the lump’. This strike came at a time of major clashes between sections of workers and the Tory government of Ted Heath. It followed the victory of the miners, which included the famous blockade of Saltley Gate coke depot, and coincided with the dock strike, which saw the imprisonment of the Pentonville Five under Heath’s Industrial Relations Act and their subsequent release after mass protest strikes.
The building industry was notorious for fatalities amongst workers and the lack of some of the most basic amenities. Jim Arnison, a Morning Star reporter at the time, highlighted this in his book, The Shrewsbury Three: strikes, pickets and conspiracy (London 1974). He pointed out the appalling situation on many big sites: “… they worked in the rain, they worked in the dark and had no time to bother about canteen or toilet facilities.” Arnison described how scabs and ‘lumpers’ were used. Flying pickets belonging to both Ucatt and the Transport and General Workers Union were employed in north Wales and the Liverpool area. Many members of both unions were blacklisted - still a major concern for building union activists today. The recent electricians’ dispute involving mainly Unite members showed that building employers still operate unsafe sites and blacklist those ‘troublemakers’ who protest.
The Tory government decided that it wanted to exact revenge on Ucatt and the TGWU for the use of flying pickets. The state had been seriously defeated over the miners and the dock strike, and the establishment believed that if it could criminalise building workers it would force the union leaders into submission. Months after the strike 24 building workers were arrested - they had refused to abide by a court ruling that their picketing was unlawful during the strike. There were two separate trials - in Mold and Shrewsbury - and it was in Shrewsbury that Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson, John Carpenter, McKinsie Jones, John Llywarch and Ken O’Shea were charged under the 1875 Conspiracy Act. Robert Carr, the home secretary who had introduced the Industrial Relations Act, colluded with both the North Wales and West Mercia police divisions and the building employers to try to ensure that workers would never again be able to conduct an effective strike.
All 24 were found guilty of the charges brought against them and six were jailed in 1973. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were sentenced to three years and two years respectively for “conspiracy to intimidate” (ie, mounting pickets). As Arnison points out in his pamphlet, “The only conspiracy was the collusion of the police, judiciary, Labour and Tory governments and the security services.”
Nick Warren, Des Warren’s son, points out in his book Thirty years in a turtle neck sweater (London 2005): “The building unions condemned the Shrewsbury pickets as violent, even though not a single act of violence was ever proved.” Nick Warren also points out that his dad was writing a pamphlet about the case and that the Communist Party, of which Des was a member, was reluctant to get involved: “They wouldn’t help him write it, wouldn’t help get it printed and then wouldn’t review it in the party newspaper, the Morning Star … They misled the campaign and bent and knuckled and kowtowed to the rightwing union leaderships.”
Des Warren had joined the Communist Party in 1964. He was to be involved in all the actions around the building workers’ strike. In his book, The key to my cell (London 1982) he describes not only the building workers’ dispute, but the 1972 miners’ strike and the jailing of five dockers which nearly precipitated a general strike. Des had believed that the CPGB would fight and mobilise the working class to get him and Ricky Tomlinson out of jail.
During his time inside, both he and Tomlinson were to learn very quickly the nature and role of the Ucatt leadership and the Communist Party. Ucatt even refused to provide legal aid, despite previously having agreed to do so. Warren and Tomlinson fought for their status as political prisoners and refused to wear prison uniforms. They also went on hunger strike in protest at the refusal of the state to give them political status. As Des wrote, “It should be made clear to the movement as soon as possible that it was not a legal attack on us personally, but a political attack on the movement as a whole.”
Des thought that while he was in prison the CPGB would be mobilising a mass movement to free him and Ricky. The working class in its thousands did attend many demonstrations and lobbies, but the Ucatt leadership did no more than lobby Labour, especially when it was returned to power in the 1974 general election. At no time did it consider trying to use the combined strength of the unions to free Warren and Tomlinson.
Bert Ramelson, the CPGB industrial organiser, insisted in letters to Des that the party was doing everything to free him and Tomlinson. Nothing could be further from the truth: the CPGB was closing down the defence committees and winding up the rank-and-file Charter Group it had set up. It seems the Communist Party wanted to wash its hands of the whole affair. Ramelson and CPGB executive member Pete Carter bore the main responsibility for this treachery. They provided left cover for union bureaucrats like Ucatt’s George Smith. They had no intention of using their industrial influence to help free Warren and Tomlinson. They called for a public enquiry, sponsored motions in the House of Commons and mobilised for lobbies and demonstrations, but there was never a move to call for strike action at any time, despite the lessons of the Pentonville Five: if the TUC had called a general strike they would have been freed.
Des Warren comments in The key to my cell: “This was, I think, the beginning of the breach between myself and the Stalinist leadership of the CP.” The defence committee that had been set up had no strategy for getting him out of jail. Warren says: “Not only was the fund being closed, but the campaign was being wound down.” He said of the trade union leadership, aided and abetted by the Communist Party: “Let us not forget the desperate, cowardly, self-interested role that these spineless maggots have played in the Shrewsbury issue.” It was Ramelson and the Communist Party, acting as messenger boys for the union bureaucracy, who persuaded Tomlinson and Warren to give up both their hunger strikes and other prison protests.
In 1980 Des Warren joined the Workers Revolutionary Party, which, through the Wigan Builders Action Committee, had organised a march from Wigan to London to free Warren and Tomlinson and demanded that the TUC call a general strike. The WRP was the only organisation at the time that recognised the political implications and the role of the capitalist state. Today that state is once more preparing for battle with the working class.
After Heath’s defeat in 1974, the Tory Party turned to a leadership that was determined to go much further than he did - the Thatcher years. There was very little difference between Thatcher and Blair: they both supported the use of the anti-union laws rather than having to rely again on antiquated conspiracy legislation.
In this year’s sparks’ dispute, it was rank-and-file activity, bypassing the Unite bureaucracy, that brought victory. That is the perspective in today’s major class battles against austerity. Twenty-four-hour general strikes are useless: they are just reformist protests and will not change anything. Most of all, we need a perspective for the overthrow of the property relations of capitalism. In the words of Des Warren: “The movement requires complete organisational unity and leadership based on the principles of scientific socialism”.