Shrewsbury 24: how we started a campaign to defend pickets

Submitted by Matthew on 1 February, 2017 - 12:30 Author: Keith Road

Our political group has recently celebrated our 50th anniversary. We have been reflecting on some of the movements and disputes that we have played an active role in. One of these was Shrewsbury 24 campaign over the victimisation of building workers in 1972.

1972 saw a major wave of industrial action in Britain. There were more work days lost to strike action in that year than in any other since the 1926 General Strike. States of Emergency were declared during both a miners’ and a dockers’ strike.

The Tories tried to use the 1971 Industrial Relations Act to undermine the position of trade unions in various ways including outlawing of “wild cat” strikes. However, the Act was largely unsuccessful.

Frustrated, the government picked a legal battle it thought it might win against workers in the construction industry, an industry which had traditionally been poorly organised. A merger of smaller unions had created UCATT (now part of Unite), which alongside others formed an industry National Joint Council. The unions agreed to make a demand for £30 per week and a shorter working week of 35 hours. Refusal by the employers led to the only-ever (so far) national strike in the construction industry, with flying pickets moving from site to site.

Months later, in February 1973, 24 pickets were arrested and charged with a variety of old offences (not using the Industrial Relations Act). The AWL’s forerunner Workers’ Fight launched the campaign to defend the pickets. At first the Communist Party (then a big force among building workers, and with a member among the 24) refused to take up the defence, but over months the defence campaign grew.

Workers’ Fight 25 April 1973

In Shrewsbury on 15 March, 24 building workers appearing in court were met by a show of solidarity from other workers, meeting out the court and then marching through the town. At the court hearing the 24 — members of the T&GWU and UCATT — were up on a conspiracy law of 1875. There are also charges of damages, and, added 14 days later, unlawful damage and causing an affray.

The police are using conspiracy law so that hearsay evidence will be admissible. On 15 March, the police stopped all traffic going into Shrewsbury with a complete roadblock. The father of one defendant, John McKinsie Jones, was hit by the police. His wife found herself on her own in a court supposedly too full for relatives — but full of dozens of police. Only six people were allowed into court to support the defendants.

Liverpool builders’ leaders Frank Marsh and Alan Abrahams called for the TUC to call a general strike on the day of the committal proceedings, 25 April, and for the lads to have full official backing. This needed to be not only in the form of finance but also in the form of organising national support. The defendants in UCATT were offered official support only to hear the following day that it was being withdrawn. The excuse given? A lawyer had said the trial would cost too much. First time we’ve ever heard of a lawyer complaining about earning a lot!

On 14 March UCATT General Secretary George Smith wrote to UCATT Branch Secretary Barry Scragg. “I have to acknowledge receipt of your communication dated the 24th February, in connection with the above...I would advise you that we have had legal advice on the lengthy and nature of the charges...and would be doing the Building Unions a great disservice, and indeed the Trade Union Movement 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 and our concern in matters of this kind is to defend the rights of Trade Unions to carry out picketing during the course of an official dispute.”

“We must take the view that the legal processes are such that that content among the charges based on the Conspiracy Act will soon be disproved as playing no part in the other charges that are made against the members concerned.”

In other words – Smith will do nothing to defend worker prosecuted for official picketing! Some are speculating that the union may be making a deal with the police to drop the conspiracy charge if the union drops support of the men on the lesser charges.

Workers’ Fight 27 May 1973

Police pile on more charges

Five of the 24 North Wales building workers who are being charged for picketing are coming up in court in Shrewsbury on 18 May. It is urgent that more places of work and trade union branches organise to send delegations to Shrewsbury. Action to defend the North Wales 24 on trial for the “crime” of picketing on official union instructions last September is now being coordinated by a Defence Committee of North Wales Charter.

The fight to get jobs for union labour means learning from last September’s success and repeating the use of picketing against lump sites. It also means putting pressure on union officials to mobilise official support the picket lines. Meanwhile, the UCATT leadership have added to their record of betraying the North Wales 24 a refusal to postpone a branch officials’ conference billed for the 18th.

We must recognise the trial for what is it – a political attack on our rights as trade unionists to take action. We on our side have a direct choice: either we leave the bourgeois courts to do their dirty work and act against our interests, or we take the trial seriously too, and mobilise for solidarity action.

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