In 2023 many trade unions are taking strike action due to a cost-of-living crisis amongst working people, while the Tory government’s response is to threaten further anti-strike legislation. A Very British Conspiracy is a reminder of the lengths a Tory government will go to crush the trade union movement.
It took a campaign of 27 years for the story to be told and for the quashing of the convictions of the strikers. One question that struck me is why the trade union movement left it to Eileen and her comrades to take on this battle.
Eileen was married to Tommy, who worked on building sites across the northwest in the 1960s and 1970s. It was dangerous, dirty work with little solidarity between workers and no health and safety protection. He left the industry after an accident but was an activist in the Transport and General Workers Union (now Unite): they were both hopeful when they heard about the National Building Workers Strike in 1972.
For the first-time labourers and skilled workers were united in demanding the end of “The Lump” and a joint pay claim for all workers. As Eileen says, “Building workers were serious and wanted to change the balance of power in the industry.” They took on the barons of the building industry including McAlpines, Laings and Wimpey. In September 1972 the strike was settled and the unions had won the biggest pay rise in their history.
But it was not over. In fact, the fallout from the strike would devastate the trade union movement for years to come and ruin the lives of those who took part. Five months after the strike thirty-two building workers were arrested for offences that were alleged to happen on building sites in Shropshire and North Wales during the strike. Finally, after the trials six pickets were imprisoned, sixteen received suspended prison sentences, one was found “not guilty” by the jury and one was “not guilty” by order of the court. They became known as “the Shrewsbury 24”.
Eileen Turnbull is one of the heroines of this story. A working-class woman, she was educated through the trade union movement, and was there right from the days of the trial through to the quashing of the convictions of the Shrewsbury 24.
She worked for the GMB trade union and had the confidence to take up the mammoth task of unearthing the truth, about how and why Des Warren, one of the leading pickets, received three years in prison. His life was changed completely, and even after his release he was blacklisted and suffered life changing health problems.
In 2006, after Des died, the Shrewsbury 24 campaign was born and Eileen became its unpaid researcher. Again, the question must be asked; why unpaid? The trade unions could have easily paid her wages. Later, the campaign was forced to borrow money to pay their legal bill. Successive Labour governments could have squashed the convictions – but they did not. Eileen also undertook an M.A. and PHD so that she could gain access to archives and to answer the question: why were the men prosecuted?
Eileen concluded that “The outcome of the trials was the result of concerted action by building trades employers, Conservative politicians and the state to halt the emerging and successful trade union tactic of flying pickets and the growing strength of trade unionism in the building industry”.
This history is personal to me. My father was a building worker in the UK in the 1970s. He was one of the many Irish men who were an important part of the workforce of the building industry in this country. Inspired by the National Building Workers strike of 1972 he joined the union and the strike. One of the few criticisms I have of this book is that the role of the Irish in trade unions has not been recognised. There are few histories written about the importance of Irish workers to the Labour movement. But it can be read about in the books of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, the plays of Jim Allen and in the song “Ordinary Man” sung by Christy Moore.
The story of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign is an inspiring one. There are many lessons that the trade union movement can learn from their search for the truth and justice. It was, for Eileen, “a long and winding road of discovery to find the crucial evidence which was to finally overturn this miscarriage of justice… These prosecutions should never have taken place. The fact that they did is a salutary lesson for all trade unionists today.”
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