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Beating back the blacklisters – why construction workers are fighting on

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A group of construction workers has won millions of pounds in compensation from eight construction firms this week. The workers were targets of a massive blacklisting operation aimed at keeping union "troublemakers" out of work. After a ten year battle, they have been vindicated - but the fight isn't over yet, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2504
The Blacklist Support Group celebrate with shadow chancellor John McDonnell
The Blacklist Support Group celebrate with shadow chancellor John McDonnell (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Britains largest construction companies operated a blacklist that ruined lives.

Denying “troublemakers” jobs to protect profits meant spying on the left, infiltrating union meetings, conspiring with cops and hounding people out of work.

The Information Commissioner’s Office seized a database from the Consulting Association (CA) blacklisting firm in 2009. It contained information on 3,213 construction workers and activists.

Some 44 firms paid the CA around £100,000 a year. As well as paying an annual fee, bosses also paid to request information on individual workers.

They used that information to vet new recruits, and keep trade union and health and safety activists out of jobs. Bosses paid £2.20 per request in 2009. That was all it cost to wreck a working life.

The workers who exposed and campaigned against the practice were vindicated this week. In the High Court construction bosses settled a case from workers in the GMB, Ucatt and Unite unions.

It cost bosses an admission of guilt and £50 million in compensation.

One worker, John, said, It is justice that I never thought I would ever see. I am sorry I will not get my day in court. I am sorry that the captains of this industry will not get cross examined under oath.

“But I am glad that the bosses know that when they carry out blacklisting in the future there will be consequences if they are caught.”

Blacklisting took place in the context of high-profile and powerful strikes by construction workers. Bosses hated workers raising health and safety issues or organising unions because that could block their profits.

Every barrier possible was put in front of the workers throughout their campaign. The bosses denied anything had happened.

It took a struggle to get the unions to acknowledge that workers had a case. In some instances unions took up Employment Tribunal cases only to hold onto the evidence until it was too late to make a claim.

Workers needed no win, no fee lawyers and union backing due to the cost of taking cases.

John McDonnell and Roy Bentham

John McDonnell and Roy Bentham (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Sustained campaigning by the Blacklist Support Group kept the fight going. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell joined workers on the day of the High Court case last week. He had been at the first meeting of the Blacklist Support Group in 2010, when ten people attended.

The bosses set up a dreadful compensation scheme to keep the cases out of court. When that failed they had to pay out millions and admit they did wrong. But they have avoided giving evidence in a trial.

Many workers were elated that the wrong against them was finally recognised, but they still want justice. Some said they felt that had no choice but to accept the settlement. They were told that they could have to pay court costs otherwise.

Roy Bentham, a blacklisted carpenter from Liverpool, applied not to be bound by the agreement but to continue to the full trial representing himself.

Roy told the court how, as a Hillsborough survivor, he had waited 27 years for justice with many false hopes in courtrooms over the decades.

To cheers and applause he explained that he wanted to continue to ensure that those responsible for the blacklist are called to account. 

Roy told the judge that he didn’t want money – but wanted a trial to go ahead with all the evidence presented.

Gesturing to the workers present, he said, “It has been a privilege to stand beside them and this battle will go on.

“This will be judged in time because this hasn’t been justice today. A bit of compensation here and there is not justice. I look at the episode in this courtroom as a failure of the British justice system.”

Roy told Socialist Worker, This has always been about truth and justice for me and so many of my fellow workers. That path begins here.

Lord Justice Supperstone ruled against Roy and denied him the right to appeal.

The construction firms apologised “for the distress and anxiety caused to workers and their families”. They could not bring themselves to use the word blacklisting.

Andrew Caldecott QC offered the bosses’ “sincere and unreserved apologies”. The court erupted with chants of, No Justice – No Peaceby blacklisted workers.

Blacklist Support Group secretary Dave Smith told the court, “Under no circumstances do we consider this to be a sincere apology.”

The chanting continued for several minutes.

According to Dave, “The victory in the High Court is a vindication for our campaign. The multi-million pound settlements are a major hit for any organisation. The admissions wrung out of the blacklisting companies are enormous.

But the only thing the firms are sorry for is getting caught. This is not the end of the matter – this is unfinished business.

