Double podcast episode on the 1972 building workers’ strike and subsequent backlash from employers and the state, which resulted in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice experienced by the labour movement in twentieth-century Britain. In conversation with two participants from the strike, Tony O’Brien and actor Ricky Tomlinson.
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You can listen to our podcast on the below links, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.
- Part 1: conditions in the building industry, how the strike started and the flying pickets organised by the rank and file that spread it.
- Bonus episode: Ricky Tomlinson talks more about his experiences in prison, working in construction and as a trade unionist – exclusively for patreon supporters.
- Part 2: how the strike ended, the framing of the Shrewsbury 24, Ricky’s experiences in prison, blacklisting, and the legacies of the 1972 strike.
- For anyone who wants to learn more about the 1972 building workers’ strike and subsequent Shrewsbury trials, we recommend you read The Key to My Cell by Des Warren. You can get a copy of his book from the News From Nowhere Radical and Community Bookshop. Warren was a building worker activist who, along with Ricky, was framed during the events at Shrewsbury and sentenced to three years in prison.
- Free the Six – Film made by film students Michael Rosen and Jeff Perks in 1974. It shows the lack of health and safety on building sites and also gives a voice to building workers who took part in the strike giving a honest and clear accounts of how they organised flying pickets.
- Our guest, Tony O’Brien, has also recently written the book Tackling the Housing Crisis: the Case for Council Housing and Directly Employed Construction Workers. Tony argues that housing is a human right and shows how the creation of a national public-sector construction organisation can fix our corrupt system controlled by building companies and property speculators. To order or read more information about the book, click here.
In the the above picture of the final site meeting at Brookside is a building worker called Clifford Growcott (bottom right-hand corner, back to camera). Growcott featured heavily in media coverage of the strike and subsequent Shrewsbury trials as ‘proof’ of violent picketing: in interviews, Growcott claimed to have been “punched and kicked like a football” and lost all sight in his right eye. However, as can clearly be seen above, Growcott is standing during the meeting unharmed (during the trial, as was pointed out by Arthur Murray, a building worker and friend of Ricky Tomlinson, photos from the day were presented in the wrong order so that this meeting was presented as happening first rather than last).
Des Warren’s counsel, John Platts-Mills, brought the attention of the judge to the fact that Growcott’s claims in the Daily Mail go “beyond anything he ever said here”. Years later, the media’s accusations of violence would grow more outlandish: when Ricky appeared on television in 1981, the Mail ran the headline ‘I was a victim of the picket who played TV hero’ claiming that Growcott was attacked by “a column of 80 pickets [who] pulled him off a ladder, kicked him to the ground and smashed his head in with a brick.” Readers can judge from the above picture as to whether that seems to have been the case.
- The Key to My Cell by Des Warren. Get a copy here from an independent radical bookshop.
- Shrewsbury 24 Campaign website, accessed April 26, 2022.
- McGuire, Charlie, Linda Clarke, and Christine Wall. “Battles on the Barbican: The Struggle for Trade Unionism in the British Building Industry, 1965-7.” History Workshop Journal, no. 75 (2013): 33–57. Read it here.
- ‘When we occupied the British Aircraft Corporation factory in 1974 – And reflections for today’ by Angry Workers of the World
- McIvor, Arthur. “‘A Crusade for Capitalism’: The Economic League, 1919-1939”, Journal of Contemporary History 23 (1988), 631-55.
- Mordsley, B. I. “Some Problems of the ‘Lump.’” The Modern Law Review 38, no. 5 (1975): 504–17.
- Parliamentary debate on the Shrewsbury 24, 9 December 2015.
- “Key events – “Bloody Sunday”, Derry 30 January 1972,” CAIN, accessed April 26, 2022.
- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible and a special thanks to Stone Lawson
- We’d also like to thank Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group for helping us contact our interviewees
- Episode images courtesy of David Bagnall and Workers’ Press.
- The music used for this episode was ‘My Name is Dessie Warren’ by Alun Parry. Stream it on Bandcamp or Spotify. You can also download it (and the rest of the album) here.
- These episodes were edited by Louise Barry.
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Matt: In the summer of 1972, hundreds of thousands of building workers in Britain took part in a nationwide strike demanding better pay, a shorter working week and an end to precarious working conditions. When it ended, the workers had won massive pay increases, but the government and bosses wanted revenge, resulting in a huge miscarriage of justice and legal fight which lasted nearly five decades. This is Working Class History.
Matt: Just before we start, a quick note that we’re only able to continue making these podcasts because of the support of our listeners on patreon. If you like what we do and want to help us with our work, join us on patreon.com/workingclasshistory where you can get benefits like early access to episodes, exclusive bonus content, discounted books, merch and more. For example, you can listen to both parts of this double episode now, as well as an exclusive bonus episode. Link in the show notes.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1972 building workers’ strike in Britain. The strike took place against a backdrop of increasing worker militancy, with both miners and dockers defeating the government in the previous 12 months. The 1972 strike saw building workers win their biggest ever pay increase, but it also resulted in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice faced by the labour movement in the twentieth century.
We’re really pleased to have gotten the chance to speak to two participants in the 1972 strike. One of them was Tony O’Brien.
Tony: My name is Tony O’Brien. I’m now retired from work. I have been for the last ten years now. When I started out working, I started as an apprentice carpenter/joiner because you need to learn the trade. I think I was blacklisted from the age of 15 actually because my dad was active in the building industry and he was blacklisted. When I went to apprenticeship interviews with the big companies, I never got a job and yet there were loads of apprenticeships going around at that time in the ‘60s. That’s ironic, isn’t it? …
Matt: Blacklisting was for decades (and still is) a practice common in the building industry, where employers would maintain lists of union activists who would then be barred from employment.
Tony: But anyway, I got a job with my uncle eventually in a carpentry/joinery company and nine years from then, I was involved in the ’72 strike. I was already a steward and I worked in the private sector for over 20 companies.
Matt: Also involved in the 1972 was Ricky Tomlinson. Now an actor famous for his roles in The Royle Family, Riff Raff and Mike Bassett: England Manager, at the time Ricky was a building worker in North Wales.
Ricky: My name is Ricky Tomlinson and I’m an ex-building worker. I served my time as a plasterer and did a six-year apprenticeship in those days and took my City & Guilds. I obviously then just carried on within the building industry. I moved to North Wales when jobs were really, really scarce and then managed to get a job on the Wrexham Bypass which was a huge contract for McAlpines who were building the Wrexham Bypass. There were probably a couple of hundred men working on the site. Obviously, there were no plastering jobs going on and so I ended up working for the safety gang i.e. going round putting barriers up, making sure that scaffolding was safe and stuff like that. That was in 1972 and that was about the time of the building strike and the rest, as they say, is history.
