United We Stand is a gripping theatrical account of the case of the Shrewsbury 24, currently on tour around independent theatres in Britain.
Some episodes in working-class history remain stubbornly in the collective memory, resisting all efforts either to consign them to oblivion or ‘reinterpret’ them to make them fit the bourgeois falsification of history. One such episode was the persecution of building workers back in the seventies, thrown into jail for the ‘crime’ of picketing construction sites to persuade workers to join the 1972 builders’ strike.
The central issue of the strike was the battle against the ‘lump’ – the practice whereby workers were hired on a daily basis and paid in cash, robbing them of all employment rights and also putting downward pressure on the wages and job security of contracted employees. The strike itself, which achieved some of its aims, concluded after three months. But for the Shrewsbury 24 the nightmare had just begun.
The use of ‘flying pickets’ to spread the strike had been a runaway success, helping to close hundreds of building sites, and was a tactic which the miners were to develop in 1972 (against Edward Heath’s government) and 1984 (against Margaret Thatcher’s government). The threat of such a good example, cheering to the working class but terrifying for the capitalist state, was not lost on the powers that be, who decided to pick on one routine picket in one particular town and do their utmost to criminalise it.
Accordingly, police in the west country and north Wales spent a full ten weeks investigating what did or did not happen when 24 building workers dropped in for a chat at a construction site in Shrewsbury on 6 September. Police interrogated over 800 witnesses in a frantic effort to find, or manufacture, evidence of intimidation.
Then, on 14 February, months after the strike was over, police raided houses in north Wales, arresting six men, including Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson (later of Royle Family fame). Further arrests thereafter brought the number up to 24 – the ‘Shrewsbury 24’.
After a jury had acquitted eight of the defendants of the charge of intimidation on the grounds of zero evidence, overruling the judge, the state shifted its ground and hit Warren and Tomlinson with ‘conspiracy’ charges – charges which were more vague but carried heavier sentences.
Both were sent down, Tomlinson for two years and Warren for three. Both correctly asserted that they were political prisoners; both took the blanket sooner than wear prison clothes, and both also undertook hunger strikes. Because of his defiant stand, Warren was subjected to a ‘liquid cosh’, consisting of increasing doses of tranquilliser – a form of violence which left him with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and contributed to his early demise.
Last chance to see Neil Gore’s fantastic play about the Shrewsbury 24, United We Stand, in Bristol on Tuesday 5 May. Call 07718 666 593 for tickets. £10 / £3.
Facebook event page for the showing with full details
Since his release, Tomlinson and his supporters have been tireless in pursuing justice. In 2012, Tomlinson tried to get the convictions overturned by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and the following year he raised the issue again at the Durham Miners’ Gala. In 2014, MPs voted for the disclosure of files relating to the arrests in 1973, but still the government stonewalls.
As election day approaches, the Labour PR machine has scented a cost-free opportunity to strike a ‘progressive’ pose on the issue and pull in a few ‘left’ votes.
Labour’s shadow minister Lisa Nandy pointed out that the government had “no justification” for keeping the Shrewsbury 24 files under wraps, declaiming that “The minister may refuse to act, but a Labour government will act. We will release those papers with the urgency that the situation demands.”
Stirring words. Yet when Heath’s Tory government was replaced by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in 1974, at a time when the issue of the Shrewsbury 24 was convulsing the whole labour movement, how did Labour approach the question?
Did it bravely denounce this naked exercise of class war against workers? Did it release these political prisoners? On the contrary: the Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins withstood all pleas and kept them under lock and key.
And what about when the papers relating to the case came up for release under the 30-year rule in 2002? Did the Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine (Tony Blair’s former pupil master) release the papers as expected? Not a bit of it. Did the then Labour home secretary David Blunkett insist that he do so? Of course not. He duly signed them away for another 10 years under the pretext that their release was ‘not in the public interest’.
How about the TUC, did it support the campaign? Quite the reverse. The TUC did nothing beyond issuing a few ritual declarations to get the convictions overturned and the prisoners released. Still, on his release in 1975, Tomlinson sought the help of the TUC. Instead of assisting the campaign, the TUC refused to let him address the annual conference, obliging him to disrupt the proceedings to hold the labour aristocracy to account.
