‘It was a victory for the trade union movement’

Unite retired member Terry Renshaw tells UniteLive how the Shrewsbury 24 campaign won their 47-year fight for justice

Reading time: 9 min

In 2021 the Court of Appeal overturned the 1970’s criminal convictions of 24 trade unionists — half a century after those convictions were first handed down. Unite retired member Terry Renshaw tells UniteLive how the Shrewsbury 24 campaign won their 47-year fight for justice.

On the 6th September 1972, pickets from North Wales travelled around building sites in Shropshire. It sparked a chain of events that changed the lives not only of those arrested but their families and friends.

UniteLive caught up with Unite retired member Terry Renshaw, one of the Shrewsbury 24 pickets and lifelong campaigner, to make a short film about his experience. His reflection on the events that led to the arrests and what has happened since remain relevant today, to both workplace pickets and other struggles such as the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.

Terry first became a trade union member of the Transport and General Workers Union in 1963 on his first day of work. In 1972 as a member of UCATT (which was made up of all the building trades, the bricklayers, the painters, the joiners, the scaffolders and the general workers) the first national builders’ strike was called.

“It wasn’t entirely for pay though the pay was not that good,” Terry said. “We campaigned on that and health and safety conditions on sites too. In those early seventies, on average, one person every day was killed on a building site. One a day. It’s worth thinking about that.”

The pickets also campaigned against ‘the lump’ — a practice commonly seen on non-unionised building sites where the employer would pay a lump sum and the workers’ rights were by-passed. Des Warren, an energetic trade unionist was often at the forefront of the builders’ campaign.

At the time, there was a wave of national strikes that provided some great wins for the trade union movement.At the beginning of 1972 in Birmingham 15,000 pickets protested outside a fuel storage depot which resulted in the police ordering the closing of the gates. It was a major victory for the miners now commonly referred to as ‘Saltley Gate’.

In July, five trade unionists were imprisoned, only to be released within a week following solidarity strikes, protests and a threatened general strike. The pickets from North Wales who travelled to Shrewsbury in September 1972 were not so lucky. At the first site a loaded shotgun was pointed at the pickets by the site’s agent. It was taken off him and given to the police. After this, the police escorted the pickets from site to site with outriders. Some police travelled on the bus with them.

“When we got on the sites, especially on the Brookside sites, I wasn’t feeling too well,” Terry noted. “I was taken by the lads who were working on the site into a cabin where they sat me down. They looked after me, I went out. I joined the platform with Des Warren, who was speaking.”

At the end of the day, Chief Superintendent Meredith of West Mercia police congratulated the pickets on a good day’s picketing, wishing them a good journey home. That should have been that; however as Terry recalls on 14th February 1973, it wasn’t.

“Five months later, our Valentine was a knock on the door from West Mercia Police,” he said. “They arrested 32 at the time, which was then reduced down to 24.”

The police were remarkably well informed. They had photos with the names of pickets marked on them. The police asked “if we knew them, of course we knew them. We’d been with them, but we didn’t know them intimately. The only person I really knew was Mac Jones [John McKinsie Jones]; we were in school together.”

Then the charges: Intimidation. Unlawful assembly. Affray.

“Obviously I pleaded not guilty,” Terry told UniteLive. “They broke it down into three trials. The first one was Warren and others versus the crown, and three went to jail. The second trial was Murray and others versus the Crown, three went to jail. The third trial was Renshaw and others versus the Crown. Des Warren was given three years. Mac Jones was claustrophobic, they sent him to jail. His wife was eight months pregnant.”

When Terry’s trial started, he was in hospital with a broken leg from an ice-skating accident. Even so, the judge ordered him to appear. Those around him tried to persuade Terry to plead guilty.

“I said it’s not right. I said I’m not guilty of anything. I wasn’t well, on the day. The workers on the site who were supposedly frightened were helping and looking after me. So how could I have been a threat to them?”

On the same day of his court case, Terry received another two charges of affray and unlawful assembly. While in the dock with his leg elevated after some to and fro, the judge had to drop some of the charges against Terry. On the date listed on his charge sheet, Terry was in hospital having an operation on his nose. As the jury considered the remaining charges, the judge had Terry’s crutches removed.

“The utter contempt that they [the court] had for us. I was found guilty of the unlawful assembly, I was found guilty of the affray and given a four-month sentence suspended for two years. In that final trial, no prison sentences at all.”

The campaign to release the pickets still in jail started. Terry reflects, “They spent longer in jail under the Labour Government than under the Tory Government. That was the sad part about it. But we fought for them to be released. They had an appeal early on.” It was turned down.  

In 2003 under the 30-year rule, the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign asked to see the papers from their trial. This request was rejected because, “Under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act, it would be a threat to the national security of the country for those papers to be released.”

Terry explains, “The Home Secretary was David Blunkett. David Blunkett was the first to sign those orders.”

Conservative Justice Secretary Kenneth Clark later signed a new order that the papers were to be kept until 2021. On the third rejection the campaign was understandably “a bit gutted”. But they kept going. With financial and solidarity support from trade unions and new evidence found by Eileen Turnbull, they won a judicial review. After more than four decades this evidence led to the withdrawal of the case by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and another review. On agreeing to the withdrawal, the judge directed the CCRC to come back with “the right decision”.

On the 23rd of March 2021, over a month after Terry and other members of the campaign had sat in the Court of Appeal in London once again listening to their barrister, his phone rang. “I’ll never forget the day Eileen phoned me up, she phoned me up, she said, we won. We took on the police, the British Secret Service. MI5 were involved. We’ve taken on the judiciary and the government, and we won.”

Asked what advice Terry would give other campaigns, he tells us, “The only thing I can say to Orgreave or any campaigners, if you believe in it, you keep fighting, you keep going. There’s always a chance you’ll win. You’ve got to keep the fight going.

“Organise yourselves, get the unions involved. Get all the campaign groups involved, work together. Speaking to groups of people about our campaign and the campaign for justice, people were very responsive. It was an attack on the trade union movement. Our victory was a victory for the trade union movement. We’ve got to celebrate it.”

This solidarity for the campaign reinforced Terry’s long held belief that the trade union is ‘family’. He joined the union at the age of 15 — that’s over 60 years of taking an active trade union role. His advice to members who are retiring and young people is: “To stay a retired member is to stay with that family that you’ve been in. Young people these days, when they leave school, the employer will be a member of an organisation — you should be a member of an organisation too. Play an active role, take part. Because the more you take part, the more you’ll enjoy it. Unless we’ve got that unity, we have nothing. And Unite is the name of our union. Unite!”

You can find out more about Unite and watch the film here:

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By Morag Livingstone, filmmaker and co-author of Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest (Verso, 2022)