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Unfinished Business

The national building workers’ strike in 1972 was notable, alongside other strikes that year, for being regarded as a great success. Like the Miners and the Dockers, the key to their success was mass picketing. The organisation of the strike and the picketing by rank-and-file building workers, particularly during the later stages of the dispute, was instrumental in securing an unprecedented pay increase for skilled and unskilled workers.
Their success provoked a backlash from the employers and the Conservative Party, aided by the local and national press which shrieked about the menace of ‘flying pickets’. This politicised backlash resulted in the prosecution of 24 building workers at Shrewsbury and the jailing of six of them, with sixteen others receiving suspended prison sentences. All for offenses arising out of picketing. The most prominent was Des Warren, a steel-fixer from Ellesmere Port, who was jailed for three years. He was most active in North Wales, where various local strike action committees formed part of the North West Regional Action Committee.
Following the pickets arrest and trials, the North West played a prominent part in the defence campaign to support the pickets during and after the trials. Liverpool UCATT officials Alan Abrahams and Lou Armour as well as Bill Jones from Kirkby were prominent. Liverpool Trades Council organised conferences and lobbies of Parliament calling for the release of the jailed pickets. Despite their efforts, the convictions remained and the jailed pickets served their time.
Ten years later, when Des died in 2004, several trade unionists in the North West came together and formed a campaign to attempt, once again, to overturn this miscarriage of justice. The plight of the pickets was unfinished business. The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign held its inaugural public meeting in 2006 in The Casa, Liverpool and held numerous meetings and events there in subsequent years.
Over the years the campaign managed to build support from the labour movement. Many national unions and union branches affiliated. It republished a pamphlet, The Shrewsbury Three, written in 1974 by Salford-born Jim Arnison, a plumber who went on to become the talented Northern industrial correspondent for the Morning Star.
The Campaign’s aim was to get the cases heard in the Court of Appeal. The only route to the Court of Appeal was to have the pickets’ cases considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. This would require fresh evidence. The Campaign’s researcher, Eileen Turnbull spent many years gathering the new evidence that was needed to support the pickets’ application.
After 8 years, in 2012 the application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission was lodged. After a further five years the CCRC rejected the evidence. Although dispirited the campaign group never gave up. There was one final chance – to challenge the CCRC’s decision through a Judicial Review. Against all odds the campaign won that challenge in April 2019. The Judicial review referred the Case back to the CCRC to reconsider the picket’s case. The Campaigners were ecstatic. It took a further eleven months for the CCRC to refer the case to the Court of Appeal.
Justice was finally done when, on 23 March 2021, three appeal court judges unanimously quashed all the convictions of the Shrewsbury pickets. Forty-eight years after the first trial!
A full article, based upon Eileen’s book about the strike, trials and subsequent campaign (A Very British Conspiracy: the Shrewsbury 24 and the Campaign for Justice) will appear in the next issue of the journal.

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