Des Warren was one half of the Shrewsbury Two, the pair of flying pickets of 1972 who were jailed after one of the tumultuous industrial battles that defined the era of Edward Heath’s Conservative government of 1970-74. Imprisoned alongside Ricky Tomlinson, the former building worker turned actor, Warren maintained for three decades that he was the victim of a political conspiracy.
Born on October 10 1937, in Boughton, Chester, Warren was the eldest of three children of a working class family. He left school at 15 to train as a chef in the city’s rather grand Grosvenor hotel, before doing national service in the Royal Horse Artillery. Later, he joined the construction industry as a steel fixer and travelled around Britain from site to site. He joined the Communist Party sometime in the 1960s, possible when he worked on the City of London’s Barbican development in 1969-70, the scene of numerous strikes. Elected as a shop steward, he was swiftly sacked. He returned to Chester and worked on and off, mostly under assumed names, until the 1972 national building strike projected him into the limelight.
The official strike demanded a minimum wage of £1 an hour and an end to the cash payment system known as "the lump", with better employment rights and an improvement in the industry’s appalling safety record a backcloth to the larger picture. Warren was an energetic strike leader, forever organising pickets and addressing meetings.
Under pressure from the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, which published a dossier alleging intimidation and violence by pickets, the government decided to take a stand, despite claims the incidents were exaggerated. Whilst a national settlement had been achived, for 12 weeks that summer, flying pickets had halted work on hundreds of building sites up and down the country, workplaces normally notoriously difficult for trade unions to organise.
The Home Secretary, Robert Carr, told the House of Commons in October 1972 that he was demanding action from chief constables against flying pickets. Officers from several police forces were based in Prestatyn, to fan out across north Wales and north-west England seeking evidence against ringleaders in the dispute. Among the faces picked upon in photographs shown to 800 people were those of Warren and Tomlinson. The pair were among six people arrested one morning in February 1973.
Initial intimidation and affray charges were dropped, and the two pleaded not guilty that October to offences under the 1875 Conspiracy And Protection Of Property Act, relating to a flying picket sent to Shrewsbury. At one site meeting during the strike, Warren, complaining about poor conditions, had said the site buildings were not fit for burning. During the trial, he was accused of inciting arson. From the dock, after the jury returned guilty verdicts, he declared: "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."
Warren was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and Tomlinson to two. An appeal failed and both wore only blankets in protest, refused to do prison work and tried hunger strikes. Demonstrations were held outside the jail and building workers marched from Liverpool to London demanding the release of the Shrewsbury Two. The TUC, however, offered only lukewarm support, in order to avoid a confrontation with Harold Wilson’s Labour government, which had by now been elected in February 1974. The new home secretary, Roy Jenkins, point blank refused a General Council request to set the two men free.
In jail, Warren fell out temporarily with Tomlinson, who had dropped a `dirty’ protest and, more significantly, permanently with Bert Ramelson, National Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party, who – seeking to maximise General Council support for the two imprisoned men – had advised co-operation of a sort inside the prison so as not to give the trade union right wing excuses to downplay protests to Jenkins. Warren found only the Workers Revolutionary Party calling for a General Strike and denouncing the TUC leadership and promptly transferred his allegiances to them.
Punished with solitary confinement and blocked visits from his family, Warren served all except four months of his three-year sentence. He developed symptoms similar to the Parkinson’s disease that confined him to a wheelchair for the final five years of his life and blamed the onset of his ill-health on the tranquilliser drugs administered to awkward prisoners. After his release from jail, he was blacklisted and suffered debilitating ill-health, seemingly turning to religion in his last days.
Trades unionists in UCATT – led by Communists – continued to provide material sustenance to Warren in his declining years, in recognition of the sacrifices he had made and the injustices he had received. ‘Dezzie’ Warren died on April 24th 2004, aged 66.
Guardian May 1st 2004 and other sources.