Friday, July 02, 2010

"Conspiracy"? Yes, but whose?

IT must have been a long day for building worker Derek Warren. He had set out early that morning with his fellows from North Wales and Chester, going down to Shrewsbury area to help persuade those still working on sites to join the national building workers' strike.
It was September 6, 1972.

At Kingswood a man came out of the site office brandishing a loaded shotgun at them. With quick presence of mind and sharp footwork one of the pickets managed to grab the gun off this man - the contractor's son -before anybody was harmed.

At the next site they went to, a company director challenged Derek to a fight. Des told the man he had better things to do, and carried on with the business of holding a short meeting, urging the workers to stop work and join the pickets, and then moving on.

Police were accompanying the pickets wherever they went. No arrests were made. At the biggest site, McAlpines at Brookside, reached towards the end of the day, Chief Superintendent Meredith shook Des by the hand, and congratulated him on the way things had been conducted, without any trouble (apart from that shotgun incident, hardly the union members' fault, since it was them who were threatened).

When Des Warren got home to Prestatyn that evening he found two strangers waiting. Reporters from the Sunday People. His wife Elsa said they had been there since 2 o'clock that afternoon. She had made them tea and sandwiches. They had played with the children. Seemed very pleasant. So Des, tired as he was, agreed to be interviewed. He told them about the issues of the strike, the pay and conditions in the building industry, and the poor safety, with a fatality rate from accidents higher than that in mining and agriculture combined.

They pressed him for more about his own role in the strike. How many men had he personally persuaded to come out? He told them it was hard to say, but they persisted, and he eventually said it was maybe 3,000.

That Sunday, Des bought a copy of the People, and could hardly believe his eyes. There was his picture, under the big heading THE WRECKER'. "He boasts that in the past seven weeks he has persuaded more than 3,000 building workers in North Wales to down tools and leave their sites..." You would not think this was an official, national strike, a perfectly legal form of activity by workers trying to make their industry a better, and safer, place to work. To add a touch of colour, the article mentioned that Warren had a phone to keep in touch with colleagues, a colour telly, and a Jaguar car in the drive. It didn't say that this jag was the only wreck in the story, since it didn't go, only having half an engine, and had been adopted by the cat as the place to have kittens.

What followed was no joke. Those pleasant persons from the People had repaid the Warrens' hospitality by publishing the family's address in their article. The threatening notes and 'phone calls began, "you Communist bastard", "we're going to smash your house", "we'll kill your kids", "we'll rape your wife", "Your house will be blown up, - signed National Front".

But this introduction to the working of the capitalist press was just a start.

On February 14, 1973, at 6,30 in the evening, the police arrived to take Des Warren away. Five other building workers were arrested that day, among them Eric Tomlinson, better known today as actor Ricky Tomlinson, on TV. Altogether two dozen men were to stand trial for alleged offences related to picketing in Shrewsbury five months before, even though there had been no arrests back then. In those days, as he freely admits, Ricky Tomlinson's political views were very different from those of Des Warren, but the two of them were accused of "conspiracy" and sent to jail.

"Was there a conspiracy?" asked Des Warren in his speech from the dock. "There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets. . . The conspiracy was between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police".
(The Key to My Cell, by Des Warren).

"You have the power of speech and the power of leadership which you apparently used to ill purpose," replied the judge, sentencing him to three years.

Des Warren is dead, after suffering long debilitating illness, as a result of drugs administered to him in prison causing Parkinsons Disease. Elsa Warren has not forgiven what was done to him, or to her and the family.

Ricky Tomlinson has described how the jury was given misleading information, and broke into disorder when they heard the custodial sentences announced. In his efforts to find out more about what happened to him and Des Warren, and to a lesser extent the others, he tried to get access to his file, only to be told it remained
closed on "security" grounds.

It seems this "cold case" is still hot.

All the more reason for raising it again, demanding the truth, and the clearing of the pickets' names.

Elsa Warren and Ricky Tomlinson are among those speaking out in a film I've just seen, made for the Justice for the Shrewsbury Pickets campaign. It reminds us of the issues in the building workers' struggle, and the circumstances which led to the pickets being jailed. It also gives some idea of the forces they were up against, from the National federation of Building Trade Employers gathering a dossier, and Tory Home Secretary Sir Robert Carr,"discussing with my Chief Constables", through to Sir Alfred McAlpine's son in law, P.H.Bell, who as a building director had a bank account in the Cayman Islands, it seems, but as High Sheriff of Denbighshire, had a say in the policing of that county, and the arrest of building workers.

The film is available on DVD from

Des Warren's book, The Key to My Cell, first published by New Park in 1982, has been republished and is available at £5 from the campaign:

And there's a demonstration and rally in Shrewsbury tomorrow starting from the Abbey Forgate carpark, assemble 10.30am.
Speakers at the rally will include Ricky Tomlinson and Bob Crow from the RMT union.

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