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.
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.
A Bangladeshi woman survivor is lifted out of the rubble by rescuers at the site of a building that collapsed on Wednesday 24 April in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
In Greece, where unemployment has hit 27 percent, the fascist Golden Dawn party is helping to divert popular anger against capitalism into divisive xenophobic hatred of ‘foreigners stealing our jobs’.
When some 200 migrant agricultural labourers, mostly from Bangladesh, came to demand unpaid wages going back six months or more, at least 28 of them were shot and injured by gun-wielding thugs. Three of the foremen at the strawberry plantation in Nea Manolada where they worked are being blamed for the murderous assault.
This racist violence is the most recent in a string of similar attacks against Asian and African workers in Greece.
And as if to clarify what might drive Bangladeshis to leave their homes and expose themselves to such racist poison in the first place, the true face of imperialist superexploitation has been on shameful display in Bangladesh itself, with the death of over 1,000 textile workers, mostly women, when the Rana Plaza complex in which they worked collapsed.
Some 3,000 people were estimated to be working there at the time of collapse, despite the fact that only days earlier large cracks had been detected and reported. Workers in the building were told to continue coming in to work on pain of dismissal.
Back in November, similar disregard by factory owners for the lives of their workers had been shown in the Tazreen factory fire. On that occasion workers were told it was a false alarm and ordered back to work. When they tried to escape, they were blocked by a locked fire door. That fire claimed 112 lives.
The grim conclusion is that whether Bangladeshi workers stay at home or travel abroad, the end result is the same: superexploitation at best, and at worst an early grave. The immediate owners of the collapsed factory may be justly pilloried, as may the thugs in Greece who shot the strawberry-pickers, but in neither case will the real criminal be called to account – capitalism itself.
Whatever happens to the local factory bosses, we can be sure that the monopoly capitalists running Primark and Matalan will not be required to answer for the lives of those who died stitching their garments. At least, not yet.
Trade unionists protest against blacklisting in central London, 9 February 2013
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 9 February meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
Three years on from the half-hearted raid on Ian Kerr’s ‘Consulting Association’ blacklisting scam and his conviction on data protection offences, the scandal is refusing to go away. (See Proletarian, December 2012)
Instead, thanks to the efforts of the Blacklist Support Group and workers fighting for redress both in the High Court and in the European Court of Human Justice, more and more is coming to light about the blanket surveillance of workers – in the construction industry and elsewhere.
It turns out that the CA blacklist was used for high-end government projects including the Olympics, the MOD, Portcullis House and the Jubilee Line, and speculation is mounting that blacklists were used in recruiting for Crossrail.
Whilst the range of building companies involved in snooping extends to just about every major operator, pride of place in this rogue’s gallery has gone to McAlpine, run by family scion Callum. He acted as chairman of the CA between 1993 and 1996, and all CA meetings took place at his office.
Under scrutiny by the Scottish Affairs Committee, McAlpine pleaded ignorance or a poor memory, but confessed to heavy use of the blacklist throughout 2008, ‘excusing’ himself on the plea that he was chasing ‘illegal’ immigrants, not union militants! Just how much there was to cover up became clear given the circumstances surrounding the company’s action in paying off Kerr’s £5,000 fine, his legal expenses and the redundancy pay-outs to CA’s staff.
Whilst Callum McAlpine got out the violin, claiming that the pay-off was a “humanitarian and reasonable action”, everything was done at the time to conceal the cosy McAlpine connection. McAlpine’s head of human resources, David Cochrane, himself acting as the last chairman of the CA, warned Kerr to hide the hush money in his daughter’s bank account.
As Kerr told the Scottish Affairs Committee in November, shortly before his death: “I had put myself at the front and took the flak … so that they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this. They would remain hidden.”
Now that Labour is out of the driving seat, there is much sound and fury to be heard at Westminster, with indignant opposition benches deploring the refusal of the ConDem government to take the blacklisting scandal seriously. It will be recalled, however, that Labour had the opportunity in 2009, when the scandal broke, to deal with the issue.
Indeed, Mandelson put an amendment to the Employment Relations Act through in 2010, supposedly fixing things. Yet it rapidly became clear that nothing had really changed. As the law stands, blacklisting as such is still neither unlawful nor a criminal act.
To get redress, it is necessary for the blacklisted worker not only to prove that he has been blacklisted, but also that his inclusion on that blacklist is the sole reason he is turned down for a job – a well-nigh impossible task, especially given the legal resources commanded by the companies.
