CPGB-ML » Posts for tag 'dave smith'

Blacklisting — the union-busters’ war on the working class

Evidence that blacklisting is alive and kicking in the construction industry abounds. John Kelly, after working for three years in Runcorn as a rigger for Interserve Industrial Services, was sacked in April 2014.

When the construction team he was working on transferred to another job in Capenhurst, construction manager Trevor Collins saw to it that Kelly was blacked from the new project, with no explanation.

However, Kelly knew exactly why Collins had fired him, and after a long battle he managed to convince a Liverpool employment tribunal that he was right.

In furtherance of a union-busting campaign, Collins had waged a hate campaign on social media against what he called ‘Scousers’, with their “Scouse hard luck stories” (presumably referring to workers’ irritating habit of resisting crap conditions and pointing out workplace hazards). Admiring email responses from Collins’s kindred spirits described him as “the big man up there, sorting out them Scousers”.

Kelly, sickened to read his boss’s endless poisonous drivel on Facebook about Liverpudlian “shirkers and thieves”, finally took out a complaint against Collins. Surprise, surprise: this complaint was soon followed by Kelly getting the sack.

After lengthy wrangling, this was recognised by the tribunal, which ruled that Kelly, “a good worker with considerable experience”, was blacked from the Capenhurst site because he was a Unite rep. The judge concluded that “Trevor Collins did not want the claimant (an employee representative for Unite and activist) working on the Capenhurst project under his management. He was motivated by the claimant’s membership of Unite and his known activities in that capacity.”

John Kelly only won his case thanks to his own grit and determination (Scouse or otherwise). As he says, “I was a quite active steward and didn’t want them to get away with it. Other people just back down but I’m not that type of person – I believe in my rights.”

The reality is that cases like Kelly’s are the rule, not the exception, and most such cases just sink without trace. Blacklisting is not a scandal of the past, but mainstream union-busting practice in the here and now. (All above quotes from ‘Union rep blacklisted after complaining about manager’s anti-Scouse jibes on Facebook wins employment tribunal’, Liverpool Echo, 4 May 2015)

Nor is blacklisting confined to the building sector. It has now been revealed, as long suspected, that the blacklisting outfit exposed and closed down in 2009, the so-called ‘Consulting Association’, not only kept secret files on over 3,200 unwitting construction workers, but also spread its reach to include teachers, posties and firemen.

Dave Smith, doughty campaigner against the blacklist and co-author of a recent book on the subject, was doubtless right to tell delegates at the recent Communications Workers Union conference that “People in this hall will definitely have been spied on by undercover police”. (‘Postal staff urged to find out if they were included on blacklist’, Guardian, 26 April 2015)

Struggling for safety at Sellafield

The one ‘offence’ guaranteed to get union members blacklisted fastest is the ‘crime’ of drawing attention to unsafe practices in the workplace.

In no industry are health and safety issues more grave than in the nuclear industry. Yet, astoundingly, construction workers at the nuclear power plant in Sellafield (Cumbria) are being denied the right even to have a full-time Unite rep responsible for health and safety issues at the plant.

The National Audit Office recently bemoaned the fact that the estimated cost of decommissioning and cleaning up the heavily-polluted Sellafield nuclear site has jumped from £48bn to £53bn as the enormity of the task became apparent – and this estimated total for the 120-year job is expected to keep climbing.

The cowboy outfit hired in 2008 by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to implement the clean-up – Nuclear Management Partners – was sacked for incompetence … yet received £430,000 of public money for breach of contract! Now ‘control’ is supposedly back in the hands of the NDA itself.

None of this spectacle of feckless private interests scrambling to secure lucrative public contracts (contracts to clean up the god-awful mess left by a previous generation of monopoly-capitalist shysters) inspires any great confidence in Sellafield as a safe place to work.

Indeed, it is described by the National Audit Office as the “UK’s largest and most hazardous nuclear site”, including as it does two nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, storage plants, ponds and silos containing radioactive material dating back to the inception of the nuclear industry.

Not only is the site used to store nuclear material from across the country; it was also the host of a facility that secretly produced nuclear materials for Britain’s Cold War arms programme, and which was finally demolished in 2014. (‘Cost of nuclear clean up at Sellafield increased an extra £5bn in the past year’, Chronicle Live, 15 March 2015)

The refusal by Sellafield Contractor Group Ltd to allow a full-time union shop steward and unhindered operation of the site’s health and safety committee was therefore greeted with justifiable rage by the 1,200 plus Unite members, 98 percent of whom have voted in support of industrial action. (‘Sellafield workers back strike action’, unitetheunion.org, 16 April 2015)

Doubtless, if and when a health and safety rep wins recognition, he will enjoy pride of place on every blacklisting database in the land.

