Dave Smith & Phil Chamberlain: BLACKLISTED – The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists

April 2015 Book of the month.

“Our collective resilience will defeat blacklisting. Victims of blacklisting are heroes to our movement and together we will ensure the establishment is exposed for covering up this blight on society. This book is part of the collective campaign to win justice.” Gail Cartmel : Unite Assistant General Secretary.

When four investigators from the Information Commissioner’s Office knocked on the door of The Consulting Association (TCA) in February 2009 they were helping to confirm what many building workers already knew but could not prove; namely that the major construction companies were operating a blacklist that condemned those on it to unemployment, sometimes permanently.

3,213 names were found entered on a card system. When some of the biggest names in the business were recruiting for staff between 1993 and 2009 they paid money to the TCA to check on those who were seeking work. Available jobs went to those not listed.

The listed victims ‘crimes’ were to be active trade unionists, salt-of-the-earth individuals willing to be elected by their fellow workers to represent them with management. Very often, the number one issue they raised was health and safety. In an industry that kills more workers than any other then who came blame them for coming forward? All statistics show that a trade union organised workplace is the safest.

There are undoubtedly workers alive today who would be 6’ under if it had not been for the courage of those who were subsequently blacklisted because their files contained entries such as ‘elected safety rep on site’ and ‘spoke at TUC conference on health and safety.’

Senior Human Relations (HR) managers at major construction companies had provided much of this information to the TCA, whose head man, Ian Kerr, who had previously worked for the Economic League blacklisting organisation that spied on all trade unionists until it was forced to close in 1993, also collected his own information on activists by attending rank and file meetings and scouring trade union journals, newsletters and socialist magazines. Special branch; particularly its elite undercover unit, the Special Demonstration Squad, passed on information from picket lines and events they attended when their targets, such as the author of this piece, were present.

Now that these shameful and immoral, but sadly not illegal, practices have been revealed you’d perhaps expect those who had been caught to come clean, admit their guilt, repair the damage by, at the very least, paying compensation and ensuring nothing like this occurred again? Not likely!

When the victimised started taking their cases to Employment Tribunals, lawyers for the employers immediately raised a number of issues including that any claim needs to be submitted within three months of the date of the incident being complained about. Yet some of the incidents had happened fifteen to twenty years ago. On reaching court, the cases were thrown out with only three, all represented by Unite, being successful.

One of the book’s author’s, Dave Smith, overcame the time limit and Carillion even admitted they had blacklisted him. He still lost because he had never been directly employed by Carillion but by an employment agency. These have been established by the construction sector in order to force workers to become self-employed with all the subsequent loss of employment rights. Smith, who is no longer able to work in the building trade, is now aiming to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, Ian Kerr revealed to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee that started taking evidence on 22 May 2012 that McAlpine, Balfour Beatty ‘and possibly Skanksa’ had used his organisation for their 2012 Olympic contracts. TCA had been established after Sir Robert McAlpine paid £10,000 to two of the Economic League’s directors for a list of names. Kerr’s fine for breaching data protection regulations was even paid by McAlpine’s.

The committee reported on 14 March 2014 and recommended that unless firms implicated in blacklisting could demonstrate they had changed then they should be disqualified from publicly funded work. This recommendation has subsequently been implemented by a number of local councils with the London Borough of Islington even throwing blacklisting firm Kier off a major repairs contract and agreeing to directly employ all 140 former Kier employees.

The construction companies have though still been blacklisting people. As owner of Electrical Installations Services Ltd (EIS), Ron Turner, in the summer of 2012, was plant manager for all the tunnelling activities on two Crossrail tunnels from Royal Oak through Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road.

Fair minded Turner was happy to employ Frank Morris on running temporary electrics in the tunnels even after a manager of the overall site contractors – a consortium of BAM, Ferrovial and Kier (BFK) – asked him why he was employing a union activist. Intimidation then followed when Pat Swift, the HR manager for BFK raised the issue and then in September 2012, BFK terminated their EIS contract with one week’s notice. 28 workers were out of work and Turner’s company, after 12 years’ trading, was liquidated by HMRC.

Aware that BFK had been out to get him, Morris had sought to protect his position by formalising a trade union role and when the rest of the workers joined Unite they elected him as their shop steward. When he and the rest of the EIS workers found themselves out of work, Morris was supported by the Blacklist Support Group that was formed in 2009 by workers who suspected they had been blacklisted. New flashmob picketing tactics saw hundreds of building workers emerge out of nowhere to blockade main roads outside Crossrail sites and cause traffic chaos that prevented movement in and out of the site.

In March 2013, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey then agreed to throw the full weight of the union into getting Frank Morris reinstated on Crossrail. Bam, Ferrovial and Kier were targeted anywhere they had contracts. The BBC Panorama programme Blacklist Britain highlighted Morris’s case as proof that, despite the closure of TCA, blacklisting was continuing in Britain. Unite then worked with the UFCW Canada and United Steelworkers unions in organising a series of protests on the Highway 407 Express Toll Route operated in Canada by Ferrovial. Meetings were held with Dick Durbin, a US senator with close links to President Obama.

After a full year in dispute, Morris, in September 2013, was offered a post on the Cross-rail project and he accepted it after getting the consent of the Blacklist Support Group. In December 2013, Pat Swift finally admitted he had asked Turner to sack Frank Morris.

Such a success is worth celebrating but there remains much to be done.

The TUC has demanded that companies OWN UP, CLEAN UP AND PAY UP. Yet when eight of the main firms involved in blacklisting did finally propose late last year a compensation scheme the sums on offer – between £4,000 and £20,000 – were pitiful. Particularly when these firms have a combined annual turnover of £34 billion. Little wonder the group litigation that is being undertaken by some of those who have been blacklisted is continuing with the first 131 claimants in it having a combined estimated loss of over £14 million in lost wages and benefits.

Meanwhile, the blacklisting companies are not yet ready to admit their guilt. Not one has managed to find a single copy of any minutes from the regular TCA meetings they attended.

Consequently, blacklisted workers believe it is only through a full public inquiry that the real truth can expect to emerge. This is now national policy for the TUC and every major union. Len McCluskey has drawn comparison with the phone hacking scandal but noted blacklisting has hit ordinary working class people. Perhaps that is why Prime Minister David Cameron has said he is opposed to a public inquiry especially as Sir Robert McAlpine has been a regular donor to the Tories. Good therefore to see that Ed Miliband has promised an inquiry if Labour win the May general election.

This easy to read book is highly recommended for all UNITE members and their families. Getting it out has not been easy as surprise, surprise, the building employers have contested its contents! Smith and journalist Chamberlain are to be applauded for putting so strongly and coherently the cases of the blacklisted workers whose absence from the workplace also acts as a deterrent to other building workers to come forward
and become workplace reps.

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Get the book from for £9.99 from New Internationalist.