Veteran actor Ricky Tomlinson – star of Royle Family, Brookside etc – has been engaged in a 47-year fight for justice alongside fellow trade unionists after being jailed in relation to their role during the 1972 builders strike. Today, the Court of Appeal will finally look at the convictions of the so called Shrewsbury 24 and, they hope, right a miscarriage of justice. In the latest episode of the Justice Gap podcast, Ricky Tomlinson talks to Calum McCrae.
‘We were on trial for going on strike. That wouldn’t have happened in Rfussia but it happened in North Wales,’ Ricky Tomlinson says. ‘The cases against us had nothing to do with the building industry. It was to do with the miners.’
The men had been picketing sites in Shrewsbury and ended up being charged under arcane legislation, the Conspiracy Act 1875, for offences relating to intimidation and damage during the first nationwide industrial action by the building trade. It was a fraught time of growing trade union militancy and the government was increasingly panicky when Tomlinson and his fellow activists took part in the first ever national building workers’ strike to secure better wages and safety regimes.
‘People don’t realise now but building sites at that time were the killing fields,’ Tomlinson told the Justice Gap. ‘Someone died every working day.’ He recalls that the death rate in the industry was the equal to that of the mining and farming industries taken together. ‘But it wasn’t just people dying,’ he says. ‘They were being injured in their tens of thousands and the injuries were so bad.’
The surviving members of the Shrewsbury 24 have support from the trade union movement. ‘The deep injustices perpetrated against working people by the state, including the Shrewsbury pickets, have been, quite simply, criminal,’ Unite general secretary Len McCluskey told the Morning Star. ‘I’ve been so proud of all Unite has done throughout the nearly 50 years of the campaign to support the 24 in their fight for justice. Today, the truth must be heard.’ RMT general secretary Mick Cash said it was ‘time that this scandalous episode in British post-war history was brought to a conclusion that rights this wrong once and for all’.
Ricky Tomlinson tells Calum McCrae how acting was never his career choice but he was forced into it because he was a victim of ‘blacklisting’. He could not find a job in construction. The lives of many of his activist friends and their families were devasted after being identified by troublemakers.
Tomlinson and his friend Des Warren received two and three years respectively. He spent 16 months in prison and his friend served two years and eight months. The actor blames his friend’s early death in 2004 from Parkinson’s Disease on the cocktail of tranquillisers administered to prisoners at the time. The men always insisted that they were framed by the Heath government to send out a message of zero tolerance to other union activists who might be planning to bring the country to a grinding halt.
Listen to other episodes in the Justice Gap podcast here