Seeking justice in Birmingham, Meeting it in Nottingham
THE CASE THAT WILL NOT GO AWAY. Rally in Shrewsbury. On his feet speaking Ricky Tomlinson, to his right under other banner former fellow picket Terry Renshaw.
THE union battles of the 1970s have not gone away. They were in the background of two cases that came up today. In Birmingham, actor and former building worker Ricky Tomlinson and his fellow campaigners for justice for the Shrewsbury pickets applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to have their 1973 convictions overturned, on the basis that the case against them was contrived between the big building companies and the then Tory government.
It was after the 12-week national building strike in 1972, indeed five months after it, that police raided a number of homes in the area of North Wales and Chester, and took away two dozen men who had been active in the strike. Eventually, after a trial at Shrewsbury, they were variously convicted of conspiracy, unlawful assembly and causing an affray.
The charges related to a day when pickets had gone to Shrewsbury and Telford new town to encourage men still working there to come out and join the strike. In his book "The Key to My Cell", the late Des Warren recounts how at one site a boss challenged him to a fight, which he declined, and at another he was threatened with a shotgun by the boss's son -who later turned up as a prosecution witness against him.
At no time that day were any of the pickets arrested or charged with any offence. In fact, Ricky Tomlinson says that not knowing their way around, they were escorted by the police, and when they were leaving at the end of the day an officer thanked them for the way they had conducted themselves.
This gap between the events of the day and the move to arrest them months afterwards lends weight to their suspicion that a political decision took place behind the scenes. It was not just the links between the Tories and big building companies that were involved. The authorities had been humiliated by the miners' victory in closing Saltley coke depot with the help of Birmingham trade unionists in February 1972, and shaken by the way workers in London forced them to free the Pentonville Five shop stewards jailed later that year. Going for the less well-organised building workers was one way the government could remind us who is boss, and get its revenge.
All this is surmise. But just what the pickets were up against may be indicated by the fact that since Ricky Tomlinson began campaigning he has been refused access to some relevant official documents, on grounds supposedly of "national security".
Six of the pickets were jailed. Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren received the longest sentences and became known as the Shrewsbury Two. Jailed for two years for conspiracy to intimidate, Ricky has since become a successful actor, starring in many films and on television in Brookside and The Royle Family.
Des Warren, charged with conspiracy, told the court "The only conspiracy was between the government, the employers and the police. " Jailed for three years, he came out of prison with ruined health, and did not work again. He died of Parkinson's disease, believed to have been induced by tranquilisers administered in jail, in 2004.
"We were innocent then and we're innocent now," said Tomlinson. "I promised Dessie that I would continue the fight to clear the names of all convicted pickets."
The application to the CCRC by the solicitors, Bindmans, is based on four years of work by researcher Eileen Turnbull. It will claim that the Conservative government interfered with the judicial process by encouraging the prosecutions to deter effective picketing, then a standard process in industrial disputes. Turnbull said that she used the National Archives at Kew to uncover details of the decision-making process in the prosecution.
"There is a lot of material and we are very optimistic that we will finally be able to overturn what we believe is a miscarriage of justice," she said. The legal submission claims that the trials were an "abuse of process" and the convictions should be quashed by the court of appeal. The CCRC has the power to refer such cases to the court of appeal.
Although the Shrewsbury convictions came under the Tories, the case does not show Labour in a good light. Trade unionists had been led to believe the incoming Labour government in 1974 would put things right, but then Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins - whose own father was imprisoned after the 1926 general strike - refused to interfere, and as Ricky Tomlinson says "We served more time under Labour than under the Tories".
Nevertheless, one Labour MP was in Birmingham today to support the pickets case. That was John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, who campaigned unsuccessfully during the last Labour government for some restoration of rights taken away by Tory anti-union laws.
Meanwhile in Nottingham...
A VERY different case came to a conclusion.
The same newspapers which once pilloried Des Warren and his comrades as "wreckers" had nothing but praise for those men who led a breakaway from the National Union of Mineworkers to oppose Arthur Scargill and the 1984-5 miners' strike. These were the heroes, decent honest men who supposedly had nothing but the good of the country and welfare of their fellow miners at heart.
Neil Greatrex, 60, who led the breakaway Union of Democratic Miners after the strike was convicted today for stealing nearly £150,000 from his own union's charity. Greatrex was found guilty of 14 separate thefts from a care home for miners.
He denied charges of making fraudulent claims of work done on the building, near Skegness, to pay for a new kitchen and garden improvements at his own home, telling Nottingham crown court the payments had been in lieu of salary as the UDM's former president, according to established custom and practice.
The UDM was formed by Nottinghamshire colliers who chose to work during the year-long strike. Its general secretary, Mick Stevens, 60, was cleared of similar charges after telling the court he had signed cheques under the impression that the money was going to the care home. Both men were trustees of the Nottinghamshire Miners Home and carried out their financial dealings through a subsidiary company, Phoenix nursing and residential homes.
Greatrex funnelled £148,628 to two building companies and a joiner for work that staff at the home in Chapel St Leonards told the court had never been done. The two-week trial was told by prosecutor Martin Hurst that the scheme was "a sophisticated attempt to steal from a charity" to pay for items ranging from a granite worktop to a pool for ornamental koi carp. Trustees of the charity were expressly forbidden to take any benefit from it.
Greatrex and Stevens were criticised by Labour MPs in 2004 after it emerged they were receiving salary packages worth £150,000 while leading a union with only 1,431 members.
The verdict was welcomed by John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, who worked with the Serious Fraud Office on the case. He called for a renewed police investigation into UDM involvement with solicitors struck off for grossly expensive but inadequate handling of miners' injury compensation cases.
He said: "The whole thing has been a disgrace from start to finish and now we have the predictable demise of the union leader at the heart of the scandal. I am calling on the police to open up their investigation into whether others have benefited from the UDM fraud.
"The UDM should also pay back monies taken from the compensation of sick and elderly miners, reopen the care home as a miners' convalescent home and invite in the fraud squad to investigate every aspect of its finances over the last 10 years."
While I hope the police do their job, investigate further, and bring charges if necessary, I am reminded that my then trade union, the right-wing led EEPTU, reportedly lent a hand in the formation of the UDM, as I'm sure did the state itself one way or another. The EEPTU then joined the enginers, till both were swallowed up by Unite, but there should be enough there for someone in the movement to investigate.