Conditions on the building sites in them days were horrendous. That’s the only way to describe it. ‘The Killing Fields’ was the name that the building trade in them days because someone died every day and tens of thousands a year were badly, badly injured or maimed. Either from falling off roofs, scaffolding collapsing, being down trenches without the correct shoring and they were buried alive and stuff like that. The death rates in the building industry were absolutely horrendous and that was one of the things that we went on strike for.
Matt: The construction industry was second only to coal mining in terms of injuries and fatalities. According to official statistics, in the year before the strike, there were 201 fatal accidents on building sites and over 70,000 reported injuries which led to a spell of incapacity. This is also likely a gross under count as the large number of workers employed casually on ‘the Lump’ (which we’ll talk more about later) meant that many accidents simply weren’t recorded, not to mention that these numbers don’t take into account deaths because of work but not at it, like from mesothelioma due to asbestos.
Other working conditions were terrible as well.
Ricky: I know there were photographs taken on our site of the toilet. There were 200 men on that site and there was one toilet for the workers. One toilet. So you can imagine the state of that after a day or so. Obviously, there was no one to clean it. The management, the Clerk of the Works and people like that had a huge cabin with hot and cold running water, cooking facilities, proper flush toilets and somewhere to wash their hands. Even amongst the building game, there was ‘us’ and ‘them.’ They had all the facilities and we had absolutely nothing. If you wanted to go to the toilet, you’d get a cement bag and if there were any trees or bushes and do that. If not, you’d have to go home and lose your day’s pay or if you were working anywhere where there was a pub in a nearby village, you’d have to go to the village and ask the guy in the local pub if he minded if you used the toilet. I remember two brothers working down a ditch. They were two Irish brothers who were shovelling out a ditch and one accidentally hit his brother in the forehead with the shovel and split his head open obviously. It was pouring bloody blood and I said, ‘Quick, get out! Get out and get in the Landrover with me and I’ll run you to the hospital.’ He said, ‘No, no, no.’ They were terrified of losing their jobs. It was just a normal building site because that’s the way the building sites were in those days. They were ‘The Killing Fields’ and if you actually got killed while you were working on the site and the boss got taken to court, the most he could be fined was £100 and that was one of the slogans – ‘A building worker’s life is only worth £100.’ That’s why they didn’t bother.
Matt: The nature of construction jobs also made it different from other industries, which added complications to workplace organising.
Tony: Construction work and the industry itself is totally different from most other industries. There are some parallels but a job starts and a job finishes and so you’re likely to be either transferred or sacked once that happens at the end of that period. Bear in mind, you’ve got a lot of smaller jobs as well and not just big jobs and, therefore, you can be working on one job for a week and after that, you’re not needed, so it’s very insecure work. A factory is a factory. It’s usually there until it goes bust which could be a lifetime with some factories. That’s not the case in the construction industry. Unless you’re a chosen person who does not kick up any trouble and does everything for the employer without any whimper whatsoever and lick the boots of the foreman most probably, you might go to the next job [laughter] but that’s not the case.
Matt: As is common in many industries, nationalism and racism often served to create divisions between workers. Tony, for instance, had a number of experiences with anti-Irish racism.
Tony: I come from an Irish background and the Irish were very discriminated against and the racism against the Irish was incredible really. You might have heard of the sign ‘No Blacks, No Irish…’ and something else I think [laughter]. That’s what it was like. My dad and his brother, who came over, actually couldn’t get any accommodation and were forced to sleep in… it’s a bit of a derogatory term and so I’m warning you beforehand and I’m saying it for a matter of fact, it was called a dosshouse.
Matt: A dosshouse is the British term for a flop house. Basically, very cheap, temporary accommodation for the poor, often migrant workers and homeless people.
Tony: Well, like all of the industries, over the years and at that time of ’72 and before ’72, racism was there and it is today as we know. Racism is ongoing, isn’t it? It exists as part of the fabric of our society and they did try to cause divisions, particularly in ’72. I mean ’72 was Bloody Sunday, wasn’t it?
Matt: In January 1972, British soldiers in Northern Ireland opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters, killing 14 people. They then falsely claimed they had been attacked with guns and bombs, which the British state only eventually admitted was a lie in 2010.
Tony: You had virtually a blackout in the media or distortion in the media of what was going on. I can remember when I worked on the Trollope & Colls site in Russell Square before the strike and because I’m from an Irish background myself, with my dad being Irish, there were detrimental comments and swearing against the Irish and there were Irish workers in that canteen when that was going on. I tried to explain things with my Cockney accent. I wasn’t born in Ireland but born in London. That’s where I’m from. I intervened and said, ‘Hold on a sec. You’ve got to understand the divisions. I don’t agree with any bombings or anything like that. I’m totally opposed to it but you can understand what is causing that.’ I was nearly attacked but I didn’t get into an argument and I just tried to patiently explain it but they wouldn’t have it. ‘You bastard!’ There were other Irish workers sitting there and they didn’t speak out. The reason why they didn’t speak out was because there would have been a fuckin’ huge punch-up in that canteen. That’s what would have happened.
Matt: However, involvement in struggle before and during the 1972 strike helped many building workers overcome their prejudices.
Tony: The Irish, because of what happened to them in their history, they were naturally rebellious really and in the London area and other parts of the country, they became leaders in the strike. It wasn’t just the Irish but others as well but proportionately, I think they were the majority in terms of percentage involved in the leadership of the strike.
What happened during the ’72 strike was that because of this prejudice… some building sites were raided at the time because there were raids going on against what they considered as Republicans and so there was this rebelliousness by ordinary Irish builders who had nothing to do with those issues. They said, ‘We’re not having this!’ You talk about the union but they saw it as a rebellion against the employer and so they said, ‘We’re going have a rebellion against the employer.’ [laughter] You did have other nationalities that did stand up and become stewards. For example, Indian workers would be employed by companies owned by an Indian family. There were a lot of family connections with Indian workers. I’m talking now from my experience. A lot of them were carpenter/joiners for some reason and they used saws differently. I’m a carpenter/joiner by background and they came up instead of down. I remember that and that was funny but beautiful work they carried out. They were experts at what they did. There were a lot of carpenter/joiners amongst the Irish workers but there were a lot of them doing the heavy work which was for contractors and Irish companies. You’ve heard of the Murphys, the McAlpines. They’re famous, aren’t they? They’ve all got Irish backgrounds, especially the Murphys. They did a lot of what you call groundswork and a lot of heavy concreting work. A lot of Irish did come from the rural areas where they were doing heavy work as well and when they came over to England, they said, ‘We’ll do this as well.’ I found a lot of the West Indian workers did plastering and they were all mainly for contracting companies. The main contractor never employed them directly I felt and also the painting was normally subcontracted as well. The main trades that were employed directly by the companies were the carpenters and the bricklayers at that time. They did try to stir up divisions but the strike actually generated unity. Whatever their background, they united behind that. All their mindset was, ‘You’re my brother because you’re with me on strike. Never mind about what colour you are or what nationality you are.’ Good struggle, not just protests on their own, actually does generate real solidarity and unity amongst the nationalities. It really does.
