Sunday, April 23, 2006

Working class hero Des Warren

The man on the right has put on a bit of
weight (ain't we all) since this picture was
taken, leaving the Appeal Court in 1973.

Cue daft joke "What do you call a scouser in a suit?" Back then he was the appellant, Eric Tomlinson, nowadays better known though less often seen in a whistle, as Ricky Tomlinson on TV. (The Royle Family, Mike Basset:Manager, etc).

The man on the left is Des Warren, who died two years ago on April 24, 2004, having been ill for a number of years as a result of his treatment in jail.

Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were the "Shrewsbury Two", building workers jailed for their part in leading pickets during the national 1972 building workers' strike.

The 1970s had opened with big trade union struggles in which workers took on employers and the state, and sometimes they won. We trades unionists rejoiced over the Battle of Saltley, when striking miners succeeded in closing a Birmingham coke depot. (for any media yuppie readers, this was the grey-black stuff used in furnaces, not the white stuff you take up the nose).

For two days the miners had been kept away from the gates by a heavy police cordon, but on the third morning the workers from Birmingham factories came to join the miners, and the police decided discretion was a better policy and withdrew. "The moment we saw those union banners coming over the hill I knew we were beaten," a young copper who had been on duty at Saltley that day told me a couple of years after.

For building workers, the idea of flying pickets made good sense. They were struggling to organise on scattered sites, in an industry notorious for dividing workers and undermining safety and conditions with fake sub-contracting and the "lump". Blacklisting was (and is) common, to keep out union activists and intimidate the rest. So during the 1972 strike teams of union members would tour weaker areas, encouraging workers to join them. A UCATT branch secretary in Lancashire told me how driving around in a van they chanced upon a site out in the country where workers had posted signs at the end of the lane, and greeted them with "what kept you?" when they arrived at the site to "pull" the workers out.

On September 6, 1972, coachloads of UCATT and Transport and General Workers Union members from North Wales and Chester went to the conservative market town of Shrewsbury to assist trade union members there by picketing the sites. At one place they were greeted by the boss's son brandishing a shotgun, at another site a building company director challenged Des Warren to a fight, but by the end of the day when the men set off for home they felt it hadn't been a bad day's union work, and there had been no trouble with the police.

Des Warren was suprised to find two reporters from the Sunday People waiting at his house. They seemed quite friendly, having played with the kids and accepted tea and sandwiches from Des' wife Elsa. Des told them about the problems in the building industry, the dreadful accident rate, the union's fight for pay and conditions. They pressed for information about his own activity, and how many men he might have brought out. The following Sunday he bought the People, and was confronted by a large photograph of himself headed "The Wrecker", and saying he brought 3,000 men on strike. It also carried his address. The threatening letters and phone calls began. "We're going to kill your kids", "We'll rape your wife", "you Communist bastard", "your house will be blown up" -this one signed "National Front".

Where would we be without a free press?

While we had been toasting the miners' success at Saltley, the bosses, the Tories, and the pillars of "law and order", their order, were planning revenge. If they couldn't take the miners or dockers just yet they would come for the building workers instead. Shortly after dark on February 14, 1973 police swooped on homes in North Wales. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were among those taken away. Two dozen men went on trial in Shrewbury, eventually, accused of "conspiracy to intimidate", "unlawful assembly". and "causing an affray". No evidence was given that they had committed violence. The young man with the shotgun was produced as a witness for the Crown.

Although the affray charge was later thrown out on appeal, Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson recieved the stiffest sentences and were sent to jail. Before sentence Des Warren made this speech from the dock:

"I have spent a week in jail, and people in there and various other people, not including my counsel, have told me that it was always a mistake to make a speech from the dock, because whatever you are going to get will be doubled. I tried to explain to them that the system that operates is purely for the upper class, and I don't expect any leniency or mercy from it, so I'll continue anyway.

It has been said in this court that this trial had nothing to do with politics. Among ten million trade unionists in this country I doubt if you would find one who would agree with that statement. It is a fact of life that Acts of Parliament have been passed and picketing and strikes are looked upon as a political act. ... (at this point the Judge interrupted, telling Warren he must not use the court as a political platform, but Des continued) It therefore follows that every action taken in furtherance of an industrial dispute also becomes a political act. There are even those who say it is a challenge to the law of the land if a man decides not to work more than an agreed number of hours, and bans overtime. This is something known to many trade unionists as politically motivated interference by governments acting on behalf of, and under political pressure from the employers, and it now means that no trade unionist can enter freely into negotiations with the employers, and they can't withdraw their labour — the only thing they possess as a bargaining lever — without being accused of setting out to wreck the economy or break the law.

