James B reviews United We Stand, a new play currently touring with Townsend Productions, which tells the story of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, the 1972 construction strike and the Shrewsbury Pickets
Casualisation, self-employment and agency work are all features of many people’s working lives today. In the summer of 1972 similar conditions were rife in the building industry, where they were known colloquially as ‘The Lump’. Taken to an intolerable extreme, these conditions led to the first nationwide building workers’ strike. Rank and file groups across the country organised around the Building Workers’ Charter, which include the demand for £1 per hour, a 35-hour working week, paid holiday, enforcement of safety regulations and union rights. The strike was mobilised by the use of ‘flying pickets’, groups of strikers who travelled to geographically isolated building sites where work had not stopped to attempt to convince the workers, many of whom were ‘on The Lump’, why they should down tools.
The strike ended on 15 September 1972 in victory for the building workers. They won the biggest pay rise ever recorded in the industry. In the wake of the strike the employers – including many firms whose names are familiar to us today – sought to exact revenge on the strikers and their unions. In this they were aided and abetted by the courts, police and the Tory government of the time, which was smarting from the recent successful strikes by the highly organised miners and dockers.
‘United We Stand’, produced by Louise Townsend and written by Neil Gore, is the story of how this vengeance was wrought upon a group of building workers from north Wales and the Chester area, where union organisation was relatively weak, in what became known as the case of the Shrewsbury Pickets.
The two actors Neil Gore and William Fox take on multiple roles, often in the same scene, but primarily they depict the two pickets Eric (Ricky) Tomlinson – now a well-known actor – and Dennis Warren. Alongside John McKinsie Jones these men were painted by the authorities as the ringleaders of a marauding band of pickets who terrorised workers across a number of building sites around Shrewsbury on 6 September 1972. The following year charges of unlawful assembly, affray and, most seriously, conspiracy, were brought against them, despite the fact that on the day in question the police were present at all but one of the sites and that no arrests had been made. To the contrary Eric Tomlinson had been congratulated on the pickets’ conduct. In total 24 pickets were charged with various offences relating to that day.
The play skilfully integrates song, puppetry and projected visuals to provide the audience with a context for the main action, which is the formation of the strike committee and the repercussions after the strike’s successful conclusion. The wisecracking Tomlinson contrasts with the passionate, politically savvy Warren. Other, often comedic, characters are drawn in to portray a committed but rather ramshackle organisation, as far from a conspiracy as can be imagined.
In the best tradition of political theatre the audience is incorporated into the performance. By turns the audience is addressed as a group of strikers pleaded with by a conciliatory union bureaucrat, as workers ‘on The Lump’ and as the jury in the Shrewsbury trial. The mid-twentieth century German playwright Bertolt Brecht advocated a style of theatre that does not seek to convince the audience that they are watching a reenactment. His techniques were highly influential on radical theatre in particular and helped to break down the barrier between performers and audience. In ‘United We Stand’ there is no attempt to disguise the overhead projector that forms part of the minimal multi-purpose set. The actors rearrange the set between scenes. The songs are interludes rather than forming a part of the narrative, giving the mood of a revue at times.
The tempo changes in the middle section in which the ‘Big Conspiracy’ – the alliance of construction barons, Tory ministers and judges – is explained through puppetry and some viciously funny lampooning. Neil Fox’s portrayal of then Home Secretary Robert Carr manages to be both comic and sinister. The cosy relationship between the employers and the Establishment is brought out in an hilarious scene where a hapless contestant on a gaudy quiz show wins the grand prize by giving the same answer nine times in a row.
The final portion of the play recounts the trial at which the partisan judge, struggling to justify the charges, ruled that a criminal conspiracy could be instigated with ‘a nod or a wink’. Warren was sent down for three years and Tomlinson for two. Fox’s performance as Warren is particularly poignant as he delivers a powerful speech from the dock denouncing the political nature of the trial.
Both men refused to conform to the prison regime and Warren was particularly badly treated. He was administered the ‘liquid cosh’, a cocktail of drugs given to ‘unmanageable’ inmates, that is likely to have contributed to his chronic ill health later in life and premature death. Many of those convicted were blacklisted from the construction industry. Ironically in Tomlinson’s case this forced him to pursue a career as a performer. He continues to campaign for justice for all those convicted in the trials.
I would recommend this play to all trade unionists and activists both for its content – it brings to light a relatively little known episode of labour history and an ongoing miscarriage of justice – and its innovative presentation.
2015 may be a significant year for the Shrewsbury pickets’ campaign. The Labour Party has agreed to release all papers related to the case – suppressed by successive governments as a national security issue – if it wins the upcoming general election. Extensive research done by the campaign led to an application to the Criminal Cases Review Committee (CCRC) to have the pickets’ convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal. The CCRC’s ruling is eagerly expected.
Future tour dates can be found at http://www.townsendproductions.org.uk/tour-dates