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Blacklisted – the secret war against trade unionists

blacklisted_fcThe new book Blacklisted by victimized trade unionist, Dave Smith, and investigative journalist, Phil Chamberlain, is an extraordinary achievement, both documenting in detail the sordid conspiracy by powerful corporations to deny ordinary working people the ability to earn a living; but also in giving those victims a voice: telling their own stories. The tales of skilled trades people, who even in the middle of a building boom, were unable to work, sometimes leading to them losing their homes, putting strain upon relationships, and deterioration of health.

As someone who has been around the activist left, and trade unions, for many years, I had always been aware of the folklore of blacklisting, which explained why some of our friends and comrades were struggling to find work. The Economic League closed down in 1993, following an investigation by the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment, and resulting exposure.

Smith and Chamberlain document how the Consulting Association arose as a Phoenix operation out of the ashes of the Economic League, as its Services Group which dealt with the construction sector, decided to continue a secretive existence as an unincorporated trade association, maintaining an unlawful database.

Entries onto the database accumulated information from a variety of sources, not only the employers, but also from newspaper clippings, and gossip. Alarmingly, there is evidence of information from the police and security services, and some of the evidence is linked to trade union officials, although the circumstances are not fully known.

An example of the type of entry would be Syd Scroggie, a war hero, blinded and left with just one leg after stepping on a landmine during the liberation of Italy, and who remarkably overcame these obstacles to climb Mount Everest. He was placed on the blacklist for writing a letter to a newspaper supporting Edinburgh’s District Council’s decision to buy a portrait of Nelson Mandela.

Just being a trade union safety rep, or raising safety concerns on site, would be enough to be blacklisted, in an industry which still suffers a workplace death every week.

I first became acquainted with the blacklisting campaign due to the industrial dispute at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital, where supervisors working for Carillion were involved in shakedowns of staff, demanding gifts in exchange for holiday approvals, shift changes, or overtime. In the first instance, GMB conducted a consultative ballot over possible strike action, and at the same time submitted a collective grievance, at first from 109 staff, though later this grew to over 130.

The first investigation conducted by Carillion was frankly farcical, and following strike action, they held another investigation, which the employer eventually admitted did reveal evidence of malpractice.

However, at an early stage in the campaign, a meeting was held between GMB and Carillion bosses, where their senior HR manager, Liz Keates, said that there was “no evidence” of any wrong doing. In the meeting, GMB representatives challenged the idea that the testimony of 109 of their own staff could be considered “no evidence”. GMB has evidence that Carillion had conducted at least three previous investigations before then, that the allegations had been known to them at Director level several years previously, and that the management at the Swindon hospital had simply failed to carry out the recommendations resulting from those previous investigations.

Around this time, my colleague Carole Vallelly put the GMB press office in touch with Dave Smith, of the blacklist support group, as she was friends with Dave on Facebook. Dave revealed that it was the same Liz Keates whose initials were on the files of the Consulting Association as Carillion’s main contact, and who had personally been involved in blacklisting him.

Subsequently, Dave, Carole and I shared public meeting platforms on several occasions, and GMB pushed the issue of blacklisting up the national agenda. This was initially prompted by industrial considerations to pressurize Carillion, with whom we were in dispute, but quickly the GMB’s involvement in the blacklisting campaign took on a life and momentum of its own, just because it was the right thing to do. The General Secretary, Paul Kenny, sent a copy of a report about blacklisting to every Labour Councillor in the country, and GMB initiated a court case, later joined by Unite and UCATT, as a Group Litigation Order (equivalent to a Class Action in the USA) effectively putting the whole construction industry on trial for conspiracy.

The common denominator of the Swindon dispute with Carillion, and the victimization of people for raising health and safety complaints, is an attitude of untrammeled management entitlement that regards employees giving voice to concerns as vexatious, even where the complaints relate to management malpractices that are unlawful, dangerous or unethical.

