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‘I started working in construction when I was still at school: I used to go to work with my dad at weekends – he was an electrician. My first union card was when I was working in the Ford plant in Dagenham in the early 1980s. It still had a semblance of a closed shop. Me and my friend Neil Bennet had to wait outside the union meeting in the rain, until the point when they discussed new members and we were invited in. My dad, who was a steward, proposed our names to the branch and we were endorsed by the rest of the meeting.
A few years later I joined the building workers’ union, UCATT. By the early 1990s, I was the branch secretary for Barking and Dagenham UCATT.
I was never offered a job “on the cards”. Even on a job employing a thousand workers, only about five or six of the most senior management would be proper PAYE employees. The whole thing was a scam to avoid paying employer’s national insurance, and the workforce wasn’t covered by the most basic employment rights, such as redundancy or protection from unfair dismissal.
A big issue was safety. When I started, an average of three building workers were dying on sites every week. The whole industry was “rush, rush, rush”. Union activists were victimised repeatedly. You didn’t have to do much – just raising concerns about safety would be enough.
Union organising was always covert. Everyone knew they would be sacked if they put their head above the parapet, so activists organised by putting union leaflets in the canteen anonymously, having quiet words with people or holding small meetings in the pub. It was like the French resistance. Only when we felt we had enough support would people hold a public meeting. If we failed to get the backing of the rest of the workers, we would be off the job within a matter of days – hours sometimes.
But when it worked, it changed the entire relationship on site. Workers could see that sticking together got results, whether that be better safety and welfare facilities or increased overtime or bonus payments. The Jubilee line in the late 1990s was one of the best-organised sections of the British working class. The monthly shop meetings would get in excess of 300 in attendance. But solidarity didn’t just fall from the sky.
Everyone knew there was a blacklist. But it didn’t cross my mind that directors of multinational companies would be compiling secret files of my union activities with the support of the police and security services. My file is 36 pages, with my name, address, national insurance number, mobile number, car registration, photographs and details of every job I worked on for over ten years – as well as information about my wife and brother, neither of whom are union members.
The company directors used to share this data to vet potential employees. If your name appeared on the blacklist, you would be denied work. Was I surprised? No. But I am outraged by it – it is a national scandal.
The Consulting Association blacklist database held information on 3,213 individuals, the vast majority due to their trade union activities. This was only discovered following a Guardian article, which eventually led to a raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in 2009.
Unfortunately the ICO left behind 90 per cent of the paperwork, which was destroyed immediately. Among those papers were the blacklist files on 200 environmental activists. The multinationals were effectively keeping tabs on anyone they considered to be a threat to their profits: journalists, academics, even elected politicians.
We set up the Blacklist Support Group (BSG) as an informal network to share information but this quickly evolved into a justice campaign led by blacklisted workers. We have fought the campaign legally, politically and industrially. Employment tribunal test cases are now lodged at the European Court of Human Rights. The campaign has resulted in a select committee investigation, which called for blacklisting firms to be denied publicly funded contracts. This has resulted in around 100 public authorities, including the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, passing resolutions.
Blacklisting still goes on – it went on during the Olympics and it is now happening on Crossrail. The BSG and Unite union fought a huge industrial battle to reinstate shop steward Frank Morris onto Crossrail after he was sacked when his name came up on a blacklist. It took 12 months but Frank is now working as an electrician again.
We are not prepared to keep silent. There are 581 blacklisted workers involved in ‘group litigation’ at the High Court against 40 of the largest construction firms. The full trial is confirmed to start in May 2016.
Blacklisting and spying on unions by undercover police will also be part of the Pitchford inquiry, which is likely to start later this year. And the industrial battles against blacklisting continue on building sites up and down the country, where union activists are still being sacked on a regular basis.’
Dave Smith is the co-author of Blacklisted! The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists (New Internationalist)