Matt: Another major problem for building worker-activists was a thing called ‘the Lump’. This was where, instead of employing workers directly who would then be entitled to things like redundancy and overtime pay, construction bosses would give work to smaller sub-contractors and pay them a lump sum of money. These sub-contractors would sometimes be small companies or even individual workers. The Lump also undermined health and safety: because ‘Lumpers’, as they were known, were employed on a labour-only basis, health and safety was always someone else’s job, and any time and money spent on it would eat into the lump sum that they’d been paid. There were also other issues with ‘the Lump’, as Tony explains.
Tony: The lump means you get a lump sum of money and in the worst case scenario, you might have individual cases of workers who don’t register themselves as unemployed which would mean they’re getting a lump sum without any tax and so on but then it’s self-defeating because if they don’t pay their tax and insurance, that means they don’t get any state pension later on in life when they need it. They could be declined other things as well. They encouraged that and the lump encouraged that and they were subject then to all the whims of what the employers wanted for them because there was no security whatsoever on the lump. Even now today, it hasn’t stopped but today, the lump is more self-refined. It’s even worse really in some ways in the sense that it’s through employment agencies. There’s a huge employment agency industry and they take a huge percentage out of your money. They don’t pay holiday pay and in many cases, they don’t pay sick pay and all the other types of things. Over 50% of building workers in the industry today are employed by these employment agencies. What’s happened over the years is when there’s been a victory in the courts against these companies, the governments of the day, whether they be Labour or Tories, have changed the law to get around it. That’s the history of it. So all the political parties have colluded with the lump rather than introducing proper conditions
Matt: There were also issues with the unions, which even just a couple of years before the strike were dividing construction workers into about half a dozen different organisations. And even after a number of them merged to form UCATT (the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians), the union bureaucracy functioned, as they often do, as an impediment to action.
Tony: I became the union convenor or what they used to call the federation steward because there were a lot of different craft unions that amalgamated. I was in the ASW (Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers) and in ’71, they amalgamated because they were forced to because they were going broke. All the unions were going broke because the membership was declining because workers wouldn’t join the union knowing that nothing was being done for them. They were getting no pay rises and conditions on sites were terrible. People join the union because they think that the union is going to do something for them and they’re inclined not to. The lesson there is to make the union vibrant and active and then workers will join. I was a federation steward in a job in East London behind the Mile End tube station with over 200 workers.
Matt: In May 1972, rank-and-file building workers eventually decided that enough was enough, and voted to take strike action the following month.
Tony: Anyway, the strike was forced by rank-and-file building workers on the leadership. The leadership of unions don’t decide anything on their own back which involves a lot of effort. It’s always started from below.
So workers got together in Manchester and formed the Building Workers’ Charter and from then, they had a second meeting after they’d forced the leadership to go for a strike and they had over 800 building workers and stewards attend to prepare for the strike. The leadership decided it should be a selective strike on prestigious jobs, expensive jobs, hotel jobs and that type of thing. That was in May and then after a month of that, there was no response and the employers weren’t talking. So we decided, and I decided as well in East London on my job, that we needed a meeting and in the London Region and other big cities, we called on the leadership in the regions to discuss the strike. A call went out from those meetings for an all-out strike. We had already stopped the week before the London meeting and I brought my stewards along. We just stopped work. It wasn’t agreed. The all-out strike was not agreed by the leadership. It was just set by the rank and file. That’s what happened. We just stopped work and we just started a flying picket and we forced the leadership to declare an all-out strike.
It’s important noting as well that local authorities had large building direct labour departments. That is where they employed building workers to do their work and they built new-build and they did repairs and maintenance. A number of them actually came out on strike. They didn’t have to because it wasn’t their pay claim as they had a separate pay negotiating body. They came out on strike in solidarity for the duration. They did that in Camden in London and they did it in some other places as well to their enormous credit because they had no immediate gain. They gained eventually because if you have a strong private sector, then it’s likely you’re going to have a stronger public sector as well. That’s how they convinced their workers to come out in solidarity with the ’72 strikers.
Matt: The Building Workers’ Charter that Tony mentioned was a rank-and-file group of building worker-activists, often socialists or Communist Party activists, set up in 1970. It’s important to note that some of the Building Workers’ Charter’s demands, like a £1-an-hour basic rate, a thirty-five-hour working week and an end to the Lump, would actually become the main demands of the 1972 strike.
What Tony says about the rank and file forcing the strike on the union leadership is also something really important to understand about how the British labour movement used to function, at a time when workers used to win. From the 1950s to the 1970s, rather than have drawn out official votes run through unions, strikes would often begin as unofficial wildcat strikes. Often a relatively small number of workers would walk out and picket other worksites to persuade others to join the strike.
This is basically the opposite of how right-wingers talk about the 1970s, saying things like “the unions were holding country to ransom” or “union bosses pulled their members out on strike”. In reality, it was more often union leaderships being pulled out on strike by their members.
So, in 1972, while union leaders wanted to stick to selective strikes of particular groups of workers, it was the rank and file who forced them to go all out. But to make sure this all-out strike was successful, striking workers would have to visit building sites which were still working and call those workers out on strike as well. These flying pickets were organised by local action committees controlled by the rank and file.
Tony: It was really successful. We hardly had to persuade anyone. In those days, you never had the security that you have now where you have security guards outside a building site. In those days, there were just gates there and you could just walk in. So we’d go there and we’d just walk into the canteen when it was their meal break and call a meeting. We’d ask others to come into the meeting and just explained our case and the reason why we wanted them to join the strike. They just took a show of hands and walked off and that was 99.9% of those in the London area. You had some outside of London who were reluctant but finally joined it. You had some out of the way places where it was a bit more difficult but I’d say the overwhelming majority of building workers were on strike.
We knew that we had to get it out there. We had to be out there on the jobs that were working. We had to stop all the work. We called for an all-out strike and that’s what we had to do. From my example, we met in Canary Wharf at what was the Transport & General Workers Union dockers’ office, because there were docks there at that time. The biggest docks were in Canary Wharf, the West Indian Docks. We’d meet at 6 o’clock in the morning to have a brief meeting and we’d just go into our cars and vans after deciding what areas we would go to and we’d just go to the jobs first thing in the morning or before 8 o’clock in the morning. We would put a friendly picket on the gate and if we could get on the job straight away, fine. If we couldn’t and we had to wait for lunch break or whatever, we’d go on there. Some we went to first thing in the morning would stop work completely. Some needed a bit of persuading and needed to hear the arguments and, as I said, we’d go into the canteen. We did that and, as I said, it was a huge success really.
