Some episodes in working class history remain stubbornly in the collective memory, resisting all efforts either to consign them to oblivion or ‘reinterpret’ them to make them fit the bourgeois falsification of history. One such episode was the persecution of building workers back in the Seventies, thrown into gaol for the ‘crime’ of picketing construction sites to persuade workers to join the 1972 builders’ strike. The central issue of the strike was the battle against the ‘lump’, the practice whereby workers were hired on a daily basis and paid in cash, robbing them of all employment rights and also putting downward pressure on the wages and job security of contracted employees. The strike itself, which achieved some of its aims, concluded after three months. But for the Shrewsbury 24 the nightmare had just begun.
The use of ‘flying pickets’ to spread the strike had been a runaway success, helping to close hundreds of building sites, and was a tactic which the miners were to develop in 1972 (against Edward Heath’s government) and 1984 (against Margaret Thatcher’s government). The threat of such a good example, cheering to the working class but terrifying for the capitalist state, was not lost on the powers that be, who decided to pick on one routine picket in one particular town and do their utmost to criminalise it.
Accordingly, police in the west country and north Wales spent a full ten weeks investigating what did or did not happen when 24 building workers dropped in for a chat at a construction site in Shrewsbury on 6 September 1972. Police interrogated over 800 witnesses in a frantic effort to find, or manufacture, evidence of intimidation. Then on 14 February 1973, months after the strike was over, police raided houses in North Wales, arresting six men, including Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson (later of “Royle Family” fame). Further arrests thereafter brought the number up to 24 – the ‘Shrewsbury 24.’
After a jury had acquitted eight of the defendants of the charge of intimidation on the grounds of zero evidence, overruling the judge, the state shifted its ground and hit Warren and Tomlinson with ‘conspiracy’ charges – charges which were both more vague and carried heavier sentences. Both were sent down, Tomlinson for two years and Warren for three. Both correctly asserted that they were political prisoners, and both took the blanket sooner than wear prison clothes, and also undertook hunger strikes. Because of his defiant stand, Warren was subjected to a ‘liquid cosh’ consisting of increasing doses of tranquilliser, a form of violence which left him with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and contributed to his early demise.
Since his release, Tomlinson and his supporters have been tireless in pursuing justice. In 2012 Tomlinson tried to get the convictions overturned by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and the following year he raised the issue again at the Durham Miners’ Gala. In 2014 MPs voted for the disclosure of files relating to the arrests in 1973, but still the government stonewalls.
As election day approaches, the Labour PR machine scents a cost-free opportunity to strike a ‘progressive’ pose on the issue and pull in a few ‘left’ votes. Labour’s shadow minister Lisa Nandy pointed out that the government had “no justification” for keeping the Shrewsbury 24 files under wraps, declaiming that ” The minister may refuse to act, but a Labour government will act. We will release those papers with the urgency that the situation demands.”
Stirring words. Yet when Heath’s Tory government was replaced by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in 1974, at a time when the issue of the Shrewsbury 24 was convulsing the whole labour movement, how did Labour approach the question? Did it bravely denounce this naked exercise of class war against workers? Did it release these political prisoners? On the contrary: the Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins withstood all pleas and kept them under lock and key.
How about the TUC, did they support the campaign? On his release in 1975, Tomlinson sought the help of the TUC. Instead of assisting the campaign, the TUC refused to let him address the annual conference, obliging him to disrupt the proceedings to hold the labour aristocracy to account.
And what did Des Warren think ? In his book The Key to My Cell he made his disgust at the cowardice of the trade union movement very plain, writing “ I feel bitterness, anger and loathing when I think of some of our trade union ‘leaders’ bemoaning the nation’s ills and how the workers must endure a cut in their living standards in order to save the country from disaster-even my kids would recognise that as a load of crap. [But not evidently those who today campaign for a Labour government committed to austerity!] Their phoney dealing with the government (which is holding me prisoner) is to batten down the working class and force them to accept capitalist answers to capitalism’s problems. Leaders? As far as I can see the only time some of them take a lead is when they go to the front of the queue when honours are dished out.”
Scorning those who supposed his anger was just a subjective response, Warren had this to say: “If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times that I don’t take my imprisonment personally. The Tory Government wasn’t interested in me or my 23 co-victims. They were attacking the trade union movement and, by failing to stand by us, the ECs of UCATT and the T&G failed to protect the movement – a job they were well paid to do” (The Key To My Cell, New Park , 1982, p190).
Fight the Blacklist
What has helped stir the pot and bring this burning historical injustice back to the boil is the continuing struggle to expose and resist the blacklisting in the construction industry of union reps who dare to blow the whistle on unsafe practices. Such practices took the lives of 42 construction workers last year, 14 of whom were self-employed (the lump by any other name). Whilst the construction industry only accounts for 5% of the working population, it accounted for 31% of fatalities.
