On Tuesday 23 March, the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 14 North Wales trade unionists who had been sentenced for picketing in the 1972 building workers' national strike. They were part of the "Shrewsbury 24": 24 workers were originally put on trial 48 years ago.
The appeal was granted because some of the original police statements in the trial had been destroyed by the force, and the defendants had not been notified of this basic fact. The secret destruction was uncovered about a decade ago in the archives by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign’s researcher, Eileen Turnbull.
The discovery also included a note between the police and the chief crown prosecutor explaining the destruction – “In most cases the first statement was taken before photographs were available for witnesses and before the officers taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.” (emphasis added). This clear statement of political motivation against the pickets was also part of the evidence submitted to the Court of Appeal, but not accepted by the judges, who also rejected the claim that a "documentary" (“Red Under the Bed”, focusing on the Shrewsbury 24 case) shown across ITV regions on the day the prosecution ended their evidence in court could have prejudiced the outcome!
There is written evidence that the Tory government at the time had a direct hand in the production of “Red Under the Bed” – “The prime minister has seen the transcript (of the TV programme)… He has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing.”
It was a clear political trial and aimed at the whole trade union movement. The government had been defeated twice in the first part of 1972 – the miners' strike, and then the freeing of five jailed dockers under the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, the Tories' first attempt on anti-union laws. The Shrewsbury 24 trial, with the urging of the building bosses, was an early example of ruling class attempt at retribution. For this purpose they bought out 19th century conspiracy laws to use against militant trade unionists.
Two of the North Wales pickets were jailed for lengthy terms. Des Warren got three years, and died in 2004 partly because of the prison treatment he received. Five of the other trade unionists also convicted died before Tuesday’s court decision. Ricky Tomlinson, now a well-known actor, got two years, and was in court to hear the vindicating result.
In July 1972 militant rank and file working class action, of near general strike proportions, forced the government to free five jailed dockers after a few days in prison. Although many working class activists fought hard for similar action to free the Shrewsbury building workers, they were unsuccessful. Much of the responsibility for this defeat must lie with the trade union and labour bureaucrats.
At best, they gave grudging, half-hearted support at best, but said that the "law' – the naked class justice on display – must take its course. At worst, there was open hostility to the jailed pickets, including from the leadership of the builders’ own union, UCATT. The TUC instructed local Trades Councils not to support action to free the pickets “unless requested to do so by the NECs [National Executive Committees] of the Unions concerned”. The 1974-79 Labour government resisted a powerful campaign to pardon the convicted pickets.
In 2014, backbench MPs voted overwhelmingly for the government to release all documents relating to the jailing of the pickets. Andy Burnham, then in the shadow cabinet, was a prominent spokesperson. But at that level the Shrewsbury 24 case has never been a central campaign, nor one tied to the class nature of the convictions.
As from the beginning, that work has been done at the rank and file level throughout the nearly 50 years of naked injustice. At the start, Workers Fight – a predecessor of Solidarity – played a central role in initiating the local North Wales Defence Committee and the solidarity campaign.
Since the 1974 jailings, much of the work has been undertaken by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign and the surviving falsely imprisoned workers. Today’s legal victory is a result, first and foremost, of their tireless activity and continued struggle.