It was exciting. It was exhilarating because we were having success and when you’re having success, you say, ‘Wow! This is it. I want to do more!’ You were there at 6 o’clock in that place every morning for weeks on end. In East London, we stopped most of East London within a couple of weeks actually. We did! There was one big job I remember that was at Beckton Sewage Works which was a huge project. We were having some trouble there but we concentrated on that and we stopped it. There were several thousand workers on that project.
Matt: One worker whose site was visited by flying pickets was Ricky Tomlinson.
Ricky: Well, we were actually working when a contingent came from Liverpool or Chester I think and they said, ‘Look, we’re on strike.’ We didn’t even know there was a strike on. So we held a meeting then and there was a lad called Barry Scragg who addressed the meeting. He was sound as a pound. We waited and we listened to what they had to say and then we went and had a separate meeting. I said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and so they all agreed to join the strike. Because none of them had any experience, obviously, they said, ‘Will you be the mouthpiece? Will you be the steward?’ I said, ‘Yeah, of course, I will.’ That was it. That’s how it all came about.
Matt: As an example of how the strike spread, after his workplace was visited by flying pickets, not only did Ricky come out on strike himself, but he also joined the flying pickets, spreading the strike to other building sites in the area.
Ricky: Because the building industry was so fragmented, some lads were working away for three and four weeks because they genuinely didn’t know. They were working away and they didn’t know and to be fair, when we went to the big sites like the cement works and stuff like that, they joined in the strike. It was particularly difficult for me in one way. As I say, at the time, I was living in a little two-up, two-down council house in a place called Queens Park in Wrexham and married with my two little lads. My wife’s brother had a building firm and he was a good brickie and paid his lads well. I had to go and stop him from working and that sort of caused a split between me and my wife’s family. I said, ‘You can’t pick and choose. If it’s one out all out, it’s got to be one out all out.’ It was hard to do. I had to go and see Dennis and say, ‘Look, you’re going to have to pack in.’ Anyway, good enough, they came out. It was everywhere you went. Even little one-man bands, we had to stop everyone from working because we had to show the bosses
We went round and saying to the lads, ‘Come on, lads. Off you pop. You know very well there’s a strike going on.’ Most of them were lumpers, to be fair. They weren’t really interested in health and safety and stuff like that. They were working on the lump which is a bloody disaster. They’d say, ‘Hang on. We’re getting this pay.’ I’d say, ‘What about your health and safety? Look at this. Look at him carrying the hod up the bloody ladder and there’s nothing there if he falls. What happens to him if he falls and he can’t work for six months?’
Matt: Hod carriers are workers who carry bricks and other heavy construction materials around building sites.
Ricky: Eventually, you’d get them all together in the middle of the site and there’d obviously be brickbats thrown at you (not physical brickbats). You’d say, ‘What about this and what about that?’ You’d just carry on and you’d have to explain to them what it was all about and get them on your side. One of the things that really used to get them for me was if we went on a site where they were building houses, I’d say, ‘Look at the state of you. You’re covered in shit. You’re knee-deep in mud. You’ve got nowhere to make a cup of tea and you see those houses you’re building?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah?’ I’d say, ‘You’ll never be able to live in them.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I’d say, ‘Because you don’t earn enough! You’ll never live in them houses that you’re building. Don’t you understand? If you were getting the proper rate of pay, you could get a mortgage and you could have a home like that. It would be something to leave your children.’ You’d then see the lightbulb go on and they’d say, ‘Bloody hell, he’s right. We’re working here and we’re building houses that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and we’re on buttons.’ As I say, we were out for £30 a week. That’s what we were asking for [laughter]. Once you got the message through to them, they were sound.
Matt: In the aftermath of the strike, a lot was made of picket line violence, and it was for this supposed violence from striking workers that Ricky and others were sent to prison. However, while there was sometimes violence on the picket lines, that violence almost always came from scabs – that is, workers who were breaking the strike – and management, such as one event in Shrewsbury, when the son of a contractor confronted pickets with a shotgun.
Ricky: I was there on the day. I wasn’t with that particular party but what happened was that someone came out of the site office with a shotgun which he’d loaded with – not bullets but some sort of corn or something. It would have bloody hurt you. It wouldn’t have killed you but it would have hurt you. The lads took the gun off him, took it to the police station and reported it. The police were going to do them for stealing his gun. That’s how biased they were. The police were going to do the lads for taking the gun off him and they accused them of stealing his gun [laughter].
It was funny. When I was in jail – I just forget which jail it was because I got moved 14 times to different places. I was sitting there talking in the nick to a fella, who didn’t know who I was, and he said, ‘That mate of mine has just been talking to me about the building strike. There’s this fella called Tomlinson [laughter].’ I said, ‘Go ‘way, what was he up to?’ He said, ‘He tipped a barrel load of bricks over my mate who was down a trench and broke his back.’ I said, ‘Go ‘way!’ He said, ‘Oh aye, yeah.’ I said, ‘Who told you that?’ He said, ‘My mate.’ I said, ‘How does he know it was this Tomlinson fella?’ He said, ‘He told me.’ I said, ‘Well, do us a favour. You know when you see him, tell him you’re talking to Tomlinson.’ The fella shit himself. He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m Tomlinson and that’s a load of nonsense, lad. We didn’t hurt anybody. Tipping a load of bricks over someone? Are you crackers? I was working with the safety bloody gang on the Wrexham Bypass.’
Matt: We’ll talk more about the false accusations of violence against striking building workers in Part 2. But it’s important to note that the understanding that there was actually little evidence of picket line violence went all the way to the top of government with Attorny General, Peter Rawlinson, writing to Home Secretary, Robert Carr, in January 1973 that “there was no evidence against any particular person of violence or damage to property.”
Meanwhile, Tony had his own experience of violence from scabs during the strike.
Tony: On a picket line where the job had been stopped but then we found some people had got onto the job to continue to work and had climbed over some fencing at the back. When we saw them, we shouted, ‘This job is closed,’ and we had some bricks thrown down on top of us by what were scabs really because the job stopped. They voted for a stoppage, they came out and some small contractor got his workers in through the back. Jesus Christ! That was incredible. We had to dodge out of the way. Where the gates were, it was wire and they could see us and threw bricks at us. That was scary. So there was violence, but it was violence from those who were fighting against the strike and against us. That’s where it came from.
