Workers Hammer No. 223
For trade union control of hiring!
Unions fight blacklisting in construction
On 15 May, campaigners against the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry were protesting outside a building site in Manchester when a car drove at speed into their demonstration. They watched in horror as three protesters were thrown onto the car’s bonnet. Leading anti-blacklist campaigner George Tapp, a 64-year-old electrician and trade unionist, had both legs broken and was knocked unconscious when his head smashed on a kerb. The driver, who Tapp later said he could see laughing as he drove, sped off. The cops have interviewed the driver of the car, which witnesses say was driven deliberately into the demo, but have not arrested him. George Tapp is undergoing weeks of painful reconstructive surgery and will probably never work again.
For decades blacklisting has wrecked the lives of workers in the construction industry. For reporting a safety hazard on site, you could be put on a secret list consulted by construction firms to weed out “troublemakers” and find yourself unemployed without any explanation — in some cases permanently. The Blacklist Support Group (BSG), set up in 2009 by blacklisted trade unionists supported by Labour MP John McDonnell, has been waging a campaign to expose the blacklisting companies and to support blacklisted workers fighting for compensation. They have worked to get the construction unions behind the campaign and to date UCATT, Unite and the GMB (the main unions in construction) have all taken up the campaign and the issue of blacklisting has broken through into the mainstream media.
Last year, in the face of overwhelming evidence of blacklisting, a House of Commons committee began an investigation into the practice. The committee followed a previous inquiry into workplace health and safety, which heard “that workers who raised health and safety concerns, especially in the construction industry, were labelled as ‘troublemakers’, and likely to be denied further employment”. The committee examined the workings of The Consulting Association (TCA), a blacklisting “service” funded and used by 44 construction firms for the purpose of vetting workers applying for employment on building sites. Along with National Insurance numbers and personal information, the files on individuals include entries such as: “Known troublemaker and extremist” and “Glasgow, Pipe fitter, bad all round”. When TCA was raided and shut down by the government’s Information Commissioner’s Office in 2009 its database contained the names of over 3200 people, many of whom have still not even been told their names were on the list.
In dramatic testimony to the parliamentary committee in November last year, Ian Kerr, the former director of TCA, spilled the beans on the workings of the blacklist. Projects on which the blacklist was used, he said, included airport runways, government buildings such as Portcullis House, the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and GCHQ as well as the Jubilee Line and the Millennium Dome. Kerr also testified to having kept files on left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party as well as on environmental protesters and he confirmed that blacklisting continues despite the demise of TCA. Asked about blacklisting of Irish workers on Ministry of Defence contracts, Kerr hesitated, then asked to respond to that question in private. Two weeks after his testimony at the committee hearing, Ian Kerr suddenly died, cutting off further evidence that might have been drawn from the horse’s mouth. When the Information Commissioner’s Office raided TCA in 2009 it seized only the five to ten per cent of the outfit’s files it deemed relevant: what sinister deeds were recorded in the remaining 90-95 per cent of the documents which Kerr said he subsequently destroyed?
Propelled by increasing exposure of the issue, Labour MPs initiated a Commons debate on blacklisting on 23 January. Tory, LibDem and Labour MPs staged displays of sanctimonious outrage at the very idea of blacklisting. Among the revelations that “shocked” politicians are practices that trade union activists have known of and fought against for years. Construction firms Balfour Beatty, Skanska and Sir Robert McAlpine were forced to admit they had used the blacklist in hiring for the multi-million pound Olympics projects. Following the parliamentary session, the BSG noted: “Between 2008-2009 both Skanska and Sir Robert McAlpine were each invoiced in excess of £28,000 by The Consulting Association for checking names of prospective workers against the illegal blacklist.” Their statement continued, “This coincides exactly with the mass recruitment stage of the Olympics project and at £2.20 per check, this equates to over 25,000 workers being checked against the blacklist by the two Olympics builders” (hazards.org/blacklistblog, 24 January).