Resisting victimisation

Members of the public services union PCS have engaged in a series of strikes against the privatisation of 400 visitor service jobs at the National Gallery in London.

Twenty-two sporadic strike days culminated in a strike and rally on May Day. As well as fighting against the privatisation plans, staff are also acting against the victimisation of a local rep, who was suspended just before the first strike in February. (’No privatisation at the national gallery’, pcs.org.uk)

Another victimised union rep was supported in a protest by the RMT, also on May Day.

Sodexo, the giant international outsourcing company, brags on its website that “Our employees personify our values and are our greatest asset. Their talent, skills and commitment have made us the leader in delivery of Quality of Life services.

This does not square with the experience of Petrit Mihaj. After contributing his ‘talent and skills’ to Sodexo’s catering services for ten years as part of the company’s London Underground operation, Mihaj found himself up on disciplinary charges then dismissal. His crime? Running a campaign to improve the ‘quality of life’ of his fellow workers by getting them unionised. (‘Support Petrit Mihaj’, rmtlondoncalling.org.uk, 23 April 2015)

Despite the RMT winning the case at tribunal, proving that Mihaj had been unfairly dismissed for his union activities, Sodexo refused to reinstate or re-engage him.

This union-busting pattern is repeated in the United States.

The massive food distribution corporation Sysco, following on from years of eroding the pay and conditions of its workforce, is now trying to impose so-called ‘incentive programmes’ for its Michigan drivers and warehouse employees. In reality, these programmes are simply ways to target and fire workers for minor infractions.

Needless to say, first in the line of fire is anyone daring to organise for a union. FightBack! News quoted one bemused young trucker as saying: “You know the funny thing is they never told me why I was fired. We all know why: for organising!”

Over 160 drivers and warehouse workers are now demanding that Sysco recognise their affiliation to the Teamsters Union. (‘Michigan truck drivers, warehouse workers rally for union at Sysco’, FightBack! News, 30 April 2015)

Workers in Michigan are up against not only the might of Sysco and the like, but also special state-enforced union-bashing ‘Right-to-Work’ laws.

Yet the reality is that the very scale of monopoly-capitalist exploiters like Sysco, and the complexity of the division of labour, renders these companies’ operations ever more vulnerable to targeted industrial action by workers.

Sysco supplies food to hotels, restaurants, hospitals, Michigan State University and numerous other large institutions. The potential for effective industrial action is just waiting to be realised.

The case of the Shrewsbury 24 – an object lesson in the workings of the state and the treachery of our social-democratic misleaders

United We Stand is a gripping theatrical account of the case of the Shrewsbury 24, currently on tour around independent theatres in Britain.

United We Stand is a gripping theatrical account of the case of the Shrewsbury 24, currently on tour around independent theatres in Britain.

Some episodes in working-class history remain stubbornly in the collective memory, resisting all efforts either to consign them to oblivion or ‘reinterpret’ them to make them fit the bourgeois falsification of history. One such episode was the persecution of building workers back in the seventies, thrown into jail for the ‘crime’ of picketing construction sites to persuade workers to join the 1972 builders’ strike.

The central issue of the strike was the battle against the ‘lump’ – the practice whereby workers were hired on a daily basis and paid in cash, robbing them of all employment rights and also putting downward pressure on the wages and job security of contracted employees. The strike itself, which achieved some of its aims, concluded after three months. But for the Shrewsbury 24 the nightmare had just begun.

The use of ‘flying pickets’ to spread the strike had been a runaway success, helping to close hundreds of building sites, and was a tactic which the miners were to develop in 1972 (against Edward Heath’s government) and 1984 (against Margaret Thatcher’s government). The threat of such a good example, cheering to the working class but terrifying for the capitalist state, was not lost on the powers that be, who decided to pick on one routine picket in one particular town and do their utmost to criminalise it.

Accordingly, police in the west country and north Wales spent a full ten weeks investigating what did or did not happen when 24 building workers dropped in for a chat at a construction site in Shrewsbury on 6 September. Police interrogated over 800 witnesses in a frantic effort to find, or manufacture, evidence of intimidation.