How the blacklist worked

For standing up over health and safety I have faced misery for years.

The blacklist detailed workers described as troublemakers – a euphemism for trade unionist. One worker had been seen at left wing meeting. Another was an SWP [Socialist Workers Party] sympathiser”.

Writing a letter to a newspaper could get you on the blacklist. But many workers were blacklisted after industrial disputes in the 1990s and early 2000s.

These include those at the Jubilee Line tube extension, the Royal Opera House and Pfizer manufacturing sites in Kent.

Steve was on the Pfizer site and could not find work for years. He told Socialist Worker, An agency phoned and asked if we could work. We got a call a couple of days later telling us that we had the start. That evening I got a call telling me the job had fallen through. It happened time and time again. It still happens.

“For standing up over health and safety I have faced misery for years.

Tony worked on the Jubilee Line Project. He said, The firms should be held accountable theyve been taking food out of childrens mouths.

Comments on workersfiles include, Ex shop-steward. Definite problems. No Go”, “do not touch!!”.

Disturbingly, the information on workers involved in the Jubilee Line dispute is described as, Above information arose from liaison between union, contractor and managing agent at J/L).

A description of a worker as a militantis said to have been reported by EEPTU [union] official”. Others simply say next to information source: Union”.

Frequent words on the files are Co. did not further.That means that, after the Consulting Association passed on its information, the worker didnt get the job. It appears thousands of times.

Ian Kerr – blacklisting mastermind?

The Financial Times this week described the blacklist as essentially a one-man operation run by Mr Kerr”.

Ian Kerr oversaw the day to day operation of the Consulting Association (CA) from 1993 until it was shut down in 2009. Kerr, now dead, was fined £5,000 in July 2009 for breaching the Data Protection Act.

It wasn’t a one-man show, though. Kerr was an unpleasant shill for big construction.

The company Sir Robert McAlpine paid Kerr’s fine. Kerr said this was because I put myself at the front, took the flak if you like for it, so they would remain hidden”.

The CA’s management meetings were usually held at the offices of the big construction companies.

Undercover cops

Police spied on trade unionists and passed information to the illegal secret blacklist.

Undercover cop Peter Francis said his supervisors asked him in the 1990s to find evidence that an activist was in a “sham marriage”. She was from the US and the authorities wanted to deport her.

Information about the activist later turned up in a blacklist file on bricklayer Frank Smith, who was in a relationship with her.

Another undercover officer, Mark Jenner, infiltrated construction unions and other campaigns.

Some workers’ blacklist files contain information that could not have come from construction bosses. But it could have come from police spies in campaign meetings or on demonstrations.

Cops and those working for the blacklisters spied – but the links go higher. The Consulting Association (CA) and the police National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu) met in 2008 to discuss sharing information.

The meeting took place in the Bar Hotel in Oxfordshire. Chief inspector Gordon Mills gave a powerpoint presentation to bosses from blacklisting firms.

The cop in charge of Netcu was Steve Pearl. He went on to be a director of Agenda Security, which provides vetting servicesfor business. His boss is former Chief Constable Anton Setchell. Setchell is now head of security at Laing ORourke.

There were files on activists outside the construction industry. There were 200 names of environmental activists. There were files on journalists and academics. There was a large number of files not seized by the Information Commissioner – including, according to Kerr, a file held on Socialist Worker.

The City of London police passed information to construction companies about protests of rank and file electricians in 2012. This was three years after the CA closed.

Blacklisting’s dark and grubby past

The Economic League feared the reach of socialism

The Economic League feared the reach of socialism

The Economic League was a shadowy organisation set up in 1919 to combat Bolshevism.

In 1927 the League bemoaned the Left’s response to its activities. They whined that their meetings suffered from, The frenzied attempts made by extremists to silence our speakers.

“In many places they have had to fight for their hearing, and their reports reveal many instances of bad language, of personal abuse organised opposition and rowdyism, stone throwing and most offensive of all of spitting in the speakers faces.

The league and the cops shared information and informants on unions and the unemployed workers’ movements throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

The Economic League ran a blacklist of thousands of workers. It was wound up in 1993.

The Service Groupsection of the Economic League spied on construction workers. Construction bosses kept it going as the Consulting Association.

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