On the other hand, employers, by their contempt of laws governing safety requirements, are guilty of causing the deaths of a great many workers, and yet they are not dealt with before the courts. Mr. Bumble said: "The law is an ass." If he were here now he might draw the conclusion that the law is, quite clearly, an instrument of the state. It is biased; it is class law, and nowhere has that been demonstrated more than in the prosecution case in this trial. The very nature of the charges, the delving into ancient Acts of Parliament, dredging up conspiracy, shows this to be so. Was there a conspiracy? Ten members of the jury have said there was. There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets. The conspiracy began with the miners giving the government a good hiding last year. It developed when the government was forced to perform legal gymnastics in getting five dockers out of jail after they had only just been put there. 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 Members of Parliament who demanded changes in picketing laws.

Of course, there was a very important reason why no police witness said he had seen any evidence of conspiracy, unlawful assembly or affray. The question was hovering over the case from the very first day: why were there no arrests on the 6th September? That would have led to the even more important question of when was the decision to proceed taken?. Where did it come from? What instructions were issued to the police? And by. whom? There was your conspiracy. -

I am innocent of the charges and I shall appeal. But there will be a more important appeal going out to every member of the trade union movement in this country. Nobody here must think they can walk away from here and forget what has happened here. Villains or victims, we are all part of something bigger than this trial. The working class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallenged. It is yet one more stop along the road to fascism, and I would rcmind you that the greatest heroes in Nazi Germany were those who challenged the law, when it was used as a political weapon by a fanatical gang for a minority of greedy evil men.

The jury in this trial were asked to look upon the word "intimidation" as having the ordinary everyday meaning. My interpretation is "to make timid", or "to dispirit", and when the pickets came to this town to speak to the building workers it was not with the intention of intimidating them. We came here with the intention of instilling the trade union spirit into them and not to make them timid, but to give them the courage to fight the intimidation of the employers in this area."

Ricky Tomlinson was sentended to two years. Des Warren to three. "You are no martyr," Judge Mais told him. "I regard you as arrogant, vicious and prepared to impose your views on others by violence if need be. You have the power of speech and the power of leadership which you apparently used to ill purpose."

In prison, Des Warren refused to co-operate, spending time in solitary, "on the blanket" (refusing to don prison uniform) and hunger strike. Outside, we signed petitions, went on marches, demanding "Free the Shrewsbury Two!" A group of Wigan building workers marched to London, and we held a rally with them in Trafalgar Square. After Ricky Tomlinson was released he joined the Wigan builders demanding action at the TUC in Blackpool.

But the campaign was largely wound down by building union officials, the TUC, and Des Warren's own "comrades" in the Communist Party leadership (though some rank and file worker members stuck loyally by his campaign). We were told the new Labour government would be more sympathetic. Home Secretary Roy Jenkins made it clear they were not. Des Warren served his full three years. When he came out, knowing that those who led the Wigan campaign were Trotskyists, he joined the Workers Revolutionary Party like them. When the WRP expelled its long time leader Gerry Healy in 1985, Des sided with the members fighting corruption against Healy and his acolytes.

But Des Warren's treatment in prison, specifically the "liquid cosh" tranquiliser administered to "difficult" prisoners like him, which caused symptoms similar to Parkinsons Disease, put a limit on his active political life, eventually causing him to need constant healthcare, provided by supporters. He died of pneumonia and complications caused by the Parkinsons. The gods of capital and state are jealous gods, never forgiving those who stand up to their power.

Des Warren did write a pamphlet about his case, and a book "The Key to My Cell" (New Park 1982), now sadly out of print, but vital reading to understand developments in the workers' movement over the period. Ricky Tomlinson -whose politics were not left-wing at all when he found himself in the dock with Warren - has made a new career in showbiz. But he has not forgotten past struggles, or those he learned were his comrades (he was at a commemoration meeting for Des Warren at the Casa dockers club in Liverpool). It's worth reading his entertaining autobiography, "Ricky" (Time Warner, 2004).

And for an insight into what it's like to be the son of a working-class hero, sitting in the car hoping Dad will remember the packet of crisps he promised, you can read 'Thirty Years in a Turtleneck Sweater', by Nick Warren (Ebury Press, 2005).


The Lump - system of pretending workers are self-employed, paying them a lump sum and leaving them to worry about tax and national insurance. Against a background of low wage rates, many were tempted, but employers used it to smash unions, and undermine conditions, setting workers competing with each other, and worsening accident rates. Those on the "lump" had no security or employment rights, and if they dodged their insurance they found themselves in trouble later when sick or unemployed.

UCATT - Union of Construction and Allied Trades and Technicians. Includes carpenters, brickies and plasterers, plus labourers, but not plumbers and electricians.

Workers Revolutionary Party - split in 1985. Those who had been in the majority then eventually disbanded at the end of 1996 in the hope of building a broader movement. Some have since been active in the Socialist Alliance and various campaigns, and joined the new Liverpool-centred United Socialist Party. The group now still calling itself the WRP, with the paper News Line, was formed by people who went with Gerry Healy.

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