Then, on 14 February, months after the strike was over, police raided houses in north Wales, arresting six men, including Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson (later of Royle Family fame). Further arrests thereafter brought the number up to 24 – the ‘Shrewsbury 24’.

After a jury had acquitted eight of the defendants of the charge of intimidation on the grounds of zero evidence, overruling the judge, the state shifted its ground and hit Warren and Tomlinson with ‘conspiracy’ charges – charges which were more vague but carried heavier sentences.

Both were sent down, Tomlinson for two years and Warren for three. Both correctly asserted that they were political prisoners; both took the blanket sooner than wear prison clothes, and both also undertook hunger strikes. Because of his defiant stand, Warren was subjected to a ‘liquid cosh’, consisting of increasing doses of tranquilliser – a form of violence which left him with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and contributed to his early demise.

Last chance to see Neil Gore’s fantastic play about the Shrewsbury 24, United We Stand, in Bristol on Tuesday 5 May. Call 07718 666 593 for tickets. £10 / £3.

Facebook event page for the showing with full details

Since his release, Tomlinson and his supporters have been tireless in pursuing justice. In 2012, Tomlinson tried to get the convictions overturned by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and the following year he raised the issue again at the Durham Miners’ Gala. In 2014, MPs voted for the disclosure of files relating to the arrests in 1973, but still the government stonewalls.

Labour hypocrisy

As election day approaches, the Labour PR machine has scented a cost-free opportunity to strike a ‘progressive’ pose on the issue and pull in a few ‘left’ votes.

Labour’s shadow minister Lisa Nandy pointed out that the government had “no justification” for keeping the Shrewsbury 24 files under wraps, declaiming that “The minister may refuse to act, but a Labour government will act. We will release those papers with the urgency that the situation demands.”

Stirring words. Yet when Heath’s Tory government was replaced by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in 1974, at a time when the issue of the Shrewsbury 24 was convulsing the whole labour movement, how did Labour approach the question?

Did it bravely denounce this naked exercise of class war against workers? Did it release these political prisoners? On the contrary: the Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins withstood all pleas and kept them under lock and key.

And what about when the papers relating to the case came up for release under the 30-year rule in 2002? Did the Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine (Tony Blair’s former pupil master) release the papers as expected? Not a bit of it. Did the then Labour home secretary David Blunkett insist that he do so? Of course not. He duly signed them away for another 10 years under the pretext that their release was ‘not in the public interest’.

How about the TUC, did it support the campaign? Quite the reverse. The TUC did nothing beyond issuing a few ritual declarations to get the convictions overturned and the prisoners released. Still, on his release in 1975, Tomlinson sought the help of the TUC. Instead of assisting the campaign, the TUC refused to let him address the annual conference, obliging him to disrupt the proceedings to hold the labour aristocracy to account.

And what did Des Warren think? In his book The Key to My Cell, he made his disgust at the cowardice of the trade-union movement very plain, writing: “I feel bitterness, anger and loathing when I think of some of our trade-union ‘leaders’ bemoaning the nation’s ills and how the workers must endure a cut in their living standards in order to save the country from disaster – even my kids would recognise that as a load of crap. [But not evidently those who today campaign for a Labour government committed to austerity!]

“Their phoney dealing with the government (which is holding me prisoner) is to batten down the working class and force them to accept capitalist answers to capitalism’s problems. Leaders? As far as I can see, the only time some of them take a lead is when they go to the front of the queue when honours are dished out.”

Scorning those who supposed his anger was just a subjective response, Warren had this to say:

If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times that I don’t take my imprisonment personally.

The Tory government wasn’t interested in me or my 23 co-victims. They were attacking the trade-union movement and, by failing to stand by us, the Executive Committees of Ucatt and the T&G failed to protect the movement – a job they were well paid to do. (The Key To My Cell, 1982, p190)

Fight the blacklist

What has helped stir the pot and bring this burning historical injustice back to the boil is the continuing struggle to expose and resist the blacklisting in the construction industry of union reps who dare to blow the whistle on unsafe practices.

Such practices took the lives of 42 construction workers last year, 14 of whom were self-employed (the lump by any other name). Whilst the construction industry only accounts for 5 percent of the working population, it accounted for 31 percent of fatalities.

On 12 March, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public inquiry into undercover police espionage operations targeting peaceful protests and bereaved parents of murder victims. But on the same day that the state embarked upon yet another damage-limitation whitewash exercise, the exposure of police malpractice went up another notch with the publication of a book by leading anti-blacklist campaigners Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain: Blacklisted: the Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists.