And what did Des Warren think? In his book The Key to My Cell, he made his disgust at the cowardice of the trade-union movement very plain, writing: “I feel bitterness, anger and loathing when I think of some of our trade-union ‘leaders’ bemoaning the nation’s ills and how the workers must endure a cut in their living standards in order to save the country from disaster – even my kids would recognise that as a load of crap. [But not evidently those who today campaign for a Labour government committed to austerity!]
“Their phoney dealing with the government (which is holding me prisoner) is to batten down the working class and force them to accept capitalist answers to capitalism’s problems. Leaders? As far as I can see, the only time some of them take a lead is when they go to the front of the queue when honours are dished out.”
Scorning those who supposed his anger was just a subjective response, Warren had this to say:
If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times that I don’t take my imprisonment personally.
The Tory government wasn’t interested in me or my 23 co-victims. They were attacking the trade-union movement and, by failing to stand by us, the Executive Committees of Ucatt and the T&G failed to protect the movement – a job they were well paid to do. (The Key To My Cell, 1982, p190)
Fight the blacklist
What has helped stir the pot and bring this burning historical injustice back to the boil is the continuing struggle to expose and resist the blacklisting in the construction industry of union reps who dare to blow the whistle on unsafe practices.
Such practices took the lives of 42 construction workers last year, 14 of whom were self-employed (the lump by any other name). Whilst the construction industry only accounts for 5 percent of the working population, it accounted for 31 percent of fatalities.
On 12 March, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry into undercover police espionage operations targeting peaceful protests and bereaved parents of murder victims. But on the same day that the state embarked upon yet another damage-limitation whitewash exercise, the exposure of police malpractice went up another notch with the publication of a book by leading anti-blacklist campaigners Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain: Blacklisted: the Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists.
Launching the book, Dave Smith pointed out that
There are secret political police in the UK; they are called Special Branch, MI5, GCHQ, Netcu and SDS. These coercive arms of the state see their role as supporting big business against anyone who may threaten their profits.
Trade unions and peaceful campaign groups are viewed as the enemy. Undercover police infiltration of justice campaigns set up by bereaved relatives, anti-racist and environmental groups and trade unions is an affront to democracy – it is essential that this is part of the remit of the public inquiry announced by Theresa May.
Blacklisted workers should be consulted before the inquiry starts. Blacklisting is no longer an industrial-relations issue: it is a conspiracy orchestrated by directors of multinational companies and the security services against trade unions.
Blacklisting is not just in construction, it is endemic across UK industry from NHS whistleblowers, airlines, North Sea, retail and railways. We now know that the fire brigades’ union, Unison, CWU and NUT were also targets of this national scandal. The full extent of the corporate and police spying against trade unions demands that blacklisting is given a full standalone public inquiry of its own.”
Less then a week after publication of the book, Dave Smith was arrested on a peaceful protest outside the Construction News Awards in the Park Lane Hilton. The protest was to highlight the sacking of workers on the Crossrail project for raising health and safety issues.
One example was the sacking of employees who objected to working in the darkness without torches on their helmets. Days after the sackings, 13 workers suffered falls. Campaigners reported that the police went in mob-handed at the demo and made a beeline for Smith.
As Smith’s own book makes plain, such arrests are entirely political in character and demand a political response from unions.
As was to be expected, ‘left’ Labour luminaries are now clutching onto the coat-tails of this momentous grass-roots revolt for all they are worth in the hope of getting some reflected glory and a few more working-class votes. The reality, however, is that blacklist operations have been in full swing throughout Tory and Labour administrations alike – an immutable necessity for the functioning of the secret state.
What’s more, when the notorious Consulting Association was busted in 2009, the then Labour government declined the opportunity to criminalise the actual practice of blacklisting itself, outlawing only such instances where it could be proved that someone had been forbidden employment on the sole grounds of a negative comment on a blacklisting database – a basically impossible requirement which lets MacAlpine and the rest of the unsavoury bunch completely off the hook.
Unite: the gloves come off?
On 19 March, Len McCluskey took to the columns of the Guardian with an article with the promising title ‘Unions must be able to fight for workers – even if it means breaking bad laws’.
He reported that the previous week Unite had decided to recommend “the deletion from our rules of six little words that have governed our union’s actions: ‘so far as may be lawful’”.
McCluskey reassured the fainthearted that “Our executive wants these words gone not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery, but because we have to ask ourselves the question: can we any longer make that commitment to stick, under any and all circumstances, within the law as it stands?”
