Saturday, 9 April 2016

United We Stand: A play about the Shrewsbury 24, imprisoned for defying anti-TU laws

United We Stand
In November 2015, at the Bussey Building in Peckham, South East London, the play United We Stand by Neil Gore was produced, directed by Louise Townsend. The cast was writer Neil Gore and William Fox who take on multiple roles, often in the same scene, but primarily they portray the Shrewsbury pickets Eric (Ricky) Tomlinson and Des Warren during the 1972 builders strike. It is performed on a set of scaffolding bars and breeze blocks at the construction of the Wrexham by-pass which is also adorned by strike posters 'Ban the Lump', 'Decasualise the Building Industry', and 'A Better Deal for Labourers.' A projector shows footage of Tory prime minister Edward Heath, the 1972 Miners' strike, and working people's resistance to the 1971 Industrial Relations Act.

This piece of anti-worker legislation essentially suppressed the right to collective bargaining, and all strike action became legally unprotected. (even the CBI Director General thought it needed to be replaced). The act set up the Industrial Relations Court which granted injunctions to prevent strikes, and cases were decided against trade unions. Heath's tenure in office was a fiasco; a seven weeks Miners' strike in January-February 1972 was a victory for the NUM, and in July 1972 the Pentonville 5 (dockers) were imprisoned for defying the Industrial Relations Act which was followed by a near-general strike.

In the early 1970s the building industry was making millions while building workers faced dangerous working conditions, injuries, deaths and poor wages. United We Stand  references the building of the Mersey Tunnel when 17 workers were killed, and Des Warren says 'life and limb are cheap on the building sites.' Between 1970-73 there were 242,000 registered industrial injuries but the highest fine paid by a contractor was £300 for two deaths. Today in austerity Britain, casualisation, self-employment and agency work are features of working class lives, and in 1972 these same conditions were rife in the building industry, where they were known colloquially as 'the Lump.' The Lump Labour Scheme institutionalised casual cash-paid daily labour without any employment rights. Building workers were a dispersed force, little unified because of the diverse and the transitory nature of their trades, unionisation was weak, and thus they were a section of the working class generally ignored by the trade unions.

The first nationwide building workers' strike in the Summer of 1972 lasted 12 weeks and involved 300,000 workers. Rank and file workers in unions UCATT, TGWU, and  GMWU across the country organised around the Building Workers' Charter, which demanded £1 per hour, a 35-hour working week, holiday pay, enforcement of health and safety regulations, union rights, and abolition of the Lump. In United We Stand we see clearly that the building workers are more militant than the  labour aristocracy which controls the trade union movement. Ricky and Des express belief in 'solidarity and workers' rights'   A rendition of the Strawbs 1973 song Part of the Union which is an adaptation of Union Maid, a Woody Guthrie work song, is particularly effective.

The building workers' borrowed from the successful Miners' strike of earlier in 1972 the tactic of 'flying pickets', bussing strikers to geographically isolated building sites where work had not stopped, to attempt to convince the workers, many 'on the Lump' to down tools. United We Stand
is concerned with the Shrewsbury picket of 6 September 1972 when the North Wales Strike Committee bussed strikers from North Wales and Chester to picket building sites in Shrewsbury to seek support from workers 'on the lump.' Tomlinson, a plasterer and TGWU official, and Warren, a steel fixer and UCATT official organised the flying pickets. Despite confrontations with site management, no picket was arrested, and the police did not complain about the pickets on that day. The strike ended on 15 September 1972 in a victory for the building workers, winning an unprecedented pay rise in the construction industry but still left them at the bottom of the pay heap. The strike failed, however, to end 'the Lump.'