On 12 March the Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry into undercover police espionage operations targeting peaceful protests and bereaved parents of murder victims. But on the same day that the state embarked upon yet another damage-limitation whitewash exercise, the exposure of police malpractice went up another notch with the publication of a book by leading anti-blacklist campaigners Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, Blacklisted: the Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists. Launching the book, Dave Smith pointed out that:
“There are secret political police in the UK; they are called Special Branch, MI5, GCHQ, NETCU and SDS. These coercive arms of the state see their role as supporting big business against anyone who may threaten their profits. Trade unions and peaceful campaign groups are viewed as the enemy. Undercover police infiltration of justice campaigns set up by bereaved relatives, anti-racist and environmental groups and trade unions is an affront to democracy – it is essential that this is part of the remit of the public inquiry announced by Theresa May. Blacklisted workers should be consulted before the inquiry starts. Blacklisting is no longer an industrial relations issue: it is a conspiracy orchestrated by directors of multinational companies and the security services against trade unions. Blacklisting is not just in construction, it is endemic across UK industry from NHS whistleblowers, airlines, North Sea, retail and railways. We now know that the fire brigades’ union, UNISON, CWU and NUT were also targets of this national scandal. The full extent of the corporate and police spying against trade unions demands that blacklisting is given a full standalone public inquiry of its own.”
Less then a week after publication, Dave Smith was arrested on a peaceful protest outside the Construction News Awards in the Park Lane Hilton. The protest was to highlight the sacking of workers on the Crossrail project for raising health and safety issues. One example was the sacking of employees who objected to working in the darkness without torches on their helmets. Days after the sackings, 13 workers suffered falls. Campaigners reported that the police went in mob-handed at the demo and made a beeline for Smith. As Smith’s own book makes plain, such arrests are entirely political in character and demand a political response from unions.
As was to be expected, “left” Labour luminaries are now clutching onto the coat-tails of this momentous grass-roots revolt for all they are worth in the hope of getting some reflected glory and a few more working class votes. The reality however is that blacklist operations have been in full swing throughout Tory and Labour administrations alike, an immutable necessity for the functioning of the secret state.
What’s more, when the notorious Consulting Association was busted in 2009, the then Labour government declined the opportunity to criminalise the actual practice of blacklisting itself, outlawing only such instances where it could be proved that someone had been forbidden employment on the sole grounds of a negative comment on a blacklisting database – a basically impossible requirement which lets MacAlpine and the rest of the unsavoury bunch completely off the hook.
Unite: the gloves come off?
On 19 March Len McCluskey took to the columns of the Guardian with an article with the promising title ‘Unions must be able to fight for workers – even if it means breaking bad laws’. He reported that the previous week Unite had decided to recommend ” the deletion from our rules of six little words that have governed our union’s actions: ‘so far as may be lawful’“.
McCluskey reassures the fainthearted that ” Our executive wants these words gone not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery, but because we have to ask ourselves the question: can we any longer make that commitment to stick, under any and all circumstances, within the law as it stands ?”
The answer, coyly withheld until the final paragraph, is basically No. ” When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”
McCluskey points out the way in which the vagaries of the postal ballot undoubtedly help capitalism to sow confusion and litigation whenever a strike ballot is under way, and seems to unveil a plan whereby future ballots will be conducted electronically. ” We will drive forward with modern technology and use it to increase turnouts in our ballots without being shackled by prescriptions – such as postal ballots – imposed in another age. We are not going to let the Tories destroy our democracy by shackling us to archaic procedures .”
What this ignores is the fact that, under both Tory and Labour regimes ,”our democracy” has been comprehensively violated by legislation that dares to impose preconditions on the exercise of the right to strike.
In truth the right to strike, curtailed as it is in practice, is not really “hanging by a thread” (as McCluskey suggests) but has long since ceased to have any real meaning at all. Modernising the method by which unions submit to state scrutiny of their internal affairs does not deal with this fundamental reality.
McCluskey is right: unions should resume their proper function and act as fighting organs of the working class. Yet so long as the argument is cast exclusively in terms of the need to struggle against evil Tory governments, letting Labour off scot free, the real character of the political struggle of labour versus capital will remain obscured. He tells us that the Labour victory in 1997 was “one of the happiest days of my life“, and it is clear that even after experiencing what followed he still preserves the belief that a vote for Miliband will somehow soften the blows of austerity and give the unions a fairer deal in the courts. The happiest day for the trade union movement will be when it wrenches itself free from its enslavement to the imperialist Labour party and uproots the debilitating influence of social democracy.