The answer, coyly withheld until the final paragraph, was basically ‘No’. “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”
McCluskey then pointed out the way in which the vagaries of the postal ballot undoubtedly help capitalism to sow confusion and litigation whenever a strike ballot is under way, and seemed to unveil a plan whereby future ballots would be conducted electronically. “We will drive forward with modern technology and use it to increase turnouts in our ballots without being shackled by prescriptions – such as postal ballots – imposed in another age. We are not going to let the Tories destroy our democracy by shackling us to archaic procedures.”
What this ‘grand new plan’ (or storm in a teacup) neatly sidesteps is the rather more important fact that, under both Tory and Labour regimes, ‘our democracy’ has been comprehensively violated for decades by legislation that dares to impose preconditions on the exercise of the right to strike.
In truth, the right to strike, curtailed as it is in practice, is not really ‘hanging by a thread’ (as McCluskey suggests) but has long since ceased to have any real meaning at all. Modernising the method by which unions submit to state scrutiny of their internal affairs does nothing to deal with this fundamental reality.
McCluskey is right: unions should resume their proper function and act as fighting organs of the working class. Yet so long as the argument is cast exclusively in terms of the need to struggle against evil Tory governments, letting Labour off scot free, the real character of the political struggle of labour versus capital will remain obscured.
At one point in the article, Len tells us that the Labour victory in 1997 was “one of the happiest days of my life”, and it is clear that, even after experiencing what followed, he still preserves the belief that a vote for Miliband will somehow soften the blows of austerity and give the unions a fairer deal in the courts.
The happiest day for the trade-union movement, meanwhile, will be when it wrenches itself free from its enslavement to the imperialist Labour party and uproots the debilitating influence of social-democratic misleadership.
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 8 December meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
Last November, substantial coordinated strike action behind the pensions issue took thousands onto the streets in Britain. Since that struggle was sold out by the TUC, and despite the subsequent unanimous passage at the TUC’s annual congress of a motion tentatively mooting the possibility of a general strike, the momentum has drained away, thanks to the continued left-social-democratic character of even the most militant sections of organised labour.
On the eve of this year’s 14 November ‘day of action’, faced with the looming failure of the British TUC to mount even token support, the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) couldn’t advance any higher goal than to ‘get back to’ the glorious heights of last year’s ‘N30’ action, yet again calling upon the TUC to ‘name the day’ for a (one-day!) ‘general strike’.
A recent rally in defence of the NHS in Bristol illustrated the problem clearly. Speaker after speaker repeated the same mantra: “Labour must stop implementing Tory cuts.” Whilst this approach came in ‘militant’ wrapping – “Don’t let the Labour councillors get away with it! Don’t give them any peace! etc” – the subtext that got reinforced was inescapable: stick with Labour, it’s the only show in town.
The Bristol march was well supported (and barely reported), and drew attention to the way that the NHS is being prepared for balkanisation, with clinical commissioning groups purchasing services from NHS trusts and private companies.
Particularly flagrant have been the efforts of the so-called South West Pay Cartel to introduce regional pay agreements, undermining the existing national banding of jobs and preparing the ground for cuts in pay and conditions.
It appears that the Cartel’s honesty has made even the government a little nervous, with health minister Dan Poulter describing the consortium as “somewhat heavy-handed” during a Commons debate. It’s clear enough that the Cartel’s flat feet are trampling in the same direction the rest of the NHS is destined to travel in due course.
However, rearguard defence of national banding alone is not enough to mobilise health workers in the struggle, any more than rearguard defence of Joint Industry Board arrangements is enough to mobilise electricians in the construction industry or rearguard defence of the Agricultural Wages Board (now threatened with the chop) is enough to mobilise agricultural workers.
What is needed across all sectors of employment is a class-wide struggle to break with the social-democratic politics of the Labour party and all its friends and overthrow the crisis-ridden capitalist system.
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 21 October meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
With more and deeper cuts every day chipping away at things to which everyone had long become accustomed (a fire engine turning up in reasonable time when you dial 999, a proper investigation when someone loses a finger in an industrial accident, an affordable train ticket even), people quite reasonably look to the unions to do their traditional job of standing up for the rights of ordinary workers.
Yet with unions less interested in organising strike funds than they are in donating to the Labour party, we can expect little more from the TUC than the odd day’s protest march.
