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Anarchist Lens Review: Blacklisted

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BlacklistedAnarchist Lens Review: Blacklisted – The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists by Phil Chamberlain and Dave Smith [New Internationalist]

Last April workers at the Irish supermarket chain Dunnes Stores went on strike for one day to protest zero-hour contracts.  Their action received plenty of support and was widely viewed as just.  However shortly after the protest, Dunnes’ management targeted a number of the workers involved. According to their union, Mandate, this amounted to “sanctions including dismissals of a small number of staff, cuts to hours, changes in roles and changes in staff patterns”.  The experience of the Dunnes workers would not be out of place in Blacklisted – a timely and important new book written by building worker and stalwart campaigner, Dave Smith in cooperation with journalist Phil Chamberlain. Blacklisted is a comprehensive account of the ongoing war that was (and is still) being waged by employers across the building industry in the UK.  In terms of subject matter it is largely confined to the situation in the UK but in many ways that only strengthens its main argument.  Bear in mind that in the UK (and here in Ireland too) workers have some legal protection against excessive bullying and harassment by employers.  Consider what it is like for workers in countries where such legal protection is non-existent.  Last year attention focused on the predicament of building workers on the World Cup site in Qatar – where it was reported that workers were dying on that huge building site at a rate of one every two days.  Qatar is not an exception unfortunately.  Take a look at the excellent site and you’ll get a very good idea of the scale of the problem faced by workers the world over right now.

What Is Blacklisting?

“Blacklisting” is the process whereby certain workers – usually for reasons to do with speaking up for their rights – are and were denied work in their industry over a consistent period of time.  Blacklisting of course occurs in many industries but the building trade has been notorious for the practice.  This is in part to do with the greed of the building companies but it is also to do with the problem of casualisation.  Workers are employed for short periods on a particular building job and often let ago at the end of that job.  If a worker gets a reputation for speaking up then it is simple to say when he next turns up looking for a job ‘Sorry there’s no work here just now.’

Parents Dalli Kahtri and Lil Man who have lost two sons.

“When I complained, my manager assaulted me, kicked me out of the labour camp I lived in and refused to pay me anything. I had to beg for food from other workers.” Click on photo for full Guardian article.

Many workers know full well that speaking your mind is “bad for your health”, but in the building trade the process went way beyond that.  Blacklisted recounts how the current practices got underway in the UK after the successful mobilisation of workers around the Building Workers’ Charter (p52) in the early 70s. That struggle improved wages and conditions across the industry and generated fear in some of the big building companies.  Afraid that workers might be getting too well organised they turned to systematic victimisation.  The Consulting Agency (CA) was the vehicle they used.  A relatively small operation, the CA worked under the radar from an ordinary house in the West Midlands not far from Birmingham; it was composed of a few staff and a well maintained database.  To check a name against the CA’s database cost an employer – or its HR department – £2.20 per name.  Forty-three building companies used the CA and were free to access its database after a sign up yearly subscription.  For example Carillion were invoiced for £32,393 + VAT for the a period of checking lasting from 1999 to 2004.  In other words it checked quite a lot of names!

The person behind the database was a man named Ian Kerr.  He had a record of involvement in right-wing groups and was clued-in to the intricacies of left wing politics.  He collected lots of information, purchased and scanned a whole range of left literature looking to cull information on anyone he could find that was connected to the building trade or its various trade unions.  He noted down all sorts of things about individuals, building up substantial files over many years of work.  He was dedicated, thorough and well disposed to policing the industry for his masters.  Comments about individuals like ‘will cause trouble, strong TU’ (p35) and the like were not uncommon.

A particular strength of Blacklisted is that it is dotted with examples of the type of discrimination that went on and the impact that this had on individual workers.  Alex Rayner, an electrician, typifies the experience of many construction workers.  He made complaints about safety standards on a job and suspected that from that time onwards he was being targeted.  He says (p75): “I knew I was [blacklisted], but I couldn’t prove it.  I was on a job and I complained about safety.  Sometimes it was silly things.  On another job I complained about asbestos, which is deadly.” Rayner was blacklisted for 45 years.

From HSE report 2013:

From HSE [Ireland] report 2013: “The construction sector was responsible for the second highest number of fatalities, with 11 deaths. Last year was also the third consecutive year that the number of fatalities in the sector increased.”

Safe reps were systematically targeted.  On a job refurbishing a Tesco branch, Dave Smith (the co-author) organised for the distribution of a UCATT leaflet on asbestos awareness.  He was dismissed from that job but a copy of the leaflet also found its way into a file held on him by the CA.  This dossier ran to 36 pages in total and showed that he was repeatedly dismissed when he was elected as a union safety rep.  Another case was that of Roy Bentham.  He was centrally involved in a successful strike in 1995 at a major North Wales power station that forced employers to use direct labour rather than self-employed contractors.  Despite the success of the strike Bentham and a number of other were later targeted by management and were let go. Bentham knew this was retribution for the work he had done organising at the site but it didn’t end there.  A file was opened on him with the CA and after that he ‘couldn’t get work anywhere in the north west [of England].’  Occasionally he got small bit of contracting work but he ‘suffered long and frequent spells of unemployment’.  A Liverpudlian and a Hillsborough justice activist he recalled how he had hopes of getting work on the huge shopping centre site, Liverpool One, in 2004.  But he said, “They were crying out for skilled men … but I couldn’t get work on there at all over four years’.  It had a major impact on his home life and well-being.  Many of those blacklisted were eventually forced out of the industry which was exactly what the employers wanted.

