A conspiracy could be as subtle as a “nod or a wink”. So said the judge in the 1973 trial that saw six workers jailed for their part in the builders’ strike of the year before. There was indeed a conspiracy going on—but in the corridors of Whitehall. In 1972, more than 300,000 building workers struck across Britain over pay and contracts.
Groups of workers would go from site to site spreading the action and recruiting thousands more into the unions. The strike ended with a 25 percent pay rise and far better union organisation.
The bosses wanted revenge. The National Federation of Building Trade Employers, in cahoots with the blacklisting organisation The Economic League, issued a document titled “Violence and Intimidation in the Building Industry Dispute”.
It recounted incidents where violence was supposed to have occurred. The state picked on the area near Chester because there had been weak local trade union traditions. But they came up against the determination of the strikers in that area.
They dredged up a “conspiracy” act from 1875. That meant they didn’t need any witnesses to the trumped up charges. Some 24 people were arrested and charged with offences—including conspiracy to intimidate.
The trial started on 3 October. Ricky Tomlinson, now best known as an actor, and Des Warren were convicted. Ricky was jailed for two years and Des for three. Des refused to conform to the prison regime. He was given the “liquid cosh” of largactyl. This resulted in his developing Parkinson’s disease.
The Tories have decided at least an extra ten years must go by before the sensitive files on the case can be released for reason of “national security”. Ricky asks, “Am I going to my grave without knowing exactly what went on? My kids and grandkids will have to live with that as well.
“We were building workers trying to get decent wages and working conditions. What’s that got to do with ‘national security’?
“We believe the prosecutions were directed by the government.” Letters obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed there was discussion at the highest level of the Tory government over the decision to prosecute the men.
The Tories’ plan to break up union organisation was thrown off track in the early 1970s. Despite Shrewsbury the government was beaten by other groups of workers, most spectacularly the miners in 1974.
But Shrewsbury was isolated. The trade union leadership let people down. In the run-up to the 1974 election, and under the Labour government that came in, there was a simple, dangerous argument—don’t rock the boat for “our government”.
In his speech from the dock Des Warren made clear what had happened. He said, “The conspiracy was between the home secretary, the employers and the police.
“It was not done with a nod and a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory MPs who demanded changes in picketing—there is your conspiracy”.
He ended his speech by saying, “The working class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallenged.” That is still true today.