In a ground-breaking legal development, in January blacklisted workers filed documents in a high court claim against Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd for blacklisting. Among more than 100 claimants, whose number is expected to grow as more blacklisted workers join in the action, are electricians, pipefitters, bricklayers and engineers who have faced years of unemployment. McAlpines was selected as the target of the court action given their central role in setting up and maintaining the blacklist. Cullum McAlpine confirmed in testimony to the Commons committee investigation that his firm had paid £10,000 to “cover the start-up costs” of TCA as well as fronting the money to purchase the blacklist that had been compiled to date. A second high court case was launched in June by the GMB union against McAlpines, Carillion, Balfour Beatty and other firms, seeking compensation for 70 blacklisted members.
Government declarations notwithstanding, blacklisting is not completely illegal. The Employment Relations Act of 1999 provided that the government could make regulations prohibiting blacklisting, but the Labour governments didn’t get around to actually making such regulations until 2010, in the aftermath of the exposure of TCA. The 2010 regulations ostensibly prohibit blacklisting for trade union activities but exactly what constitutes trade union activity is left to the courts to interpret. Thus a worker who exposes safety hazards on site may not necessarily be acting in an “official” union capacity, and may therefore be unprotected by the law. When TCA was shut down in 2009, Ian Kerr was fined £5000 for violations of the Data Protection Act (the fine was paid by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd). At the BSG’s annual general meeting in March, Keith Ewing, author of the report Ruined Lives: Blacklisting in the UK Construction Industry (August 2009), noted that blacklisting will continue as long as there are trade unions, but it must be exposed and fought. Indeed, the capitalists have always fought tooth and nail against any attempt by workers and trade unions to improve pay and conditions at the expense of their profits.
Trade union targets of state conspiracy
In Blacklist: The Inside Story of Political Vetting, Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor show that the practice of blacklisting in Britain goes back as far as the nascent trade unions of the seventeenth century and became widespread during the Industrial Revolution, especially on the railways. But it began to take a highly organised form in the 1920s under the secretive Economic League. Founded two years after the Russian 1917 October Revolution and in the midst of the wave of class struggle sweeping Britain and elsewhere, the Economic League sought to counter the danger of “Bolshevism” by providing information to the bourgeoisie and government on “subversive” groups and individuals. In The Economic League, the Silent McCarthyism (National Council for Civil Liberties [now Liberty]), Mark Hollingsworth and Charles Tremayne document how, with the General Strike of 1926, the League expanded its services: “Dossiers were compiled, occasionally in collaboration with the local police, on the political affiliations and activities of ‘dangerous subversives’” such as members of the Communist Party and trade union militants. Its spying and “vetting” activities were aided and sometimes led by elements of the capitalist state and its secret police. Early on, the blacklist “was based on records supplied by a senior Special Branch officer”. The founding chairman of the League was Admiral Sir Reginald “Blinker” Hall. An advisor to the government in setting up MI6 and later Director of Naval Intelligence, Hall was an anti-Communist witch hunter par excellence.
The Economic League was funded by major corporations, many but not all of which were construction firms. Until 1990 for example, the Ford Motor Company in Britain routinely submitted all prospective employees’ names to the League for vetting. The League was officially disbanded in 1993 following a campaign that brought wide media exposure of its dirty doings. But the blacklist files held by its “Services Group” survived intact, under the direction of Ian Kerr, who with the backing of Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd set up The Consulting Association.
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s Office admitted last year that some of the information in TCA files “could only be supplied by the police or the security services” (guardian.co.uk, 3 March 2012). As documented in the histories of the Economic League, government collusion with corporate conspiracies against workers is nothing new. In 1972, in a period of intense class struggle involving miners, dockers and railway workers, building workers took strike action nationally. Using militant tactics such as flying pickets, they won a wage increase — an illustration of the power of the working class in struggle. In retaliation the Tory government arrested pickets who had brought out building sites. In Shrewsbury, 24 were convicted on bogus “conspiracy” charges. Six were given hefty prison sentences, including Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, who became known as the Shrewsbury Two. Despite enormous support for these class-war prisoners in the trade union movement, they were abandoned by the leaders of their own unions and the TUC. Campaigners are still fighting to clear the names of these framed-up workers. The Coalition government in January, following in the footsteps of the Labour government, again refused to release the files on the Shrewsbury case citing “national security”.
