Socialist Worker

Blacklisted: How workers are taking on the building firms' spying racket

by Phil Chamberlain
Issue No. 2445

Blacklist Support Group protest at Laing ORourke

Blacklist Support Group protest at Laing O'Rourke (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The pictures started appearing on social media as soon as people got hold of copies. They showed a book on building sites, stashed among tool bags and in the pub.

Blacklisted, which tells the story of the construction industry’s secret operation to deny work to union activists, has taken six years to get published.

As former blacklisted worker Dave Smith and I worked on it during that time a couple of things remained constant. One was that it would be a campaigning book. It was not a story about victims, but how people resisted efforts to deny them work simply because of their union activities. 

The pictures that flooded Twitter are a testament to that ongoing resistance.

The other objective was that it would tell of the blacklists’ impact in the words of those affected. We spent many hours and travelled hundreds of miles to get those stories. Inevitably only a proportion of the many words we recorded have made it into the book. Nevertheless, we tried to tear the history of the blacklist away from those who maintained, justified or just plain ignored the scandal. 

We handed it to those who were targeted and who challenged it.

What the book also makes clear is that a coalition of people, from often different perspectives, has coalesced around this issue. In 2008 I wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper that suggested blacklisting in the construction industry remained a problem despite official denials.

That story was picked up by David Clancy, an investigator for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). His inquiries led to a raid on an anonymous building in the West Midlands.

It was home to The Consulting Association, which was funded by the biggest names in the construction industry to keep tabs on people they considered troublemakers. Some 3,200 files were seized by the ICO.

An analysis of them showed that raising health and safety concerns or taking part in legitimate activity was enough to get you on the blacklist.

Loss

The effect was loss of work, marriages under strain, people forced to change careers or emigrate and in some cases suicide. Meanwhile, on average, one person a week dies on a building site.

It cost each company £2.20 to check a name and so from the association’s financial records it was possible to get an idea of the scale of the operation. In just one three-month period Sir Robert McAlpine checked more than 5,800 names.

That period coincided with the firm’s work on the Olympic project. This was blacklisting on an industrial scale.

The book doesn’t treat The Consulting Association as an aberration but places it within a long tradition of anti-union activity. It has direct links back to the 1972 building workers’ strike, forward to the rise in environmental activism in the 1990s and international examples. Challenging the blacklist has brought those different groups affected together. 

There had long been rumours of state involvement. The Economic League, set up in 1919, had acknowledged links with the secret state. It nurtured the Consulting Association.

The book has first hand evidence from those at the heart of the conspiracy to prove those links remained strong. As yet few of those responsible have suffered any penalty. 

Blacklisted lays out the evidence and names those who should be called to account. Only a full public inquiry will write the final chapter.

Blacklisted—the secret war between big business and union activists by Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain.
Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £9.99. Go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or phone 020 7637 1848

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