Des Warren

'Shrewsbury Picket' jailed for three years

After the end of the 1972 national building workers' strike, the
Daily Mirror reported: "Police chiefs have sent an élite corps of detectives to smash an army of pickets." The officers spent 10 weeks scouring North Wales and the Chester area for evidence. They carried with them sets of photographs with certain faces ringed in ink. One of the faces was that of Des Warren

Des Warren, steel fixer and trade unionist: born Chester 1937; twice married (five children); died Chester 24 April 2004.

After the end of the 1972 national building workers' strike, the Daily Mirror reported: "Police chiefs have sent an élite corps of detectives to smash an army of pickets." The officers, from Merseyside, West Mercia and several other forces, set up a headquarters in Prestatyn and spent 10 weeks scouring North Wales and the Chester area for evidence. They carried with them sets of photographs with certain faces ringed in ink. One of the faces was that of Des Warren.

Warren, then 35, had been a local leader of the 12-week strike which had begun in June that year. The official national stoppage, in an industry notoriously difficult for unions to organise effectively, took employers by surprise. Tens of thousands walked out around Britain, and flying pickets had set about widening the dispute. It was a torrid summer for the Tory government. The miners had already inflicted a defeat over pay and the Government had then been forced, in the face of mass protest, to release five dockers held in Pentonville prison.

In October 1972, Robert Carr, the Home Secretary, told the Commons he was writing to chief constables calling for action against pickets. Carr was responding to a dossier from the National Federation of Building Trades Employers alleging violence. A Financial Times article commented:

Many of the incidents listed seem to be little more than the ordinary spontaneous behaviour that might be expected on any building site. The publication reads more like a politically motivated pamphlet than a serious study.

But it was enough for ministers and the police.

The detectives in Prestatyn interviewed more than 800 people. "Have you heard of Des Warren?" was a frequent question. Warren was arrested with five others in police raids in February 1973. One of these others was Ricky Tomlinson, then a building worker and now a successful actor.

Specific charges alleging intimidation and affray were dropped and the Conspiracy Act was used against them at their trial, centring on a flying picket sent to Shrewsbury during the strike. They pleaded not guilty, but Tomlinson was sentenced to two years' jail, and Warren to three years.

In fact, the only wicked thing about Des Warren was his sense of humour and love of a practical joke. That is why he and the Liverpudlian Tomlinson got on so well. Warren was certainly committed as a trade-union activist and had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the national strike, which demanded a minimum wage of £1 an hour, an end to the industry's appalling safety record, and an end to "the Lump", a system rife on non-union building sites where workers were paid a lump sum for work done, with no tax or insurance deductions, and no employment rights.

For his National Service in the Fifties, Warren had joined the Royal Horse Artillery - a source of hilarious stories later, including one, complete with demonstration, about how they were forced to drill as if wearing spurs. Back in civvy street, Warren became a steel fixer, placing steel for concrete reinforcement.

In the Sixties, he started work at the Barbican, a massive City of London site, which was already a battleground for a successive series of long and bitter disputes between contractors and workers. With no money for lodgings, Warren later recalled, he slept for the first three weeks in a cabin where workers kept their boots overnight. Eventually, he was elected a union shop steward - after that followed the sack, and his name being added to a national employers' blacklist. Regular work back home in the Chester and North Wales area became scarce after that.

At the end of the trial, before sentencing, Warren spoke from the dock. In the face of interruptions from the judge, he said:

The conspiracy was between the Government, the employers and the police. When was the decision taken to proceed? What instructions were issued to the police, and by whom? There was your conspiracy.

After a failed appeal to the High Court, Warren and Tomlinson continued their sentences in 14 different jails, encountering squalid conditions and hostility from prison staff in most of them. As part of their campaign to prove their innocence, both men wore only blankets for long periods, rather than prison uniform, and refused to do prison work. Hunger strikes were also tried. Warren, in particular, was singled out for punishment, with many months of solitary confinement and cuts in visits from his first wife, Elsa, and their children.

Symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease developed. Warren laid the blame squarely on the "liquid cosh", the tranquillising drugs administered to difficult prisoners like him. Outside, Elsa and others campaigned tirelessly at demonstrations held in London, Manchester and Glasgow. Lancashire building workers marched from Liverpool to London for the release of the "Shrewsbury Pickets".

But the TUC said it did not want to "rock the boat" now that a new Labour government had came to power in 1974. Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, refused calls for their release. Warren served all but four months of his three-year sentence. He wrote a book, The Key to My Cell (1982), and continued to campaign on trade-union issues. But his illness became worse and, more and more, needed the devoted care of his second wife, Pat.

The Durham NUM Mechanics were particularly staunch supporters in his later years. Last year, Des Warren attended a Merseyside conference of the National Construction Safety Campaign to be given the Robert Tressell Award. He was in a wheelchair, but people there knew they were still in the presence of a fighter.

Chris Corrigan

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