We took it up alright. We had some young fellas that wouldn’t stand for it. They jumped over into the job and they chased them off the job. I’ll say no more than that. They weren’t having bricks thrown on top of them
Matt: That’s all we’ve got time for today. Join us for Part 2, where we talk about the results of the strike, and the massive backlash faced by building workers from both employers and the state, including Ricky’s experiences of prison.
Our patreon supporters can listen to that now. For everyone else, part 2 it will be out in the next couple of weeks. It is only support from you, our listeners which allows us to make these podcasts, so if you appreciate our work please do think about joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, and much more. If you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no problem, please just tell your friends and family about this podcast. If you’ve got a Spotify account, Spotify now lets you review podcasts, so we would really appreciate it if you would take a second to give us a five-star review there as well.
If you want to learn more about the 1972 Building Workers’ Strike and the Shrewsbury trials that came after, we recommend you pick up a copy of The Key to My Cell by Des Warren, a builders’ union activist who was imprisoned alongside Ricky. Link to grab it from an independent bookshop in the show notes. You can also find some of Tony’s works about struggles in the construction industry and, as always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, transcripts, further reading and more on the webpage for this episode, all in the show notes.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible and a special thanks to Stone Lawson. We’d also like to thank Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group for helping us to get in touch with our guests for this podcast.
Music used in these episodes is ‘My Name is Dessie Warren’ by Alun Parry.
This episode was edited by Louise Barry.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed the episode, and thanks for listening.
Matt: Welcome back to Part 2 of our double podcast episode about the 1972 building workers’ strike. If you haven’t listened to Part 1 yet, I recommend you go back and listen to that first.
Matt: In Part 1, we heard about how the strike started and developed. After 12 weeks, the strike was called off when union leaders came to an agreement with employers. The main demands were not met and some rank-and-file activists considered it a sell-out. However, despite this, it was still the biggest ever pay increase in the industry and considered a massive victory for the workers.
Tony: They came out and told us what they’d achieved. It wasn’t the claim but it was a huge benefit and victory for us. When that was announced, the roar that went up… there were several thousand building workers there… [laughter] that was incredible.
I was there demanding no calling off of the strike and for the full claim. Bear in mind, a lot of employers individually had already conceded on the main claim. That was the success of the strike. Even before it was called off, individually, a lot of companies actually had conceded. It was a victory and it achieved a £6 increase a week. Can you imagine that at that time? It was £6 for the first year, followed in the second year by another £6.
In percentage terms, it’s like a 50% pay rise, isn’t it? Who has ever got a 50% pay rise that you know of? Especially not now. That was incredible. And what happened, the most organised jobs, when the leadership called off the strike and they even refused a vote to say whether they should call off the strike. Later on, the general secretary got a knighthood, would you believe? Sir George Smith.
What happened is that when the strike was called off, workers went back to work and in a lot of jobs, they then threatened to go on strike again to add the percentage increase onto their bonus rates which means the basic pay and you get productivity bonus rates for your output and the amount of work you achieve. I did that on my job in William Willetts in Mile End. We demanded that and we got it because they caved in straight away because they knew we’d go out on strike. So we trebled, if you like, our money. It was a huge success. It was massive. It’s something to be celebrated. I’m so proud of it.
Matt: After being given a bloody nose by building workers, construction employers began organising the backlash.
Tony: The backlash was inevitable and we knew it was inevitable but the leadership never prepared for the backlash. The Economic League was revitalised hugely, a conspiracy took place by the employers and the leading person, Lord McAlpine, who was the treasurer of the Tory Party at the time. It was a state conspiracy and it was delivered by a huge witch-hunt of alleged violence throughout the country, particularly in Shrewsbury, an isolated place where there was picketing. They were witch-hunted on the television, radio and the newspapers and the union leadership caved in. First of all, they said they would give their backing to those who were being threatened with court action and court action did take place against them under conspiracy laws, it was. An old law going back to the 18th century. They were charged under those laws [laughter] – medieval laws. They withdrew the financial and legal backing from the 24 that were charged over violence and affray and under conspiring to get workers to stop work.
Matt: The Economic League was an anti-worker, anti-“subversion” organisation set up in 1919 and led by establishment figures in the aristocracy, the military, the BBC, newspapers and so on. One of its main activities was maintaining blacklists of left-wingers and union activists.
As mentioned in Part 1, Shrewsbury was where events took place which supposedly implicated 24 striking building workers in picket line violence. This despite being followed all day by around 80 police with no arrests or reports of wrongdoing on the day.
Months later, the workers were later charged with a litany of crimes. Des Warren faced 28 charges, and Ricky 21. But by the time of the trial, these had been whittled down to just three: conspiracy to intimidate, affray and unlawful assembly. The 24 workers were split into three different trials. Ricky was a defendant in the first one.
Ricky: We had a very, very successful strike – very, very successful strike; so much so that it frightened the bosses, the Wimpeys, and the Bovis’ and all of them. It frightened them to death and, hence, they brought these ridiculous charges against me and 23 other building workers. Six of us ended up in court at Shrewsbury listening to a trial that lasted 55 days. 55 days. I was in the witness box for three days just giving evidence. As I say, in today’s money, apparently it cost around £20+ million and it was probably the most heavily guarded, security-wise, trial that there has ever been in this country; heavier than the protection that was there for the Krays and for all those lads. At one time, they reckon there were 700 police there. There are photographs of all this. I mean I’m not just saying this. There are photographs of police on motorbikes hiding. The actual courtroom was surrounded by police shoulder to shoulder right around the courthouse. Outside the courthouse in Shrewsbury, there was a monument to someone, although I’m not sure who the moment is to, and there was even a policeman on top of the monument with a video camera videoing what was going on.
That was the way it was and, as I say, we had six of us in the dock and unbeknownst to us at the time, one of them in the dock with us was a police informer who had a string of convictions as long as his arm. His name was John Carpenter, who we find out later that up to the day the strike was called, he wasn’t even in the building game but somehow he managed to get a card and get a job with the local council. Even though his name was Carpenter, he got a job as a joiner for the local council. It turned out actually that it wasn’t even his real name. He’d actually changed his name by deed poll but that’s another story. But the judge, at the end of the trial, before he sentenced us, he praised this John Carpenter and said, ‘You seem to be the most intelligent of all these people,’ and then he read his antecedents out which took about half an hour to read out, the times he’d spent in jail and the sort of offences he’d committed. We were so naïve at the time and we didn’t realise it was a political trial.