Launching the book, Dave Smith pointed out that

There are secret political police in the UK; they are called Special Branch, MI5, GCHQ, Netcu and SDS. These coercive arms of the state see their role as supporting big business against anyone who may threaten their profits.

Trade unions and peaceful campaign groups are viewed as the enemy. Undercover police infiltration of justice campaigns set up by bereaved relatives, anti-racist and environmental groups and trade unions is an affront to democracy – it is essential that this is part of the remit of the public inquiry announced by Theresa May.

Blacklisted workers should be consulted before the inquiry starts. Blacklisting is no longer an industrial-relations issue: it is a conspiracy orchestrated by directors of multinational companies and the security services against trade unions.

Blacklisting is not just in construction, it is endemic across UK industry from NHS whistleblowers, airlines, North Sea, retail and railways. We now know that the fire brigades’ union, Unison, CWU and NUT were also targets of this national scandal. The full extent of the corporate and police spying against trade unions demands that blacklisting is given a full standalone public inquiry of its own.”

Less then a week after publication of the book, Dave Smith was arrested on a peaceful protest outside the Construction News Awards in the Park Lane Hilton. The protest was to highlight the sacking of workers on the Crossrail project for raising health and safety issues.

One example was the sacking of employees who objected to working in the darkness without torches on their helmets. Days after the sackings, 13 workers suffered falls. Campaigners reported that the police went in mob-handed at the demo and made a beeline for Smith.

As Smith’s own book makes plain, such arrests are entirely political in character and demand a political response from unions.

As was to be expected, ‘left’ Labour luminaries are now clutching onto the coat-tails of this momentous grass-roots revolt for all they are worth in the hope of getting some reflected glory and a few more working-class votes. The reality, however, is that blacklist operations have been in full swing throughout Tory and Labour administrations alike – an immutable necessity for the functioning of the secret state.

What’s more, when the notorious Consulting Association was busted in 2009, the then Labour government declined the opportunity to criminalise the actual practice of blacklisting itself, outlawing only such instances where it could be proved that someone had been forbidden employment on the sole grounds of a negative comment on a blacklisting database – a basically impossible requirement which lets MacAlpine and the rest of the unsavoury bunch completely off the hook.

Unite: the gloves come off?

On 19 March, Len McCluskey took to the columns of the Guardian with an article with the promising title ‘Unions must be able to fight for workers – even if it means breaking bad laws’.

He reported that the previous week Unite had decided to recommend “the deletion from our rules of six little words that have governed our union’s actions: ‘so far as may be lawful’”.

McCluskey reassured the fainthearted that “Our executive wants these words gone not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery, but because we have to ask ourselves the question: can we any longer make that commitment to stick, under any and all circumstances, within the law as it stands?”

The answer, coyly withheld until the final paragraph, was basically ‘No’. “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”

McCluskey then pointed out the way in which the vagaries of the postal ballot undoubtedly help capitalism to sow confusion and litigation whenever a strike ballot is under way, and seemed to unveil a plan whereby future ballots would be conducted electronically. “We will drive forward with modern technology and use it to increase turnouts in our ballots without being shackled by prescriptions – such as postal ballots – imposed in another age. We are not going to let the Tories destroy our democracy by shackling us to archaic procedures.”

What this ‘grand new plan’ (or storm in a teacup) neatly sidesteps is the rather more important fact that, under both Tory and Labour regimes, ‘our democracy’ has been comprehensively violated for decades by legislation that dares to impose preconditions on the exercise of the right to strike.

In truth, the right to strike, curtailed as it is in practice, is not really ‘hanging by a thread’ (as McCluskey suggests) but has long since ceased to have any real meaning at all. Modernising the method by which unions submit to state scrutiny of their internal affairs does nothing to deal with this fundamental reality.

McCluskey is right: unions should resume their proper function and act as fighting organs of the working class. Yet so long as the argument is cast exclusively in terms of the need to struggle against evil Tory governments, letting Labour off scot free, the real character of the political struggle of labour versus capital will remain obscured.

At one point in the article, Len tells us that the Labour victory in 1997 was “one of the happiest days of my life”, and it is clear that, even after experiencing what followed, he still preserves the belief that a vote for Miliband will somehow soften the blows of austerity and give the unions a fairer deal in the courts.

The happiest day for the trade-union movement, meanwhile, will be when it wrenches itself free from its enslavement to the imperialist Labour party and uproots the debilitating influence of social-democratic misleadership.