The efforts of union militants in the NSSN and elsewhere to kick-start the do-nothing TUC into leading a coordinated strike campaign against the imposition of austerity in Britain continue to run into the same brick wall at congress after congress.
Each year one or other resolution in favour of this, suitably militant in presentation but hedged about with enough caveats to reassure the labour aristocracy, is passed unanimously and then left to gather dust on the shelf, with at best another chance to let off steam at another ‘day of action’.
This year proved no exception, with what the NSSN describe as a ‘bold resolution’ from the prison warders proposing “a coalition of resistance taking coordinated action where possible [!] with far-reaching campaigns including the consideration [!!] and practicalities [!!!] of a general strike”.
But the harsh truth is that, until the social-democratic politics of the union movement are taken on and faced down, the TUC will continue its history of treachery to the working class – a history unbroken since 1926.
Trying to cheer ourselves up by telling ourselves that “The passing of this motion is a great step forward in the battle that has been waged to push the leaders of the TUC towards mobilising the weight of the trade-union movement against the government’s cuts agenda” merely reinforces the reformist notion that piling more pressure on the labour aristocracy will eventually oblige them to lead the fight against capitalism, disarming workers ideologically.
And in the end, the key question is not whether the TUC refuses to call a general strike or calls one in order to betray it. The key question is rather: what is meant by ‘A future that works’?
The following resolution has been proposed by the CPGB-ML to the upcoming PSC AGM.
A very similar resolution was opposed by the PSC executive last year, on some extremely spurious grounds.
It is our belief that the contents of the following resolution are entirely uncontroversial to 95 percent of Palestine solidarity activists. However, since the resolution calls for the PSC to actively encourage British workers to use their collective power to prevent British companies and media outlets from participating in Israeli war crimes, the resolution is decidedly harmful to the interests of British imperialism.
Thus it is clearly NOT acceptable to the imperialist, zionist Labour party, or to the Labour-affiliated leaders of the trade-union movement.
PSC members need to decide whether they want to build a broad movement that really does aim to give meaningful solidarity to Palestine, or whether they prefer to let the PSC executive maintain its cosy relationship with various left-Labour and TUC bigwigs … and to allow these interests to dictate that their ’solidarity’ work should be kept at the level of a charitable occupation that won’t threaten imperialist interests.
Experience has shown that they can’t do both.
[See joti2gaza.org for a more detailed discussion of anti-imperialist work in the PSC.]
No cooperation with war crimes: step up the campaign
Conference reaffirms its belief that the majority of people in Britain are opposed to British imperialism’s support for the criminal Israeli state, and considers that the time is ripe to make active non-cooperation a central theme of our work.
Conference therefore calls on the steering committee to take the line of non-cooperation into as many arenas as possible, including:
1. Building support within individual unions and at the TUC for motions that draw attention to the complicity of Britain’s government and corporations in Israeli war crimes, and that also call on workers to refuse to cooperate in their commission (eg, by making or moving munitions or other equipment, by writing or broadcasting propaganda, or helping in any other way to smooth the path of Israel’s war machine).
2. Following the example set by websites such as MediaLens.org and by the 2010 PSC Panorama campaign in building an ongoing movement to hold the media to account for their pivotal role in apologising for, covering up and normalising Israel’s crimes.
3. Putting on fundraising events that will both draw attention to the jailed Gaza protesters’ plight and contribute towards a campaign to overturn their convictions.
4. Giving support and publicity to groups or individuals who, like the EDO Decommissioners and the Raytheon activists, are targeted by the state for refusing to cooperate with, or for actively attempting to prevent the many crimes of, the occupation.
5. Continuing and increasing the work already done to make Britain a place where Israeli war criminals can get no peace: through the campaign on universal jurisdiction, through citizens’ arrests and through any other available channels, including using local, national and international courts to draw attention to the crimes of Israeli military, government and corporate leaders – and those in Britain who back them politically or financially.
CPGB-ML members were in Manchester on Sunday (12 September) for the National Shop Stewards Network rally outside the TUC conference, and attended a NSSN fringe meeting held afterwards.
The rally called on the TUC to get serious about organising a fight-back against public-sector cuts, pay and pensions attacks, privatisation etc. So far, Brendan Barber’s laughable response to the proposed all-out assault on British workers’ pay, pensions and public services has been to call for a demonstration (not any industrial action) to be organised for … next March! Thus politely giving the government time to implement its cuts, slash pay and pensions and lay off thousands of public-sector workers.