Enforcing site safety, a subversive activity
In the 1970s you could be blacklisted on suspicion of being an Irish Republican, a trade union activist or a communist. Today you needn’t be political to land on the list; flagging up safety hazards on site is the most likely action to start doors slamming in your face. When BSG secretary Dave Smith took the construction firm Carillion to an employment tribunal he was granted, by court order, access to TCA files. “Virtually everything in my file relates to where I have raised concerns about health and safety, asbestos, toilets overflowing on building sites and a young lad falling off the third floor of scaffolding” he said in evidence given to the Commons investigation last year. He went on to describe calling an employment agency and being informed he came up on their system as “code 99”. “What’s that”, he asked. “One of the big firms has rung us up and told us never to employ you or put you anywhere.”
In the parliamentary debate on blacklisting in January, business secretary Vince Cable batted away calls for any action against blacklisting saying that would require “evidence” that it continued after 2009. As the BSG replied, “Follow the money”. Together with Unite, they have pointed to evidence of blacklisting on the £15bn Crossrail project in London, the largest public infrastructure project in Europe. In September last year, Frank Morris, a Unite union rep at Crossrail, was booted off the job along with 27 other electrical workers from subcontractor EIS, after he had raised a problem with safety issues on the tunnel boring machine. While Crossrail denies that they terminated the contract with EIS in order to get rid of Morris, the boss of EIS, Ron Turner, wrote in a letter to Unite last year “I firmly believe that the decision to cancel my contract was driven by BFK [part of Crossrail’s web of subcontractors] wanting to remove Mr Morris from the project” (Guardian, 10 June).
Frank Morris had previously raised concerns about the blacklisting of a co-worker while working on the Olympics Media Centre site, for which he was subjected to threats and harassment by management before being sacked and blacklisted. Ian Kerr testified to the Commons committee that Crossrail managers had attended TCA meetings. An investigation by the industry journal Building revealed that Ron Barron, who until recently was the head of human resources for Crossrail, “had contributed information to the CA as well as consulting its database almost 1,000 times in a six-month period in 2007” (building.co.uk, 23 November 2012). Morris said: “I have always felt sure that my removal from site was due to the blacklist. It has now come to light that the two top human resources managers on the project at the time of my sacking are proven blacklisters, who spent many hours at TCA meetings deciding a strategy to keep unions off of Crossrail. My sacking was part of that strategy” (hazards.org, 7 March). We demand: Reinstate Frank Morris and the other electricians at Crossrail!
For the capitalist owners of the construction firms, rigorously enforced health and safety regulations are an expensive impediment to maximising profit. On huge projects like Crossrail, even a partial site shutdown for one day costs hundreds of thousands of pounds. Strong trade union organisation on construction sites would mount resistance to workers lives being held hostage to the relentless drive for profit, striving to ensure safety standards are upheld. What’s really needed is union control over site safety, with union representatives having the power to immediately shut down unsafe sites. Unionising construction sites is inherently difficult, given the constantly changing workforce divided among multiple trades, along with the multitude of subcontractors on any given site using a patchwork of different contracts and pay rates. What is necessary is to fight for one industrial union of all construction workers regardless of craft, skilled or unskilled, for the greatest unity in action in the struggle for decent pay and conditions against the capitalist exploiters.