The CA’s operation was uncovered after an investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, a body charged with overseeing data protection matters in the public interest.  Since Kerr and the CA were acting under the radar (and avoiding any disclosure of what they were at) they were in breach of these regulations.  It was on this basis and this alone that the CA was prosecuted and its murky activities exposed.   The uncovering of the CA’s existence was a huge relief for thousands of building workers who were exposed to blacklisting over many years and decades.  For most of those blacklisted, they were aware some sort of discrimination was going on but they could never prove it.  Eventually with the legal prosecution of the CA, many victims were able to see the files that were held on them and small amounts of compensation were also eventually paid out.

Blacklisted is a powerful book.  It details the real world of capitalism and how neglect of health and safety is often one of the first consequences of the hunger for profit.  It will come as no surprise to many that health and safety is a core issue of concern for building workers.  It might seem obvious too that speaking out about safety is the right thing to do but as many building workers have found to their cost this is not the case.  Take the case of Garry Gargett (p200), an experienced electrical supervisor.  On the massive Crossrail site in London in 2013 he witnessed a dangerous situation where a section of 11,000-volt electrical cables was covered by scaffolding and debris thrown on top of it. He took a photograph of the problem and printed this off.  He was taking this to his supervisor when a manager intervened: Gargett was removed from site and dismissed on the grounds that he hadn’t permission and shouldn’t have take a photo on site!  That’s just one of a huge number of examples in this book.

Blacklist campaigners Pic: Chiara Rimella (from East London Lines)

Blacklisted spends a good number of pages recounting and discussing the various ways workers have resisted and fought back inside the industry.  These struggles were carried out in conjunction withe the various building unions but more often than not they were led by rank & file networks.  One example – the BESNA dispute – began when a number of building contractors tried to abandon a longstanding agreement with electricians; they wanted to put a new contract in place – called BESNA – which would have involved a 35% cut in wages.  A series of strikes got underway (in 2011-12) which in turn had to address the matter of blacklisting.  After defeating BESNA, more electricians were victimised but this time the network that had defeated BESNA remobilised and tackled this development.  It took further strike action to force an end to the new round of attacks on the rank and file activists.

Despite the revelations surrounding the CA and positive coverage given to the Blacklist Support Group – which has campaigned for justice and compensation for victims of blacklisting – the practice of blacklisting continues.  Some of the major of building firms were embarrassed when their links to the CA were make public but other defended their actions claiming they had a right to vet who worked for them.  For most of the building firms what happened in regards to the CA amounted to no more than a knuckle rapping.  As is made clear in this book blacklisting has not gone away.

The nature of what went on with the CA is further exacerbated by two other aspects discussed in Blacklisted.  One is the murky role of the police and Special Branch who – are we surprised? – colluded with the CA (see Ch 9).  The second matter is the collusion of some sections of trade union movement with the CA (see Ch 8).  The efforts to unearth the extent of this collusion between some union officials and the building firms (and the CA) has been particularly fraught.  Comments were found on some CA files were sourced back to active union officials.  When the BSG and others attempted to get  explanations, they were blocked.

Blacklisting and its relative, whistle-blowing are indicative of one very obvious feature of the workplace today: it is not free.  Not only is it not free, in many, many situations the workplace is run like a dictatorship; step out of line and you’re gone.  True the situation varies widely and depends hugely on whether trade union organisation is in existence at a workplace or not, but it largely the case for most workers that speaking your mind can have a myriad of negative consequences.  Why?  We live after all in a democratic era where it is accepted as normal and right that we should have a say over how we live? Why not the workplace then?  Why does work – a core human activity – not come under the umbrella of basic democratic rights?

The answer of course is no great secret: the workplace is un-free because capitalism requires it to be that way.  Making money and extracting it from the workforce is the aim, but actually making that happen requires that owners and managers have the means to exercise control.  Recall the Thatcherite mantra from the 80s: ‘Management must be allowed to manage’.  What she was really saying was management must able to order you about – end of story.

The authoritarian workplace is central to capitalism.   Ask a garment worker from Bangladesh, a miner from South Africa or a Foxcon/ Apple worker from China and s/he will tell you how bad it really is.  To change this is really the challenge of our time. Blacklisted ends with a great quote from someone on the front-line.  Speaking about the reality of fighting for your rights at work, Paul Crimmins, a victim of blacklisting,  states “It’s a thankless task but someone’s got to do it.’  That is the other amazing story recorded in Blacklisted: against the odds, time and again, workers have fought back against the authoritarian workplace.  They keep insisting on their rights and when they resist collectively and build solidarity they often go far beyond even their own aims. There’s a lesson in that no doubt – but that’s for another day.  In the meantime this books needs our support.  Beg, borrow and share it!  Promote it wherever you can.

Related Articles and Links:

Death toll on World Cup site (The Guardian)

Interview with Dave Smith (Hazards Magazine)

Information on the current prosecuction of Dave Smith/ Blacklist Support Group (Unite The Resistance)

Blacklist Support Group (on Facebook)

Mandate Campaign and Dunnes Workers

No Payslip, No Holiday Pay (Rebel City Writers)

Decency for Dunnes Workres

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