The first half of United We Stand ends with a 15-minute long satire called the 'Big Conspiracy' which details the alliance of building employers such as McAlpine, Bovis, Wimpey and Laing with the Tory government, the media, the police, and judiciary to punish the building workers who had been on strike. The  National Federation of Building Trades Employers started a dossier on intimidation during the recent strike, which was sent to the Home Secretary Robert Carr who ordered a police investigation into events in North Wales. The Attorney General Peter Rawlinson saw no case to charge any pickets but he was overruled, and a cabinet decision was made to prosecute pickets in Shrewsbury. In 1973 charges of  unlawful assembly, affray, intimidation and conspiracy were brought against 24 Shrewsbury pickets including Tomlinson and Warren for events on 6 September 1972. None of the pickets had been cautioned or arrested during the strike and on the day in question approximately 70 police had accompanied the pickets on the Shrewsbury building sites at all times.
The second half of United We Stand focuses on the trial of Tomlinson and Warren at Shrewsbury Crown Court in 1973 where the two actors alternate roles between the judge and the accused. Tomlinson and Warren refused to testify against fellow strikers. In all 24 building workers were convicted and six jailed as a result of their picketing activities. Tomlinson and Warren were found guilty of  'conspiracy to intimidate' under the 1875 Conspiracy Act, and sentenced to two and three years imprisonment respectively. The prosecution was an attempt to suppress organised workers in the building industry and political revenge for the Tory government after its defeats in the Miners', Dockers' and Builders' strikes.

In prison Tomlinson recalled 'we were told we were two of six political prisoners at the time. Two of the others may have been the Price sisters (jailed for an IRA bombing they did not carry out). I don’t know who the other two were. We did not wear prison clothes. We did not get visitors. We were kept in segregation.' Both Tomlinson and Warren refused to conform to the prison regime, and Warren was particularly badly treated by prison officers, administered the 'liquid cosh’ (to control 'unmanageable' inmates), which is likely to have contributed to his chronic ill health later in life and premature death. In prison Tomlinson became more politicised after reading the novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell.

Today union membership in the construction industry continues to fall, and the most recent HSE statistics for 2014-15 cite 69,000 cases of work-related illnesses, 65,000 workplace injuries, and 142  workers killed in the construction industry. In the last twenty five years there have been 2,800 deaths.
A blacklist of workers in the construction industry meant Tomlinson pursued a career in acting notably appearing in the TV soap opera Brookside (1982-88), two Ken Loach films Riff-Raff (1991) about the building industry, Raining Stones (1993), TV dramas Hillsborough (1996), Dockers (1999) about the Liverpool dockers strike, and the TV sitcom The Royle Family (1998-2000). Tomlinson and others lodged an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2012 citing abuse of executive process in the case of the Shrewsbury pickets.

United We Stand is serio-comic Brechtian agitprop, the audience is incorporated into the performance, the 'fourth wall' is fully dismantled with an expert use of Brecht's alienation effect: 'playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience's subconscious.' (Brecht Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting 1936)  There is a link between United We Stand and the Liverpool Everyman Theatre whose 1972 production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle was adapted to a company of actors who arrive at a Liverpool building site where the workers have occupied the site (when one of them falls from scaffolding) in protest at the prevailing working conditions. Brecht is performed on the building site and Alan Dossor recalled 'at the end a copy of the Industrial Relations Act was burnt in a cement mixer, and the audience stood up because they wanted to see it burn.' (Margaret Eddershaw Performing Brecht)

United We Stand is testament to Brecht's poem To Danish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Observation (1934): 'the workers' actors can play your part creatively in all the struggles/Helping, with the seriousness of study and the cheerfulness of knowledge/To turn the struggle into common experience and Justice into a passion.'

The case of the Shrewsbury 24 is still relevant today, with the present government's latest attack on workers' rights in the Trade Union bill. The Shrewsbury 24 campaigns to overturn the miscarriages of justice that were the convictions of the pickets at Shrewsbury Crown Court in 1973 and 1974. The main focus of the campaign is an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to have the cases of the 24 referred to the Court of Appeal and for the convictions to be overturned. The campaign also demands the release of all documents under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act which relate to the Shrewsbury trials. Oliver Letwin MP announced that the cabinet had reviewed the withheld documents and decided not to release them to the national archives at Kew for public scrutiny.

The Green Party is proud to fight for equality and stand up for working people. We recognise the role of organised labour in creating a fairer and greener society – that’s why the Green Party promotes the rights of Trade Unions, including the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.

Stephen Clayton,

(Croydon Branch, Green Party of England and Wales)

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