Lisa Worth from Nerve has written a retrospective feature on the strike at Cammell Lairds in 1984, in which she interviewed Eddie Marnell, a shop steward at that time, who is still campaigning for justice.
Eddie Marnell joined Cammell Lairds in 1964 as a 16-year-old apprentice shipwright. But since 1985 he’s been fighting for justice.
Eddie said: “In the early years Cammell Lairds was a good firm. A family business and a happy place to work, and it offered a brilliant apprenticeship. There were over seven thousand workers then.”
What he didn’t anticipate was that years later, he would spend a month in a Category A prison for protesting against creeping privatisation and redundancies.
1980’s Britain was febrile, with riots in Toxteth, Brixton and the miner’s strike characterising the era of Thatcherism.
By 1983 Eddie was a shop steward attending a routine meeting of the CSEU (Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Union) in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, when by chance he heard a local MP on the hotel TV.
Eddie said: “We still hadn’t been told anything officially, but this MP was saying that the jewels of British shipbuilders were to be sold off. We were shocked.”
Eddie put the claim to the CSEU and British Shipbuilders, and together with government representatives they refuted it.
The CSEU went further, saying that if any single workforce was threatened then the whole industry would take unified action.
Eddie commented: “Now it reminded me of Neville Chamberlain waving that bit of white paper – peace for our times – then all hell letting loose.”
In February 1984 a contact alerted Eddie to an article in Hansard stating that Liverpool would benefit from millions of euros in aid when shipyards closed. Eddie was told that the Liverpool shipyard in question was not Lairds!
By May just under a thousand redundancies were already announced. Hundreds of men downed their tools, fearful that the end of Cammell Lairds was imminent taking Birkenhead’s economic and social health with it. They were threatened with the sack.
Eddie remarked: “There was a lot of fear. ‘Dole-for-life’ was a very real prospect, and they had families, car loans, mortgages. The sons of boilermakers passed their fathers on the picket line, because they were terrified of the alternative. It was a bad time.”
By August 1984, just 37 men remained on the partly built gas rig that the strikers occupied, but as their numbers decreased the pressure put on them increased. Their wives received letters warning of prison sentences for the men if the strike continued.
Oil drums were banged through the night to destroy the men’s sleep, and water and electricity were cut off.
The atmosphere was surreal, because the men still came in and out of the yard to attend meetings, collect food parcels and supplies. Unchallenged by the girdle of police with whom, by now, they were almost on first name terms with. So, when the writ was posted in September charging them “in absentia” with trespassing, it made little sense.
This was the result of an antiquated law originating from the monks of Birkenhead Priory hundreds of years before and unearthed by Geoffrey Howe.
Still undeterred, the men nonetheless knew that the end was coming, confirmed by the unannounced appearance of a smartly dressed and very out of place man. His message was worrying.
Eddie explained: “Nobody knew who he was and he didn’t introduce himself. Just said ‘I have orders to take this rig and some of my men may be hurt but then again, so may some of yours.’
This followed previous suspicious activity, when men, who looked like military personnel, poured out of mini-buses and proceeded to practise scaling the ship walls. The strikers had no desire for bloodshed on either side, and a collective decision was made to end the protest.
Handcuffed to police officers, each of the men were transported to HMP Walton, where they spent the next month.
His humour still intact, Eddie said: “To tell you the truth the prospect of a decent night’s sleep was my first thought. We were all really tired.”
Eddie still feels that it was all worth it. He said: “We knew half way through that it wasn’t about us anymore, there was nothing for us to go back to. But we wanted to try and make a stand, for shipbuilders and other trades. And I do believe that in the December of 1983, if the whole industry had stood together, it would have been sorted there and then.”
But still the Government refuses to release official papers relating to this remarkable event in British industrial relations. Politician,s as recently as 2017, among them Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey, have raised it in the House of Commons.
But her request for a proper public enquiry into this miscarriage of justice, and the severity of the punishment these men endured, has been ignored. The Labour party even included it as part of their manifesto, promising a thorough investigation if they were elected.
Eddie believes that the Cammell Lairds 37 were used by the Thatcher government as a warning, to the miners and any organisation that posed a challenge. Certainly, the contempt that the government of the time held for the region was no secret.
But while many of his colleagues have died, Eddie’s fight continues. He said: “I want a pardon, for all of us skilled men who just fought for our rights. Men stripped of pensions and redundancy just because they stood up for themselves. Men like Tommy Webb, who served on the Atlantic Convoy during WW II. Honest, hard- working men who deserved better. And I will go on, for as long as I can.”