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The battle behind the blacklisting victory

John Millington writes on how blacklisted workers won – and where the campaign is going next

May 13, 2016
4 min read

John Millington is a freelance journalist specialising in industrial relations and social movements

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The victory this week for blacklisted workers in the High Court marks a significant step forward in the fight for justice. Unite the union announced it had reached a settlement with construction companies that will see 256 workers receive more than £10 million between them in compensation, for the years of not being able to find work in the industry they were trained.

The GMB union, which reached a similar settlement last month, said the total value of compensation in the case was around £75 million for 771 claimants, with legal costs on both sides estimated at £25 million. Aside from the substantial settlements workers will receive, the construction companies responsible were forced into a humiliating apology in court.

The lawyer for the companies said: ‘The defendants are here today to offer, through me, their sincere and unreserved apologies to the claimants for any damage caused. The defendants apologise as providers of any information and for the loss of employment suffered as a result of communication of information during the operation of the Consulting Association. They also apologise for the anxiety and hurt to feelings caused as a result.’

There has been significant scepticism voiced by the Blacklist Support Group, which has been instrumental in achieving this result, as to the sincerity of the apology. After all, these are companies who used information obtained on files kept by the Consulting Association to target workers, sometimes for legal trade union and political activity. But many of those blacklisted were not ‘militant trades unionists’.

In some cases workers suffered 20 years of being unable to get a job, lost houses, saw their families torn apart and have suffered mental health conditions as a result.

Rank and file resistance

The Consulting Association was raided and closed down in 2009. But this has not stopped companies working together in the construction industry to undermine workers’ terms and conditions. When I worked for the Morning Star in early 2011, I was the one of the first national daily newspaper journalists to report major construction companies’ plot to reduce electricians’ (‘sparks’) pay by up to 35 percent.

This led to a wave of rank and file trade union resistance not seen in decades. Unofficial action, site occupations and demonstrations would take place weekly for months on end. I met workers who had suffered blacklisting and were key to providing sparks employed in the industry much needed support as this industrial conflict escalated.

The campaign began with demonstrations outside building sites on the Crossrail project and soon workers were outside the glitzy hotels, interrupting dinners for industry CEOs. By the end, Unite had called a ballot and was launching huge demonstrations in London and unofficial walkouts took place at several sites across the country.

The anti-trade union laws were successfully broken several times and I witnessed industrial workers show great resolve and cool heads under intense pressure from the police when they were kettled and threatened with arrest.

My overriding memory of the dispute was when I covered an early morning demo and site occupation in London. I went to the site manager who had just arrived at 8.45 to start his shift. I asked what he thought about the accusation that employers were planning to dock pay by up to 35 percent. His response was astonishing: ‘If it was up to me, I would pay them one pound an hour,’ he said in a rage. I confirmed that he wanted quoting on that and he agreed before scurrying off.

This attitude is not just something unique to that individual manager but represents that basic contradiction between worker and employer – the fact that the boss is trying to get as much labour for the least amount of money out of the worker. In contrast, the worker is trying to get more money and better conditions for the work they do. 

With the technological advances society has made in the last seven years and attitude that profit trumps the need to pay people properly, the possibility of further blacklisting of people at work must be investigated.

As the Blacklist Support Group said on the evening of their outstanding victory: ‘[We] demand a full public inquiry to fully expose the blacklisting human rights conspiracy and the collusion between big business and the shadowy anti-democratic elements within the police. We are hardworking men and women used to getting our hands dirty. We are not giving up until the job is completed.’

John Millington is a freelance journalist specialising in industrial relations and social movements

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