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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Better late than never

by New Worker correspondent

TUESDAY SAW the final victory of the long running campaign on behalf of the Shrewsbury 24 when the Court of Appeal finally cleared the group of building workers wrongly jailed in 1973.

The case began during the 1972 National Builders Strike which involved not only low pay but health and safety on the building sites. In September that year a group of north Wales builders went to Shrewsbury to assist with picketing – an event which passed off peacefully enough with even a Chief Superintendent congratulating pickets for their conduct.

Months later, some pickets were arrested, the result of pressure from the Tory Home Secretary Robert Carr and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. Three trials took place, the alleged leaders being convicted of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray. Some were sent down for two to three years with others getting lesser sentences.

While a 1974 appeal saw affray charges quashed other appeals against conspiracy charges were rejected resulting in the leaders returning to jail. One of these, Des Warren, who was sentenced to three years, died in 2004 due to being given a “liquid cosh” used to restrain prisoners.

The Appeal Court’s decision was based on the fact that the 14 appellants’ convictions were unsafe because the original witness statements had been destroyed before the original trial started and that fact was not revealed to the defendants. The judge said “By the standards of today, what occurred was unfair to the extent that the verdicts cannot be upheld”. But he also said “it would not be in the public interest to order a retrial”. He also dismissed claims from the workers that the jury had been influenced by a hostile TV programme entitled Reds under the Bed about communists in British trade unions that was very conveniently aired during the trial.

Two other workers made their views felt. Arthur Murray, jailed for six months for affray and unlawful assembly, said “We were innocent all along, yet it has taken us nearly 50 years to clear our names. We all came from respectful working-class families – sadly my mother and four of my siblings have passed away without knowing that we were innocent”.

“This was a major miscarriage of justice and victimisation of not only innocent workers, but an attack on the working class and the trade union movement as a whole. “Make no mistake, our convictions were a political witch-hunt”.


Paul Heron, of the Public Interest Law Centre who represented the men in court, pointed out that “It is important to remember that following their convictions in 1973 they were blacklisted by the building industry. Many of the men could not find work and as a result suffered more punishment”.

Another ex-builder was Terry Renshaw who was convicted of unlawful assembly. He paid tribute to the long running Shrewsbury 24 campaign. “Without whom we would never have achieved this victory.” He also praised its leading light, London trade union activist, Eileen Turnbull “for working tirelessly to obtain the crucial evidence that got our case to the Court of Appeal and brought about our victory”.

Unite, the union which now incorporates the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) members involved, said of the verdict: “Today is a joyous and just day for the 24, and for working people everywhere, but these innocent workers should never have been put in this miserable position by the forces of the British state.

“We salute the heroic men and their families and their enormous courage in taking on the apparatus of the state in order to clear their names. History will rightly record their heroism”.

General Secretary Len McCluskey added “I send my very best wishes to my good friend Ricky Tomlinson, who can take enormous pride from today’s ruling, and my thoughts today are with Dessie Warren, who sadly did not live to see justice delivered, and his family who fought on in his name.

“It is also a landmark day in trade union history. For nearly 50 years this group of workers have been defending themselves against deep, criminal injustices perpetrated by the state. Finally, the truth has been heard and justice has been done”.

“On behalf of Unite I want to pay tribute to their determination and to the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign, without whose work and commitment this victory for them and the working class would not have been possible”. He added that this was not just a case of historical interest. “Not only should the pickets never have been convicted, but the failure to overturn such clearly wrongful convictions for so long, casts a dark stain on society.

“It is vital that this miscarriage of justice is never forgotten. The pickets were victims of the state whose agencies, including the police, the judiciary and the intelligence services, conspired to make an example of ordinary trade unionists simply campaigning for better pay and safer working conditions for all building workers”.

The Unite leader optimistically hoped that: “the full details of who was involved in these trumped up charges remain shrouded in mystery and it is critical that the government papers from the time are finally published”.

He would not be advised to hold his breathe waiting for that to happen, and it is certain that his hope that “that such state sponsored injustice is never allowed to happen again” will be unfulfilled.

Informing on the informers

The previous week former Tory minister and pilots’ union official, Norman Tebbit, cheerfully told a parliamentary meeting into undercover policing that while he was Secretary of State for Employment during the Thatcher years he was regularly supplied with information from the police that came from within the union movement. Tebbit helpfully revealed that the level of detail he received from the Special Branch was so good that he knew of the holiday plans of targeted union activists.

Tebbit was as also unabashed to reveal that he held meetings with Frank Chapple, the general secretary of the electricians union (EEPTU), in which they held discussions on how to deal with activists. With people like Chapple in the unions it is a scandal that tax-payers money is being wasted when such information can be obtained for free.

Ever since the Economic League was established during the post-World War One industrial unrest in 1919 there have always been organisations telling tales to the bosses, often with the help of the boys in blue.

Unite says “It is also vital to discover whether his Conservative successors in the role, Tom King, Lord Young, Norman Fowler, Michael Howard, Gillian Shepherd, David Hunt and Michael Portillo and members of the Blair government in similar positions received such briefings. It also needs to be clarified if such briefings still occur today and how the information is obtained”. It doesn’t need a genius to answer that question.

Howard Beckett, a Unite assistant general secretary added that “Norman Tebbit’s shocking revelations have confirmed what trade unionists have always suspected: Not only were they spied on by undercover police informers but that information was passed onto the highest levels.

“The revelations on the collusion between a leader of EEPTU and Tebbit are equally disturbing” while his colleague Gail Cartmail said: “Norman Tebbit has revealed the first definite link between undercover police officers, the government, employers and the blacklisting of construction workers. “It is absolutely essential that a full public inquiry is held to finally reveal the full truth behind blacklisting to reveal who was involved in ruining the lives of thousands of construction workers”.

Unite is not entirely blameless in such matters. It has commissioned a QC to “fully investigate allegations of collusion” of union officials into the blacklisting of construction workers. This investigation is making slow progress, very slow indeed, despite there being clear evidence that UCATT officials much given to left-wing rhetoric have boasted about warning bosses about some building workers holding Trotskyite affiliations.