This book is about a period that, for so many of us who were involved, was one of the most memorable and extraordinary of our lives.
In 1971 at the age of 20, I stepped onto the muddy field of Woodgate Valley Area B, part of the last major council estate to be built in Birmingham.
The contractor was C Bryant & Son, though at first I worked for a “lump” (casual labour) sub‑contractor. Within a couple of months, I was directly employed by Bryant and had become a shop steward for the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (AUBTW).
In the same year Mike Shilvock, a Communist Party (CP) activist from the Black Country, arrived on the site.
Shilvock, I and other mostly young and inexperienced building workers set about organising the site into the newly formed union, Ucatt. I also joined the International Socialists (IS).
Pete Carter and Phil Beyer (both also CP) were working and organising on other Bryant sites and, by February 1972, we had abolished the lump and won a 50 percent rise in the basic rate.
The Construction News magazine called the agreement with Bryant “a watershed in industrial relations in the building industry”.
Along the way Shilvock and I had been sacked and reinstated twice. Carter and Beyer suffered and overcame similar victimisation.
Five months later we were in the midst of what was then the largest industrial action since the General Strike in 1926, with 300-350,000 building workers taking action across Britain.
That year also saw national action being taken by miners and dockers. Many other groups of workers came out in various sympathy actions.
The selective strikes called by the builders’ leaderships in the Ucatt and the TGWU unions were magnified into a virtual all‑out stoppage by the use of flying pickets – a tactic we had borrowed from the miners.
Groups of workers would go from site to site spreading the action and recruiting thousands more into the unions.
The Building Workers Charter, a rank and file paper with a readership of tens of thousands, was very influential in the lead up to the strike. Most of the Charter leadership was CP or Broad Left. The CP also had members on the executives of both Ucatt and the TGWU.
The Charter, having been so effective in the build up, disappeared for the three months of the strike. It lost the initiative and so was unable to rally the troops to prevent a return to work in the face of what many of us saw as a sell-out agreement.
In the absence of The Charter, the IS stepped in and produced a number of “Building Worker Specials” to make sure the rank and file voice was still heard. Constant demands for a Charter recall conference went unheeded.
In the aftermath of the strike, a group of flying pickets were prosecuted and jailed in what became known as “The Shrewsbury Trials”.
Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson (now of TV Royle Family fame), John Carpenter, John Llywarch and others were put on trial for “conspiracy to intimidate”, despite having widespread support in defence committees around the country.
Des Warren was jailed for three years and refused to conform to the prison regime.
He was given the “liquid cosh” of largactyl, which resulted in his acquiring Parkinson’s disease. Eventually he became a physically (though not mentally or politically) broken man.
At times the book is rightly critical of the CP leadership in both the national strike and the Shrewsbury campaign. Rank and file militants such as Carter, Shilvock and Beyer were radicalised by having to fight to build the union on each new site they worked on.
The CP leadership was a different kettle of fish. CP officials wanted to fight the trials on a legalistic basis and were worried that solidarity actions might affect the chances of the pickets on trial.
So much so that when I and my four co-accused from the Birmingham Five trial tried to present the Shrewsbury campaign with the remainder of our fighting fund the day after our acquittal, Jim Arnison, a Morning Star reporter involved with the defence campaign, refused to let us – on the grounds that it might make people think there was a national conspiracy.
By 1973 many of us were blacklisted. The day the strike ended, Mike Shilvock was savagely beaten at his home by what we all assumed to be a gang of professional, hired thugs. In the years that followed, the heady gains of the early 1970s seemed to have all but been lost.
The writers try to point out lessons that can be learned by activists and militants today, when we once again seem to have a rising wave of action, we should look back to that period to learn lessons for the future.
Some of those from the IS who are still in the SWP might not agree with their analysis of later developments in the IS, but the organisation is given a good billing for the work of its members and its general strategy during the strike.
The authors of this book have done the labour movement a great service by telling the story of the strike and its aftermath, and have rescued from history a struggle that was part of a high watermark in the class struggles of 20th century Britain.
The Flying Pickets: The 1972 Builders’ Strike & The Shrewsbury Trials
by Dave Ayre, Reuben Barker, Jim French, Jimmy Graham and Dave Harker.
Published by The Des Warren Trust Fund £12.99
Available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848