‘Fair’ cuts? NO cuts! Take the fight to capitalism. (CPGB-ML leaflet)
Bob Crow and several other speakers at the rally made the point that blaming the Tories for the cuts, or putting hopes in electing a Labour government as the solution, was a total waste of time. The unions have been spinning that yarn for 50-60 years, he said, and this is where we’ve ended up as a result. He called for the unions not to get sidetracked into a pointless campaign to get Labour re-elected, but to work together now to coordinate strike action right across the public sector.
At the meeting later, many reps spoke about their experiences in trying to carry out useful work in the teeth of union leadership opposition. One of our party members pointed out that most of the union leaders aren’t interested in giving the leadership their members expect and deserve, but instead excuse their own inaction on the basis of ‘member apathy’.
She pointed to the leaders of her own union, Bectu, as a prime example of this - in particular how they fail to educate members about what the issues really are that face them and how attacks on their pay and pensions in particular might be combatted. Instead, the leadership tell members that they don’t have an interest in fighting against the introduction of the divided conditions that management continually use to erode the pay and pension position of all staff.
She called for the public-sector unions to take the lead in launching a massive campaign to mobilise public awareness and support for their actions in defence of conditions and services, since these actions are in the interest of all of us. This is particularly important given the current stranglehold of the corporate media on people’s consciousness, since those media are universally hostile to attempts by the working class to resist attacks - constantly seeking to demonise and divide workers and brand them as lazy, greedy etc.
Our member also made the point that as well as coordinating action (something that many reps there were calling for) between unions, so we strike together as much as possible, we should be breaking the anti-union laws en masse - since the current legal framework is explicitly designed to render industrial action useless in achieving its aim of defending workers’ conditions and protecting public services.
Judging by the applause that greeted this point in a packed meeting of union reps from all over the country, this isn’t an unpopular position as far as many rank-and-file members are concerned. It’s the union leaderships who are terrified of losing control of their asset portfolios, or losing their respectable status as important members of the establishment.
Meanwhile, at the TUC yesterday (14 September), a limited motion was passed against the anti-union laws. It was a composite of several, and was supported by Bectu, among others, following the adoption at the last Bectu congress of a motion calling on the NEC to work with other unions to build a mass campaign to DEFY the anti-union laws.
Typically, the resulting joint unions motion to the TUC was totally toothless. Its main substance merely being to call on MPs to back a bill in parliament that might stop the courts from being quite so harsh in how they interpret the current legal framework.
About the need to dismantle that framework completely there was nothing but a ritual reference. About the need to defy the laws in the meantime, there was not a dicky-bird, although there was a slightly coded call from Bob Crow for the unions to do just that.
Calling for consistency in industrial strategy Mr Crow added to rapturous applause: “It’s no good walking down to Tolpuddle and then next week debating whether to engage in civil disobedience to oppose the cuts.
“If it’s good enough for the Tolpuddle Martyrs 160 years ago it should be good enough for us today.”
We would add the following points:
In order for our unions to put up any kind of a fight in defence of pay, pensions and services, workers are going to have to radically transform these currently ineffectual institutions. Either pressure from below will see new, militant leaderships emerge, or the current leaders will find their members deserting in droves to set up new fighting organisations, willing and able to take on the employers head-on.
A vital part of this campaign to transform our unions is the campaign to break the link with the imperialist Labour party, whose suffocating control of most career trade unionists is responsible for their complete inability to act in their members’ best interests. Instead, they act as one more layer of policemen for the ruling class - controlling, diverting and dampening down the growing anger and militancy of workers on the shop floor.
Most of all, workers in Britain need to belatedly wake up and realise that while we continue to confine our struggle to aiming after the best possible conditions for selling our labour power under capitalism, we will never achieve job, housing, health, education or pension security.
All the concessions won when the welfare state was set up 60 years ago are being taken away; it will take a massive, coordinated and extremely militant fight just to get back to where we were then - and as soon as we are there, the whole process of attacking them will start again.
There is only one way to guarantee a peaceful, secure, civilised and sustainable existence for our children and grandchildren - and that is to get rid of this destructive, parasitic, polluting system and build a socialist society in its place.