- Created: Thursday, 03 December 2015 11:34
- Written by Steve Clayton
In November, at the Bussey Building in Peckham, south-east London, the play United We Stand by Neil Gore was produced, directed by Louise Townsend. The cast of writer Neil Gore and William Fox take on multiple roles, but primarily they portray the Shrewsbury pickets Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren during the 1972 builders strike. It is performed on a set of scaffolding bars which is adorned by strike posters. A projector shows footage of Tory prime minister Edward Heath, the 1972 Miners' strike, and working class resistance against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. Heath's term in office was a fiasco for the capitalist class; a seven-week Miners' strike in January-February 1972 was a victory for the NUM, and in July 1972 the Pentonville 5 were imprisoned for defying the Industrial Relations Act which was followed by a near-general strike.
In the early 1970s building workers faced dangerous working conditions, and poor wages. Warren says 'life and limb are cheap on the building sites'. Between 1970-73 there were 242,000 registered industrial injuries but the highest fine paid by an employer was £300 for two deaths. In 1972 'casualisation' was rife in the building industry, where it was known as 'the Lump.' The Lump Labour Scheme institutionalised casual cash-paid daily labour without any employment rights. Building workers were a dispersed force, little unified because of the diverse and transitory nature of their trades, unionisation was weak, and thus they were a section of the working class generally ignored by the labour aristocracy who controlled the trade union movement.
Although unions under capitalism serve as a police force taming outbreaks of working class indiscipline, they were unable to halt the first nationwide building workers' strike in the summer of 1972 which lasted 12 weeks and involved 300,000 workers. Rank and file workers in unions UCATT, and TGWU across the country organised around the Building Workers' Charter, which demanded £1 per hour, a 35-hour working week, holiday pay, enforcement of health and safety regulations, union rights, and abolition of the Lump. In United We Stand we see clearly that the building workers are more militant than the trade union leadership. Ricky and Des express belief in 'solidarity and workers' rights' while one picket speaks of 'smashing capitalism'.
The building workers' borrowed from the successful Miners' strike of 1972 the tactic of 'flying pickets', bussing strikers to building sites where work had not stopped, to attempt to convince the workers, many 'on the Lump', to down tools. United We Stand is concerned with the picket of building sites in Shrewsbury on 6 September to seek support from workers 'on the Lump.' Tomlinson, a plasterer, and Warren, a steel fixer, organised the pickets. No picket was arrested on that day. The strike ended on 15 September in a victory for the building workers, winning an unprecedented pay rise in the construction industry but still left them at the bottom of the pay heap. The strike failed, however, to end 'the Lump.'
The first half of United We Stand ends with a 15-minute long satire called the 'Big Conspiracy' which details the alliance of building employers such as McAlpine with the Tory government, the media, the police, and judiciary to punish the building workers who had been on strike. In 1973 charges of unlawful assembly, affray, intimidation and conspiracy were brought against 24 Shrewsbury pickets including Tomlinson and Warren for events on 6 September. None of the pickets had been cautioned or arrested during the strike and on the day in question 70 police had accompanied the pickets on the Shrewsbury building sites.
The second half of United We Stand focuses on the trial of Tomlinson and Warren at Shrewsbury Crown Court in 1973. In all 24 building workers were convicted and six jailed. Tomlinson and Warren were found guilty of 'conspiracy to intimidate', and sentenced to two and three years imprisonment respectively.
In prison Tomlinson recalled 'we were told we were two of six political prisoners at the time. Two of the others may have been the Price sisters (jailed for an IRA bombing). We did not wear prison clothes, did not get visitors, and were kept in segregation.' Warren was particularly badly treated by prison officers, administered the 'liquid cosh' which is likely to have contributed to his chronic ill health later in life and premature death. After his release Tomlinson took the case of the Shrewsbury 24 to the 1975 TUC annual conference but was prevented from speaking on the stage.
United We Stand is serio-comic Brechtian agitprop, the audience is incorporated into the performance, the 'fourth wall' is fully dismantled, and it uses Brecht's alienation effect. There is a link between United We Stand and the Liverpool Everyman Theatre whose 1972 production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle was adapted to a company of actors who arrive at a Liverpool building site where the workers have occupied the site (when one of them falls from scaffolding) in protest at the prevailing working conditions. Alan Dossor recalled 'a copy of the Industrial Relations Act was burnt in a cement mixer, and the audience stood up because they wanted to see it burn.' (Margaret Eddershaw, Performing Brecht)