SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 189 June 2015

The building bosses’ conspiracy

Blacklisted: the secret war between big business and union activists

By Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain

Published by New Internationalist, 2015, £9.99

Reviewed by Neil Cafferky

Imagine going into work one day to be told, with no explanation, your employment is at an end. After the initial shock wears off you pick yourself up and search for another job. You are reasonably confident. After all, you’ve worked in the industry for years. A new position comes up. You are rejected, again and again and again. With each rejection the initial confidence begins to recede. Is it me? What am I doing wrong?

Meanwhile, there has been no money coming into the household. The mortgage and utility bills still need paying. If you have kids, you can’t get them the things you were able to before. Your social life becomes more restricted. Your relationship with your partner becomes strained. Eventually, you are driven out of the industry you have spent most of your working life in.

In their superb book, Blacklisted, Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain detail how this nightmare became a reality for thousands of workers in the building industry and beyond. As Dave said at the book launch, Blacklisted provides the evidence that turned the blacklist from a conspiracy theory into a conspiracy by the construction industry and the state against trade unions.

The blacklist has long been part of trade union memory. However, the general impression was that it was something that existed in the past, as even Dave Smith admits at the start of the book. In a clear and detailed fashion, the authors show how the blacklist was very much a reality in the modern construction industry. It also shows how modern blacklisting is directly connected to the notorious blacklist practitioners of the past, the Economic League.

The Economic League began life in the 1920s to oppose trade unionism and target activists across British industry. Its activities eventually came to light and increasing controversy in the 1970s and 1980s caused it to disband in 1993. However, the Economic League’s construction arm, with the active support of construction industry bosses, carried on in the form of the Consulting Association.

A raid on the offices of the Consulting Association by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in 2009 was when the conspiracy really started to unravel. The data seized revealed that thousands of workers across the UK construction industry were on this illegal database. Construction firms paid a fee every time they consulted the database to see if a potential employee was on the list. Subscribers to the Consulting Association include giants like Skanska, Sir Robert McAlpine, Costain, Balfour Beatty and Carillion. To this day, these firms receive billions in public-sector infrastructure projects.

The fate of Frank Smith was typical of many in the construction industry deemed to be ‘troublemakers’ because of their trade union activity and/or their political beliefs. "I was in poverty – the only jobs I could get were working on crap little jobs… For me it just became harder to get onto any job where there was any decent run of work".

The Consulting Association database had even more disturbing revelations: the active collusion of the security forces. There was, for example, an extensive file on Steve Hedley, assistant general secretary of the RMT transport and maritime union. This went back to his involvement in the construction Joint Sites Committee in the early 1990s and his brief period as an official in the building union, UCATT. However, his file also details his political activities, such as his participation in the anti-fascist demonstration at the Cenotaph in 1999: "There was absolutely no way a building site manager would have known I was on that demonstration. It was nothing to do with work. It was not covered in the papers whatsoever".

Frank Smith’s partner at the time of his blacklisting also ended up on the Consulting Association backlist despite never having worked in the construction industry! Instead, her file focuses on her work in the anti-racist organisation Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE). The collusion of the security forces in the blacklist comes in the context of wider revelations about police infiltration of left-wing groups and campaigns, such as the YRE or the Stephen Lawrence family campaign for justice, following his racist murder in 1993. The revelations that police spies like Mark Jenner and Peter Francis spent years living double lives spying on political activists have sent shockwaves through Britain.

Jenner, in particular, worked on various building sites as part of his cover and had frequent contact with many of those blacklisted in the London area. Francis confirms in Blacklisted the close links between the police and construction industry bosses. This is backed up by evidence given to the authors by Dudley Barrett, a former industrial relations manager for Costain from 1982 to 1992. He would meet with Special Branch officers, "whenever I thought it was necessary or they thought it was necessary… A few of them became personal friends to be quite honest".

The book also makes it clear there was active collusion by some full-time trade union officials. Numerous entries in the workers’ files show how the information came via the unions. There is a very interesting section of the book that discusses the contrast between the ‘servicing’ and ‘organising’ model of trade union activity. It shows how co-opting a union is a key part of a blacklisting strategy. The authors show that while neither system is perfect, the ‘servicing’ model, which emphasises a close and harmonious working relationship between employers and trade unions, can often lead to officials taking the side of the employers against rank-and-file members in the name of maintaining good relations between the two organisations.

The book also contains a number of demands, such as for a proper public inquiry, and that trade unions should thoroughly clean house. It makes it clear that only constant vigilance by the trade unions and their members can keep workers safe – it would be very naive to think that a new Consulting Association is not already taking shape. A small criticism could be that the book missed the opportunity to popularise the idea that trade unions should demand to have some control of the hiring and firing policies of employers. This has long been a demand of workers internationally to guard against discriminatory hiring practices by employers. During the first Lindsey oil refinery strike in 2009 one of the key demands of the construction engineers was for "union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members".

Despite the shocking abuse of trade union activists presented in the book it would be wrong to think that it is a grim read. Far from it, in fact many parts of the book are inspirational. The main purpose of the blacklist is to isolate the activist from his or her workplace and workmates. The boss sees the blacklisted worker as a ‘troublemaker’ who spreads the ‘disease’ of collective organisation to improve conditions. As the isolation deepens, so does the despair. The blacklisted worker becomes an object lesson to other workers thinking of organising. In the bosses’ perfect world, the workers remain isolated and fearful, helpless against longer hours, unsafe conditions and lower pay.

Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain’s book is also the story of those who refused to be broken and isolated. It is the story of workers who fought back with the basic weapons of our movement: collective organisation and solidarity. After reading it, any worker would come away with huge respect for the Blacklist Support Group. It was the determination of these workers and their allies that dragged this scandal into the light of day. Now that it has been exposed, the bosses have suffered a serious setback. The central message is that when workers are isolated they are weak but, no matter how bad a situation is, it can be retrieved if workers are prepared to come together and speak out. For that reason, Blacklisted is essential reading for all workers.

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