What I should mention, because people forget this, is that before it started and we were in the holding cell, the six of us were there and the barristers came down, John Platt-Mills and David Turner-Samuels. He said, ‘Look, the prosecution has offered you a deal. You can either plead guilty now and you will be fined £50. The union have agreed to pay the £50 fine and you can all be home for 12 o’clock noon.’ The other four lads took the deal. It came to me and I said, ‘No, I’m not taking the deal. I’ve done nothing wrong. I was the delegated steward on the job and I done what I had to do.’ And Dessie Warren said, ‘Don’t even bother bloody asking me. You’re not on.’ Anyway, the other four then said, ‘Well, if you two are pleading not guilty, we’ll go along with you.’ And that’s how the trial took place. What is so important about that is people forget that when we were getting sentenced and it was 8-4, then two of them changed their mind after staying out overnight and deliberating. When he sentenced the four lads in front of me and he came to me and the jury was still only 10-2. When they sentenced me to two years on each of the three charges, two of the jurymen started fighting, physically fighting, in the jury box, ran out of the jury box and went back into the jury room. The judge had to send for them to come back out because Dessie hadn’t been sentenced. As I say, I got three twos and poor old Dessie, he got three threes. That was the thing. Right away, we knew it was going to be a little bit awkward.
Matt: At the end of a 13-week trial, Des Warren and Ricky were convicted of all three charges and jailed for three years and two years respectively while others were given shorter sentences. The defendants later heard that members of the jury had been misled.
Ricky: They were told, in the jury box, that we were only going to get fined £50. They were told the same as we were told on the morning the trial started 55 days previous. The court usher said to them, ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about. You’ve been away all night. What’s all the fuss about? If they get found guilty, they’re only getting fined £50 and the union are going to pay it,’ and two of them changed their bloody minds. But, as I say, we were so naïve and we didn’t know that it was a political thing.
Matt: Indeed, soon after the strike ended, Tory Home Secretary, Robert Carr, made a statement about “disturbing evidence of intimidation” that supposedly took place during the strike. Carr was likely referencing a dossier produced by the National Federation of Building Trade Employers documenting alleged violence by striking workers. However, as the Financial Times reported, the dossier was flawed as it:
“suggests the existence of a sinister plot without being able to substantiate the allegations. Many of the incidents that have been listed seem to be little more than the ordinary spontaneous angry behaviour that might be expected on a building site at any time… the publication reads more like a politically motivated pamphlet than a serious study.”
The political nature of the trial as an attack not only on building workers, but the wider trade union movement, would become clearer as time went on.
Ricky: But as I say, there were 80 policemen with us on the day. No one was arrested. No one was cautioned. No one had their name and address taken or had to make a statement. No one. Nothing. That was it. Four months later or whenever it was, they came. They turned up at court and you should have seen the size of these policemen sitting in the dock giving evidence almost in tears. They were like bloody rugby players. They were huge. And they all said the same thing. ‘We were frightened. We were terrified. We didn’t know what was going on.’ It was embarrassing for them. The police have had to admit that they made all new statements and destroyed all the original statements. Not only did they do that once, but they also did it twice. They got the originals, made new ones, then destroyed the new ones they’d made and got these other ones. And everyone knew about it.
Matt: The police also falsified witness statements. In one trial, a labourer called John Seaburg explained that part of his so-called ‘statement’ had been added by police and that he’d returned to the station the next day to get it retracted. Despite this, the judge nonetheless ruled that the statement was still admissible as evidence.
Meanwhile, back at Ricky’s trial, the political nature of the trial could also be seen in the choice, and behaviour, of the judge.
Ricky: He wasn’t a criminal barrister, the judge. He was an ecclesiastical barrister who was made up to take the trial. His name was Mais and he said to the jury, ‘Go to this hotel and carry on deliberating,’ which was ludicrous. Apparently, that’s against the rules and they’re only supposed to discuss the case in the jury room. At that time, the jury was divided 8-4 and so when they came back the next morning, within ten minutes, two of them had changed their minds. We got convicted on a 10-2 majority.
We had a great team of barristers but obviously, when the odds are stacked against you, there wasn’t a lot they could do. And the judge was hopeless and sometimes, he’d have to stop the trial while our fellas, our barristers, would have to explain to him what was going on because, as I say, he wasn’t a criminal barrister. He was an ecclesiastical lawyer.
And apparently, I don’t know but I heard it said, I don’t know, apparently he had a reputation for being anti-Semitic as well, this guy. I don’t know whether he was a maverick or what. He was a sort of a buffoon of a man. Particularly when we were giving our speeches from the dock, he used to turn his chair around [laughter], so we could only see the back of him [laughter]. We could only see the back of him from the dock. He’d turn his chair around and wouldn’t face us. Sometimes, when we were saying things he didn’t agree with, he would take his wig off and throw it on the table. He was a bit of a clown really. Well, he had a job to do for them and he done it, didn’t he, you know.
Matt: At the end of the three Shrewsbury trials, out of the 24 defendants, 22 were convicted. After almost 50 years of campaigning, those convictions were finally quashed in 2021.
In the meantime, however, they continued their struggle as political prisoners.
Ricky: What me and Dessie decided to do, because we were going to, like, a closed prison, I think some got suspended and two of them got a couple of months in an open nick. Me and Dessie said, ‘Look, this is the way we’re going to do it. We’re not going to wear clothes. We’re not going to work. We’re not going to soldier. It’s going to be difficult,’ and that’s what we did. We never ever done a day’s work. We wouldn’t work. We spent most of the time in solitary confinement and went on hunger strike for 31 days. I think we’d been in about 14 or 15 months and I ended up in the hospital wing because I’d been on hunger strike for 30-odd days.
