Sunday, 11 October 2009

Book Review: The Flying Pickets

From LSHG Newsletter No. 33, Autumn 2008

The Flying Pickets: The 1972 Builders’ Strike & The Shrewsbury Trials
Dave Ayre, Reuben Barker, Jim French, Jimmy Graham and Dave Harker
Des Warren Trust Fund / Bookmarks
Paperback: 396 pages
ISBN 978-1905192359

For those of us of a certain generation the Industrial upturn of the early 1970’s stands out as both a beacon of inspiration, and a living lesson in organising industrial disputes. Many observers like myself, in our mid-teens inspired by theoretical visions of socialism, watched mass strikes, mass meetings and demonstrations playing out in real time on the 6 o’clock news and they gave us and continues to give us inspiration and lessons in how we can achieve this goal.

In the context of the defeats of the late 1970’s, the defensive battles in Steel, Coal and the print in the early and mid 1980’s, the period stands out as a high point of industrial disputes. Those defeats, the destruction of manufacturing, the privatisation of public utilities, the atomisation of older strongholds of militancy like car manufacturing and the docks have left a legacy of ‘Thatcherism’ that the labour movement has only recently begun to come to terms with.

While the economy looks a different place today than it did in 1970 issues of organisation remain the same. Many of the earlier traditions in relation new workers immediately joining unions may have been lost but the issues for workers remain the same albeit in a different context. In broad terms for example we may have replaced thousands of car manufacturing jobs with assembly line tasks broken down to the minimum with thousands of call centre jobs with a totally un-empowered workforce likewise dealing with many repetitive tasks.

With the stirrings of militancy gaining ground, particularly in the public sector any re-examination of any struggle as significant as the building workers strike is timely to say the least. The building workers strike of 1972 eventually saw almost 350,000 building workers taking action in a highly unorganised part of the economy seen by many as a backwater. The strike was built on the flying pickets tactic learnt directly from the miners. A rank and file newspaper "Building workers Charter” led by the CP and read by tens of thousands was highly influential in the build up to the strike however disappeared during the strike itself as the CP emphasis changed from the 100s of CP militants who built the dispute on the ground to the officials in UCATT and T&GWU, all heavily influenced by either the CP or Broad Left, who led the dispute.

In the aftermath of the dispute a group of flying pickets from North Wales were tried and jailed for conspiracy, variously known as the ‘Shrewsbury Three’ or the 'Shrewsbury two’ depending on how many were in jail at the time. The choice of this area was no coincidence as it was one of the weaker areas of union organisation. A similar tactic by the state the ‘Birmingham Five’ trial of pickets led to acquittal but the West Midlands was a much more organised area and the trials led to immediate walkouts at key sites. CP militant Des Warren who refused to submit was given a liquid cosh and eventually ended up broken physically but never politically. Ricky Tomlinson went on to Royale Family fame but continues to campaign for justice.

The Flying Pickets is a collaboration of those who participated at the time, as part of the dispute, as part of the industry or as part of the subsequent defence campaigns. The ‘classic’ account of the Shrewsbury pickets is told by Jim Arnison’s 1974 The Shrewsbury Three: Strikes, Pickets and 'Conspiracy' was not only written as part of the campaign against the jailing of pickets but more fundamentally to justify the actions taken by the CP during the course of the dispute. The Flying Pickets is altogether a different animal.

Importantly it brings together much source material and tells the story of the strike as it unfolded and tries to draw out lessons learnt at the time so that mistakes will not be repeated. In that sense it attempts to be a guide to ‘today’ rather than simply an academic analysis of the dispute or a collaborative autobiography. At times the book is critical of both the roles of the CP leadership in the national dispute and within the Shrewsbury campaign.

However the book suffers from a number of weaknesses. Without an existing knowledge of both the dispute and the participants then the book can be difficult to read and those criticisms somewhat too subtle. At times detailed knowledge held by the reader is ‘presumed’ but at other times too much detail is supplied.

Moreover the overall analysis of the events does not form part of the narrative but is given in a separate chapter at the end of the book. Some of the information given, for example CP membership, paper sales etc is spread across the narrative and simply ‘stands alone’ without comment .It is no doubt there to point to either declining membership or increased influence but this isn’t spelt out clearly and the reader is left to make their own conclusions. No doubt this was the intention of the authors but the analysis is weaker because of it.

At other times sections of the book read like the minutes of various campaign or union branch meetings have been cut and pasted into the narrative. There is no problem with this but they appear without any source references. The amount of new material that is produced for the book is a real strength but the lack of references makes using it for other work far more difficult. This is a great pity as for the first time much reference material associated with the book is presented for the first time together.

As Gerry Kelly a participant in the dispute and one of the 'Birmingham Five’ comments in his review of the book:   “The authors of this book have done the labour movement a great service by telling the story of the strike and its aftermath, and have rescued from history a struggle that was part of a high watermark in the class struggles of 20th century Britain.”

Tom Machell

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