Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson with Shrewsbuty picketers. Picture from TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University In 1972, building workers went on strike in the UK. This was against a backdrop of a huge amount of industrial unrest …
In 1972, building workers went on strike in the UK. This was against a backdrop of a huge amount of industrial unrest in Britain that year, with workers from many sectors going on strike.
Building workers were striking against low wages, and difficult and dangerous conditions. There is still an unacceptably high level of injury and death at work in the building trade; in 1972, before health and safety legislation, the situation was far worse.
The building strike was historic because it was the first large, well-organised strike by building workers. Building sites are temporary and geographically dispersed, and controlled by different employers and sub-contractors. Workers on the sites practice different trades, and at the time many were organised into separate craft unions. All these factors made organising very difficult.
Unions representing workers on building sites formed a National Joint Council, and agreed to submit a pay claim to the National Federation of Building Trades Employers for £30 per week and a basic 35-hour week for all trades.
The employers rejected these demands and a national strike was called in May 1972.
In an attempt to break the strike, there was a conspiracy between the construction companies, the police and the Conservative government, who concocted charges against the strike leaders. 24 strikers – the Shrewsbury 24 – were charged under the Conspiracy Act and six were jailed.
The Tories wanted to bury the story. Unfortunately for them, one of the strikers, Ricky Tomlinson, subsequently became a famous actor, and kept the campaign alive. Tomlinson is leading the campaign to have official documents relating to the dispute released.
The Government refuses, citing “national security”.
This is a 40-year old strike – after all this time, what is the Government hiding, apart from ongoing complicity with construction companies, who continue to blacklist union activists?
As Mark Steel points out, unless Ricky Tomlinson is working for Al-Qaeda, using national security as an excuse is ridiculous.
In September 1972, the unions agreed a settlement with the employers, leading to an immediate increase in basic rates of pay of £6 per week for craftsmen and £5 per week for labourers. This was the largest single pay increase ever negotiated in the building industry. One of the least well-organised groups of workers had taken on their employers and won.
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