I’d never been in jail and obviously, they put me in this cell. I got up in the middle of the night to go for a wee. I went to put my foot on the floor and I should have known something was up because the bed had plastic bottles and the top was cut off. The legs of the bed were in these plastic bottles and there was water in the plastic. I didn’t have a clue. Anyway, when I went to put my foot on the floor, the floor just disappeared. It was cockroaches. Full! There wasn’t an inch. I’ve got a phobia of cockroaches now thanks to it. It was dreadful. I kicked up murder the next day. I was lashing things at the wall and windows. They moved me onto a landing and then that was before we went back into solitary. That’s the sort of thing they were doing. They’d think, ‘We’ll see how tough this fella is.’ You have to put up with it but, as I say, they put us in the workshop [laughter] making these reels. What are they called? Little tape recorders. Ah, it was funny. Dessie went up to the fella and said, ‘What’s the rate?’ The fella said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘What’s the rate of pay?’ [laughter]. We were back in the cells in about five minutes. They then put us in an open prison to try and quieten us down and then Dessie found out that the screws had a sideline. They were making bicycles and selling them on the side and as soon as we exposed that, we were back in a closed nick again [laughter]. But as I say, they used to move us all the time. I remember one fella and his name was Mr Smith. I just forget what prison it was because we were in that many. They used to move us and move us. It was midnight and they opened the cell door and put the light on. I’ll never forget, I looked at him and he had a white trench mac on, like a white military mac but he had pyjamas on. He had his trousers on, sorry, but I could see his pyjamas bottoms coming out. It was midnight like [laughter] and I could see his pyjama bottoms coming out of his trousers. He said to me, ‘Tomlinson, you bastard! Give me my prison back!’ [laughter]. I was moved then. The next morning, they came in and said, ‘Put your stuff in your pillowcase. Off you pop.’ They used to put us in a car and take us somewhere. We never knew where they were taking us. And remember Dessie, because as I say, Dessie had five kids and I think he was in Lincoln then. I don’t think I went in Lincoln. He was in Lincoln and his wife turned up with the five kids and they let her into the visit and left his five kids outside. That’s a criminal offence. They should have been locked up for that because them kids could have run in the road. They left his kids outside and they wonder why he took it so bad. He lost weight and he went as white as a bloody… honest to god, he was snow-white when he was lying on that mattress. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget it. I still get worked up when I think about it.
Matt: As Ricky mentions, Des Warren suffered a lot in prison. During his sentence of just under three years, he spent six consecutive months in solitary confinement and was subject to frequent harassment from prison officials.
While in prison, Warren was prescribed a tranquiliser drug in liquid form that was so strong it was known as ‘the liquid cosh’. Warren described going into a zombie-like state while he was on it and, when he stopped taking it, he began to notice problems similar to Parkinson’s disease. He died from his illness in 2004, aged 66, having never worked in construction again. He received just £3,000 compensation for his mistreatment.
During their time in prison, aside from the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, many union leaders – including those of their own union, UCATT – abandoned the Shrewsbury pickets. Meanwhile, the newly-elected Labour government ignored demands from its own conference to release the pickets, describing them as “lawbreakers”. Even the Communist Party, which Des Warren was a member of at the time, obstructed the creation of a mass campaign for his and Ricky’s release, with the leadership falsely telling Party members that Warren didn’t want action as he was worried about repercussions in prison. In contrast to the wave of wildcat strikes which had defeated the Industrial Relations Act and secured the release of five imprisoned dock workers only a few years before, there were multiple instances of Communist Party shop stewards blocking action: one worker at the British Aircraft Corporation factory recalls a Communist Party union convenor reading a statement from UCATT disowning the Shrewsbury prisoners and refusing to let the factory union banner be taken on a march in solidarity with them. In his memoir, Warren puts this down to the Party’s policy of “limiting mass action in order to preserve relations with the trade union bureaucracy.” Instead, they called for endless lobbying of the Trades Union Congress, to then lobby Parliament, who ultimately did nothing.
When Ricky got out of prison, he started going around the country speaking about the Shrewsbury case. In 1975, he tried to speak at the TUC Conference but was refused by Marie Patterson who was President and Chairperson at the time. Patterson has since gone on to receive a Damehood.
Ricky: I was in the balcony and I asked for five minutes to get on the stage and speak about Dessie. Everyone was shouting, ‘Let him speak. Let him speak,’ but the electricians’ union, a fella called Breakwell or something like that was shouting, ‘No, they were political thugs. They were political thugs,’ and there was murder. Marie Patterson said to me, ‘If you don’t sit down, I’ll call the police!’ I mean it’s on YouTube. You can get it on YouTube. I’m screaming, ‘Well, call the police. Call the police,’ and I think the bouncers came and lashed me out of the conference.
We had great support from the likes of Scargill and a few other people in the trade union movement but the Labour Party let us down dreadfully. Well, the trade union movement, in a way, let us down dreadfully but when it’s a political thing, lad, there’s not a lot you could do.
Matt: As well as conspiring with the state to crack down on trade unionists, construction bosses also responded with a blacklist, keeping a list of known union activists and refusing to employ them.
Tony: After the strike, I couldn’t get any work and I was walking the streets. I did get a Laing’s job at Tottenham Court Road. I was recognised by the foreman on the same day I started from a previous job as a union activist and immediately, I was sacked [laughter]. I could see him looking up at me from below because I was about two or three storeys high on the scaffold. He recognised me [laughter] I was immediately sacked there and then. I refused to go because I’d got so many refusals based on being blacklisted. I sat in the canteen and then management got two heavies onto me and lifted me out of my seat, out of the canteen and chucked me off the site. That’s exactly what happened. The workers see that happening, that was in the canteen at the time, and immediately threatened strike action. They thought it was horrendous for that to happen and because of the threat of strike action, I got back on the job [laughter]. It was a big job, a huge job, YMCA at Tottenham Court Road, and I lasted for one and a half years. Big jobs lasted longer in those days actually. When that job came to a finish, you’re not selected to continue down to another one, are you? No, you’re just, you’re gone, and that’s what happened to me. I couldn’t get any more work and so I applied for a major refurbishment project in downtown Bermondsey and to my delight, I got a start. I was amazed. Within a month, I got elected as a steward and within nine months, I was selected as the union convenor, full-time union convenor, for Southwark and I remained there for 36 years.
Matt: Tony was one of the relatively lucky ones. Others never found work again in the industry. The full extent of the blacklist was only understood decades later and, again, was the result of pressure from the rank and file.
Tony: What recently has revealed the extent of the Shrewsbury and the blacklisting was from the Blacklist Support Group which was a group that building workers set up. The Government Data Protection Act forced them to raid the offices of a company which was set up, called the Consulting Association, which came from the Economic League, a blacklisting organisation. Because a manager on a big project blew the whistle that he was being requested to give the names of all new workers on the job so they could be checked out to see if they needed to be refused work; new starters, as we call them. He blew the whistle. He fell out with his fellow management and that evidence was used in an industrial tribunal case. It then got into the legal setting and it forced the Government Data Protection Act agency to raid the office. It was revealed that 3,500 building workers were on the blacklist. A lot of them were older workers and came from the ’72 strike which is why I’m making the connection. A lot of them, if not most of them, are now dead actually because they were either older workers or they’ve died. The conditions in the industry would have killed them off anyway.
