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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Mar 7, 2012, 1:06 pm

Blacklisted as ‘Troublemakers,’ U.K. Construction Workers Struggle for Justice

BY Michelle Chen

(Photo of Blacklist protests courtesy Black List Blog)  

For years, they wondered why they kept getting turned down for jobs, even when they seemed well qualified. The workers might have all just chalked it up to bad luck if they hadn’t eventually discovered they were at the center of an extraordinary conspiracy.

An investigation by the U.K. government’s Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in 2009 revealed that some of the country’s most prominent construction firms had worked with a secretive company, The Consulting Association, to create a blacklist of workers with a history of being suspected “troublemakers” or labor advocates. As fresh details have recently surfaced in the British media, the scandal has taken on shades of a British crime thriller, a Sunday tabloid and a treatise on the English working class.

The government investigation found The Consulting Association trawled extensively for background information on about 3,200 workers and established a clearinghouse to help employers keep worksites free of subversive elements. Major industry players like Skanska used the database to scrutinize workers' past labor disputes, from demands for back wages to complaints about unsafe working conditions. Following a media exposé in 2008, (met with flat denials by companies), public outrage flared, and workers organized to hold corporations accountable. But today, their demands for justice are still unmet.

The plot thickened last week with an Observer report linking law enforcement to the blacklist system. Testifying in an employment tribunal case brought by blacklisted engineer Dave Smith, ICO investigations manager David Clancy stated he had found files containing information so detailed, it must have been “supplied by the police or the security services.”

The Blacklist Support Group (BSG), representing workers and advocates, issued a statement demanding further parliamentary investigations:

At last the truth is coming out. The police and the security services have colluded with multi-national construction companies to systematically breach the human rights of thousands of construction workers.

Smith told In These Times that the latest reports confirm old suspicions:

The blacklisting of trade union activists has been known about for a long time. Many people have complained about it in the past but since the Consulting Association database was exposed we finally have the evidence to prove it.

According to the ICO's findings, as reported by The Guardian in 2009, “files on individuals included comments such as ‘communist party,’ ‘ex-shop steward, definite problems, no go’, ‘do not touch,’ ‘orchestrated strike action’ and ‘lazy and a trouble-stirrer’.”

Just asking the wrong questions could mean a red flag. Smith’s reputation as a whistleblower apparently got him into trouble, according to The Guardian. Among the concerns feeding into his 36-page intelligence file were his efforts to expose workplace hazards like asbestos contamination.

Socialist Worker described how employers used The Consulting Association’s privileged services:

As well as paying an annual fee, firms also paid for requesting information on individual workers.

They paid £2.20 per request in 2009.

The constitution of the CA, seen by Socialist Worker, makes it clear that the firms were not just customers.

The major construction companies that paid an annual £3,000 subscription “collectively” owned the CA.

This kind of blacklisting was formally banned by the Labour government in 2010. But advocates say real legal recourse remains out of reach, and many workers might not even know they’ve been blacklisted. 

In a correspondence with ITT, journalist Phil Chamberlain (who helped break the story in 2008 and continues to cover it at Taking Out the Trash) said that while some workers have petitioned before employment tribunals, bringing formal cases may be prohibitively costly, and loopholes in the current law make it difficult for workers wage legal challenges or inquiries against blacklisting firms:

The fact remains that more than 3,200 people could be denied the right to make a living for no reason other than they are trade union members and this practice required the complicity of hundreds of people in some of the biggest construction firms in the country.

The BSG points out that while unions have advocated around the issue, much of the anti-blacklist campaigning has been spearheaded by rank-and-file workers. Recent direct actions include street demonstrations and theatrical videos featuring the totemic  blow-up rat of labor mythology. Yet activists say the blacklist conspiracy still continues:

[W]orkers were dismissed from the Olympics because of the blacklist and many more denied work on the project. … We will continue to fight in the High Court, in the European parliament, in the UK parliament and on building sites until we get justice.

Blue-collar workers aren’t the only ones who should be alarmed. In the U.K. and the U.S., political groups cite government measures to expand the systematic monitoring of activists, raising fears that states are tightening surveillance of ordinary citizens who dare exercise their rights.

In an analysis of blacklisting cases since 2009, the BSG reported, “many blacklisted workers found it almost impossible to hold down any regular employment. This had an enormous impact on career prospects, finances and put huge strain on family lives.” In a correspondence with ITT, Steve Hedley with the transport workers union RMT recounted the devastation workers suffered simply for defending their rights:

Most people on the Blacklist were just ordinary non-political safety reps who were targeted for demanding that workers safety concerns were raised on sites.... Personally I suffered four years of precarious employment because of blacklisting unable to get a full time job and being sacked on any pretence from the temporary jobs that I did manage to get when employers checked out the Blacklist and found me on it.

But Hedley is one of the lucky ones. Countless others may never even know they were blacklisted--never knowing that the reason they were denied work again and again was simply the fact that they had the wrong name.

Video of protests courtesy of Reel News and Blacklist Support Group.

 

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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