In 1972 over 300,000 building workers struck across Britain over pay and contracts.
That year saw the British working class’s greatest victory.
An unofficial general strike from below, including building workers, forced the government to free five dockers from prison.
They had been jailed in Pentonville prison for defying the picketing laws.
On a number of building sites growing rank and file militancy had abolished the lump and won a 50 percent rise in the basic rate.
Miners and dockers also took national action that year.
Many other groups of workers joined in solidarity.
The selective strikes called by the builders’ leaderships in the Ucatt and T&G unions turned into a virtual all-out stoppage.
Unions reluctantly called out 60 sites and some token stoppages. The plan was to have rolling regional strikes. But the rank and file used flying pickets.
Groups of workers would go from site to site spreading the action and recruiting thousands more into the unions.
Sometimes this meant blockading the site or occupying them.
In some cases workers occupied cranes for a number of days to make sure the sites closed.
On one site, bosses tried to bring in scabs by helicopter. Each picket closing a site built workers’ confidence to take action, no job was too large or too small.
The Building Workers Charter, a rank and file paper with a readership of tens of thousands, was very influential in the run-up to the strike.
Most of the Charter leadership was Communist Party (CP).
The CP was caught between its militants on the ground and its strategy of courting the union bureaucracy.
This meant that, when it came to the strikes, the “broad left” leadership was paralysed.
The Charter disappeared during the strike.
In its absence the International Socialists—the forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party—stepped in.
It produced a number of Building Worker Specials to make sure the rank and file voice was still heard.
Socialist Worker wrote at the time that, “Officials were happy to allow rank and file militants and some local officials to spread the strike and organise the industry.
“They wait for the rank and file to tire of the struggle so they can carve out a deal and get back to the cosy relations with the building bosses.”
The officials repeatedly attempted to settle the strike. But mass meetings and picketing prevented them.
The strike ended with a 25 percent pay rise and union organisation at its highest point.
1972 was part of a high point in the class struggles of 20th century Britain.
And it showed the power of the rank and file.
In the aftermath of the 1972 strike, a group of flying pickets was prosecuted and jailed in what became known as “The Shrewsbury Trials”.
Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson, John Carpenter, John Llywarch and others were put on trial for “conspiracy to intimidate”.
Des Warren was jailed for three years and refused to conform to the prison regime.
In response, prison officers repeatedly drugged him with largactyl—a sedative known as the “liquid cosh”. As a result Des developed Parkinson’s disease.
For more information go to www.shrewsburypicketscampaign.org.uk
The story of the jailed workers, The Flying Pickets, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848