A further obstacle to union power is that the majority of workers on sites today are employed not directly by the construction firms but by employment agencies. Parasitic middlemen, these agencies offer the capitalists a cheaper, more insecure workforce who do not receive the same rates of pay or benefits as those directly employed. Not only in construction but throughout the economy the bosses use employment agencies to undermine the trade unions and reverse historic union-won gains, including by providing scabs during strikes. The union leaderships have offered merely token opposition to the bosses’ use of employment agencies. But the reality is that building workers have tremendous social power — the ability to disrupt the flow of profits into the pockets of the capitalists. Last year an anti-union attack by major building firms, led by Balfour Beatty, was successfully beaten back by a campaign of protest and threats of strike action by electricians in Unite including members of the BSG. In addition to demanding an end to blacklisting, the rank and file committee leading the protests demanded an end to agency labour, and that all workers be hired direct by the construction firms.
For class-struggle leadership in the unions
A fight to organise agency workers and to wrest control of safety enforcement from the hands of the bosses points to the need for a leadership committed to battling the capitalists in defence of workers’ jobs, pay and conditions. But that approach is worlds away from the outlook of the trade union bureaucracy, which yearns for “partnership” with the capitalists rather than struggle against them. What animates the likes of Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, is whatever maximises the chance of electing a Labour government. Following a speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband setting out Labour’s “vision” for the economy, McCluskey commented, “Today Ed has shown that his heart is in the right place defending working people” (unitetheunion.org, 14 February). Miliband has consistently put forward only Labour-administered austerity as an “alternative” to the Tory-LibDem coalition austerity regimen.
Those leading the fight against blacklisting have welcomed all moves by the trade union bureaucrats to aid in their efforts. But there is also justified outrage at cases of trade union officials aiding and abetting the blacklisting of union activists. Scandalously, TCA blacklist files include entries such as “AEEU (xx) describes above as F. evil as far as internal union dealings are concerned. Active at branch level” and “Reported by local EEPTU official as ‘militant’”. At the BSG meeting in March, Dave Smith said the main target of the fight is the multinationals who set up and funded the blacklist, but there are union officials “named on the blacklist files as supplying information” on workers. Smith rightly said: “That is outrageous, and we as a trade union movement need to sort that out as well.”
A UCATT member speaking from the floor at the meeting called for an independent committee of trade union officials, “as bad as they are”, to say to the employers: “you’ll hire from this list”. Marxists maintain that what is needed is trade union control of hiring. Union control of hiring would be a massive gain as it challenges the capitalists’ prerogative to control their wage slaves and to defend their profits by playing workers off against one another. In the rare circumstances where it has been achieved, union control of hiring has been a result of hard class struggle such as among the dockers on the US west coast where it was an outcome of the victorious 1934 San Francisco General Strike that forged their union.
What’s needed is a revolutionary leadership of the working class, built in opposition to the existing pro-Labour bureaucracy. Such a leadership would fight for the rights of all workers, including the unskilled on construction sites, many of whom are immigrants. The need for such leadership was graphically shown during the “British jobs for British workers” disputes in 2009 such as at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, where reactionary strikes and protests led by committees including the Socialist Party resulted in the removal of foreign workers from building sites. This chauvinist campaign, supported by Unite and GMB trade union bureaucrats, was poison to the interests of the multiethnic working class, an outright gift to the bosses with their strategy of divide-and-rule.
At the time, we said what was needed was the mobilisation of the multiethnic working class against the then Labour government “in a fight for jobs for all, through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, and to undertake a union organising drive to draw into their ranks all workers, including those in dangerous and low-paying jobs” (Workers Hammer no 208, Autumn 2009). A leadership fighting in the interest of the workers would reject the poison of chauvinism and appeal on an internationalist basis to workers from other European countries, especially from Poland and the other Eastern European countries, to become allies of British workers in a struggle for jobs for all. The watchword of the class struggle must be the slogan of Karl Marx: “Workers of all countries unite!”
The capitalist class have always valued workers’ livelihoods and very lives less than their own sacred profits. Only when the working class rips industry from the hands of the capitalists and establishes a planned socialist economy will the blacklists be torn up once and for all and the well-being of the toilers govern working conditions.