Smith and Chamberlain present a very sophisticated argument, about how the rapacious construction industry bosses have sought to manage industrial relations, through utilizing their economic and political weight to secure the cooperation of the security services, through the victimization and marginalization of activists, and through the co-option and neutralization of some trade unions, and their officials.

It is this latter aspect that requires consideration by all trade union activists. Smith and Chamberlain argue that unions who adopt a servicing model are more susceptible to cooption than those who rely upon an organizing model, and who thus rely upon lay member activists to do much of the union’s front line work. This may be overstating the case, and lay members may be just as susceptible to cooption, by a cunning employer. Unions following a service model, whatever the capacity difficulties it presents, may be as robustly committed to principled and robust trade unionism as those following an organizing agenda, though I believe the service model is less effective.

Whatever model they adopt, trade unions can never be just a business: we always have to understand that we are engaged in the virtuous enterprise of building communities of solidarity to allow the collective strength of working people to act as a counterbalance to the bullying power of corporations.

The authors quote Gail Cartmail, of Unite, pointing out the dangers for a union of allowing an employer to effectively buy a union’s loyalty though inflated payments via check-off. I have in my possession the internal document from one union’s membership department [not my own union] saying “this is the payment we have received from [a building employer], can we make up some members to make the figures agree”. It is not hard to see how any union in that position would be hostage to that employer.

Interestingly, the book documents collusion, revealed in an employment tribunal of how Liz Keates of Carillion had a meeting with various other employers, and Amicus official, Roger Furmedge, to discuss denying access to work for members of another union, TGWU/EPIU on the Manchester Piccadilly site.

At an early stage of our own Carillion dispute in Swindon, I was advised by the regional secretary of another union, someone who considers themselves on the left, that it was unwise to associate with the Blacklist Support Group, as this would lead Carillion to seeing GMB as “troublemakers”, and that their experience was that “the best way to deal with a company like Carillion, is for the union to make itself useful to the employer”.

This is an interesting proposition, because at one level it is true that effective trade union organisation can lead to improved industrial relations, greater employee engagement with the business aims of the employer, and through providing a mechanism for resolving disagreements it can lead to greater trust between staff and employer. Unionized workforces tend to be better motivated and less likely to seek other jobs. There is a win-win outcome from good, modern and professional, relations between a trade union and an employer.

However, not all employers seek to go down that virtuous route, and they sometimes need to be incentivized by a more robust attitude from the union. Trade unions need to recognize that at heart there is a potential conflict of interest between employers and employees, and that good industrial relations is predicated upon strong unions that are prepared to prosecute their members’ interests in conflict with an employer if necessary, and are prepared and ready to do so. A trade union that continues to seek to make itself useful to an employer, even when their members are suffering from sharp management practices, is embarking on a precarious path.

It is also worth reflecting that in the modern, interconnected world of brand values and social media, trade unions can assert pressure in ways that employers may be more worried about than traditional strike action. The coalition government’s Carr Review, although it was deeply flawed, and rightly shunned by the unions, did show that trade unions simply using the normal lobbying and political campaigning tactics consistent with civil society engagement in a liberal democracy, can exercise considerable leverage on corporations. Simply exposing the scandal of blacklisting, and the involvement of household name corporations, many of whom secure contracts from the public purse, is a blow against the practice.

The scandal of blacklisting will never be fully resolved by court cases or legislation, because these employers have shown that they will ruthlessly do whatever it takes to assert their untrammeled right to manage autocratically. It would also be naïve to think that blacklisting no longer exists, despite the demise of the Consulting Association, nor is restricted to the construction industry.

I strongly recommend this book, its publication is a major contribution to the fight against the most serious civil liberties deficit in our society, and because it is a thoughtful and serious work, it will also contribute to the debate about how we protect our unions and fight against blacklisting.

ISBN-13: 978-1-78026-257-4

Dimensions: 216mm x 138mm
Format: Paperback
Page extent: 272
Publication date: March 2015

One Comment

  1. Robert says:

    Labour could have ended it they did not so sadly it means labour agree with it, you know what labour are these days.

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