Sheffield play tells of workers’ battle for decent conditions

Ricky Tomlinson addressing other building workers during the dispute that led to him being jailed as one of the Shrewsbury 24
Ricky Tomlinson addressing other building workers during the dispute that led to him being jailed as one of the Shrewsbury 24
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A play that looks back at 1970s strike action in the building industry that was repressed by the Government and courts, landing the actor Ricky Tomlinson and other workers in prison, is coming to Sheffield next week.

United we Stand is based on the story of Shrewsbury 24, a group of building workers who were accused of violent picketing and intimidating workers in Shropshire in 1973. Three of the 24 accused, Ricky Tomlinson, later a star of The Royle Family, Des Warren and John McKinsie Jones, were jailed.

L-R Neil Gore and William Fox in United We Stand at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield

L-R Neil Gore and William Fox in United We Stand at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield

Director and actor Neil Gore of Townsend Theatre Company said that the play is seeking to dispel the myth that the strikers were criminally violent, rather than ordinary working men seeking a better life for themselves and their fellow workers.

He said the play looks at evidence that the Government, judiciary and big building firms collaborated to discredit the strikes through the courts, three months after the dispute ended.

He said: “It was very shocking and the idea was to shock people out of their trade union activity. It worked because the numbers joining builders’ union UCATT dropped phenomenally at the end of the trial.”

“The background is the strike and the reasons they went on strike,” added Neil. “Conditions in the building industry were appalling. Hundreds lost their lives every year and thousands were injured. There was no proper compensation and £100 was the most they paid for a death to a family.”

L-R Neil Gore and William Fox in United We Stand at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield

L-R Neil Gore and William Fox in United We Stand at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield

Neil said that a lot of the workers, even for big companies like McAlpine and Wimpey, were lumpers, who sub-contracted for a lump sum, which undermined any union’s ability to negotiate terms and conditions.

He said: “The lumpers weren’t always properly skilled workers, either. Health and safety was pretty much non-existent on these sites as well, which was all wrapped up in these issues.”

A rank and file trade union movement grew up to tackle the issues which led to the strike. Flying pickets toured sites, including one in Shrewsbury, that were still working to persuade builders to join the action.

Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were portrayed in the media at the time as dangerous left-wing agitators, which Neil said was not the case.

The play tackles the issues through music and humour and uses some original agitprop theatre of the 1970s written about the strike in the play. Some of the songs were written by the folk singer Ewan MacColl.

Neil said: “As a rule we choose this style of performance as the best way to get the story and the message across. We want it to be truly accessible theatre.

“It’s a great night out at the theatre which looks at something extremely difficult and depressing. We’re able to handle it in a way that is palatable and fun.”

Neil said that the company is supporting a campaign to get the sentences of the Shrewsbury 24 quashed. The Court of Appeal has had the evidence for two years but the case has yet to be referred back.

Many of the men never worked again in the industry as they were blacklisted and families were torn apart by the stress.

He said: “The campaigners are confident they will get these sentences quashed on appeal.

“The Government are refusing to release papers surrounding case. The Labour Party have promised to release the papers if they get into power. They are being withheld on the grounds of national security. Can you believe that being applied to building workers!”

United We Stand is at the Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge next Wednesday to Saturday. Box office: 0114 255 1776 or http://lanterntheatre.org.uk/