The Blacklist Support Group was set up just a few years ago after I mentioned about the Consulting Association offices, the blacklisting organisation, being raided. This organisation from below was set up not by the unions but by construction workers called the Blacklist Support Group led by Dave Smith. They took action and blocked roads outside sites that wouldn’t allow workers to be employed because they were blacklisted. They occupied the offices of the building companies. They did all sorts of things. They went to Park Lane in London, outside the Grosvenor Hotel and laid bricks outside the entrance of it. When the building employers were celebrating themselves, because they award themselves prizes every year for the best employer, ironically, they went there and they sat down in the road. They then got a solicitor to take out a claim in the High Court under the Data Protection Act and then that got extended, and this is when the unions got involved, into the Human Rights Act and some other law. There were 700 UCATT members who took claims and over 1,000 in total with the other unions took claims as well. A lot of the other 3,500 might have been dead or they might not have been in the industry and not in the union because they’d come out of the industry. They didn’t take any action. But out of all of that, workers received compensation. I received £35,000 compensation myself and others received over £100,000.
Matt: Despite vicious attacks from both construction bosses and the state, the 1972 strike left a lasting legacy on the building industry.
Ricky: Well, I think people took building workers a lot more seriously after the strike because they knew even though it was fragmented and it wasn’t the most organised in the world, it became more organised and I think the bosses realised that they couldn’t treat us like shit the way they had done for all them years. Health and safety was the main thing. That was really, really improved; even down to little things like wet weather gear, Wellingtons and stuff like that, you know? Before, there was none of that. If you went to work at 8 o’clock in the morning and you got soaked, you either stayed and worked in that wet gear or you went home and lost your wages. That was it. The toilets are a little bit better now and you get a couple of portacabins, and stuff like that, which is a lot better. They put scaffolding up now with kickboards on to save lads climbing ladders trying to put bloody window frames in off ladders. I’ve even seen windows being put in, in the old days, with someone standing in the bucket of a JCB. They’d lift the bloody JCB up and they’re trying to fix window frames in. What fellas have done just to try and earn their wages was bloody ludicrous. It was absolutely ludicrous.
Matt: For anyone who doesn’t know, a JCB is basically a mechanical digger. Anyway, even these improved safety conditions have only been the result of constant vigilance and campaigning by rank-and-file building workers.
Tony: In 1988, the Construction Safety Campaign was set up. We were hearing stories of workers being killed on the job and a change had taken place. Traditionally, if someone got killed on a job, the workers themselves would automatically stop work and go home or they’d be told to go home. On a number of jobs, that was not happening. Can you imagine? The employers were insisting you carried on working and there was no resistance taking place and they didn’t walk off the job. And that was. to us, an outrage. And then the previous year’s figures for construction deaths were at a ten-year high. There were as many deaths in building site accidents in the whole year than there were on the Piper Alpha.
Matt: Piper Alpha was an oil platform located in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. In 1988, it exploded, killing 165 workers as well as two rescue crew.
Tony: It was in the newspapers and on the telly for weeks on end and quite rightly so but nothing was said about construction deaths. There was no publicity and not a whimper whatsoever. Instead of that, the employers were encouraging workers to continue working, so that was an outrage. We got together with some progressive politicians and we decided to set up the Construction Safety Campaign. We decided straight away that we would not go to the leadership of the unions to ask them for support. We made that decision deliberately because we knew that they would try to divert the campaign because that’s what they’d done before. The first thing we did was we went to the Health & Safety Executive head office, which is a government organisation for workplace safety. Every year, they did an annual press conference to announce the breakdown of the deaths in the industry and the number of serious injuries. We went there and put a picket outside and also went in and occupied it. We went inside and the cameras were rolling and the journalists were there and we said, ‘Speak to us because we’re the ones who are affected by health and safety and it’s outrageous what’s going on.’ We asked the cameras to black out our faces which they did. The following day, we were in The Telegraph, we were in a load of papers and we was on the news. We thought, ‘That’s it! We’ve had a result!’ [laughter]. It made a lot of people become aware of our campaign. We then had a public meeting which was a huge success. We put out a leaflet to nearly all of the union branches for them to support us and donate so we could get our publicity out. Immediately, the largest union UCATT and Albert Williams, the general secretary, put a circular out to all the branch secretaries to say ‘have nothing to do with the campaign. Everything is done to make you safe and you’ve got nothing to worry about.’ [laughter] That was the response of the union leadership to a ten-year, all-time high of construction deaths on site. That was their response to us to send this to all the branches. Once they did that, our campaign took off and a lot of the branches started supporting us. In fact, we got support from two of the regional councils of the union virtually immediately and we had public meetings in the union offices when the union leadership were barring us from having meetings there. The next thing was that we went to coroners’ courts to see if we could chat with the relatives of those who got killed on building sites. Some of them, as you can expect, withdrawn and nervous but quite a few of them were quite open and supported everything we did. We told them that we were trying to change the law. At that time, not one building employer had been jailed for reckless actions that killed workers. We changed that. We changed that and now you’ve got corporate manslaughter. Fines have gone up hugely and the amount of deaths has gone down from what was 157 that year to now in the 20s, 30s and 40s. One death too many, mind, but see how there’s been a huge drop.
Matt: These experiences – of the strike, the repression, and the struggles which came afterwards – contain important lessons for all workers. One thing that Tony points out is where organisation has to come from.
Tony: The main lesson, in any issue that you have to do with work, you have to be strong from below. It starts from there. The union itself cannot be strong unless there’s organisation on the ground to make it strong. And be wary that union leadership is not the same as the workers in the union. They are not in our workplace. They’re working in the union offices surrounded by all of that and there is a temptation, especially in times of the country with a very nationalistic, right-wing agenda, attacking workers and getting away with it, unless the fight takes place from below, the union will do nothing until you have a fight from below. That’s the case now. It hasn’t changed.
Happen from below or it won’t happen. The main lesson is this.
Matt: That’s it for our double-episode on the 1972 Building Workers’ Strike. We also have a bonus episode in which Ricky speaks to us more about his time in prison, his struggles with union officials and some of the great trade unionists he’s befriended over the years. That’s available now, exclusively for our Patreon supporters.
It is only because of support from you, our listeners which allows us to make these podcasts, so if you appreciate our work please do think about joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, books and much more. If you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no problem, please just tell your friends and family about this podcast. If you have a Spotify account, Spotify now lets you review podcasts, so we would really appreciate it if you would take a second to give us a five-star review.
If you want to learn more about the 1972 Building Workers’ Strike and the subsequent Shrewsbury trials, we recommend you pick up a copy of Des Warren’s memoir, The Key to My Cell. Link to grab it from an independent bookshop in the show notes. You can also find some of Tony’s works about struggles in the construction industry and, as always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, transcripts, further reading and more on the webpage for this episode, all in the show notes.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible and a special thanks to Stone Lawson. We’d also like to thank Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group for helping us to get in touch with our guests for this podcast.
The music used in these episodes is ‘My Name is Dessie Warren’ by Alun Parry. Links to stream and buy it in the show notes.
This episode was edited by Louise Barry.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed the episode and thanks for listening.