And in any case, how can you seek redress if you don’t know you are on a blacklist in the first place? As of autumn 2012, only 194 of the 3,213 workers known by the Information Commissioner’s Office to have been blacklisted are aware of the fact. Nor is this surprising, since you can only find out if you are on a blacklist by phoning up the ICO and asking them.
Some might not unreasonably fear that asking the question is itself asking for trouble.
Labour in government had ample opportunity to ban blacklists in 2009. It failed to do so for the same reason as every other Labour government in history: because Labour is just as much a servant of the bourgeoisie as are the Tories against whom it rails.
Surveillance of workers did not begin with Kerr’s racket. The Consulting Association began its career in 1993 by paying £10,000 for an already-existing database of blacklisted names. The source of that database was the Economic League, of which Kerr was himself an employee.
The League was founded in 1919 to root out communist and left-wing organisations and individuals. Working closely with the British Empire Union fascists, it played a key role in attacking the general strike in 1926. Its founder had led the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty through the first world war, and the chairman of the BBC sat on its council.
Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the League ran a comprehensive blacklisting service. Despite being regularly exposed in the press of the time, it seemed to enjoy a charmed existence, until the heat from a parliamentary inquiry in 1990 finally obliged the company to formally dissolve itself – only for its work to be taken up again by Sir Robert McAlpine and the Consulting Association.
The bourgeoisie can have every confidence that Kerr’s work will now be taken up again by other hands working to an identical agenda – until such time that the workers’ movement frees itself from the suffocating Labour embrace and takes meaningful action to stop it.
Just how corrupting an effect social democracy has upon the trade-union movement is clear from the evidence now emerging of collusion between some unions and the Consulting Association.
According to Construction News: “Evidence has emerged that suggests union representatives may have ‘liaised’ with contractors to blacklist workers from construction jobs. But an investigation by Construction News has uncovered documents that suggest union officials may also have provided information to the blacklist.
“One of the files from the blacklist, seen by CN, describes a worker, Michael Anderson, as ‘not recommended’ by Amicus … Mr Anderson’s redacted file says: ‘1997–1999. Worked at JLE [Jubilee Line Extension] during electricians’ dispute but not involved in any actions. 2005 Oct 26: Information received … that the above is ‘not recommended’ by Amicus.’ It adds: ‘Above information came from [redacted] of Amicus.’”
Mr Anderson’s summing up is damning: “I am an ordinary spark. I have spent long periods in unemployment. It is not just financial. It is everything.”
This echoes the testimony of another blacklisted electrician, Steve Acheson, the leader of the EPIU’s Manchester branch. Confronted with evidence related to union involvement in the collection of blacklist data, he told Construction News: “I have been a union member my whole life. It is a very hard decision whether to sue. But I have worked just two years in the last 12. Knowing that part of the reason is because of union involvement is very difficult to take.”
The January 2013 edition of Site Worker had this to say: “When it came to light, after the Information Commissioner’s Office exposed the Consulting Association’s construction blacklist in 2009, that some Unite and Ucatt officials had allegedly been supplying information about rank-and-file union members directly to the CA, a new trade-union low had been reached …
“Unite and Ucatt are disgustingly and disgracefully trying to cover up the conduct of these officials and to sweep this under the carpet. It has been reported that, in 2006, the then general secretary of Unite, Derek Simpson may well have known about the CA and its activities yet did not act.”
Cleaning up the unions must begin by breaking the link with Labour.
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 12 January meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
Fire rages at the Tazreen factory in Savar.
The exploitation of proletarians in Bangladesh, helping deliver the superprofits into which imperialism dips to buy off the labour aristocracy at home, is conducted in a more straightforwardly murderous fashion.
Documents and logos retrieved from the factory blaze that killed 112 garment workers and injured many more indicated that the sweatshop death trap was producing clothes for Walmart’s ‘Faded Glory’ line, as well as for other US and foreign companies.
November’s fire at the nine-storey Tazreen factory in Savar, north west of Dhaka, started in a warehouse on the ground floor that was used to store yarn, and quickly spread to the upper floors. Though most workers had left for the day when the fire started, 600 were still inside working overtime, and it was these who were trapped.
About a hundred died inside the building and another dozen lost their lives trying to escape from the upper storeys. One survivor, Mohammad Ripu, tried to run out of the building when the fire alarm rang but was stopped by managers, who said: “Nothing happened. The fire alarm had just gone out of order. Go back to work.” When people ran for the exit door they found it had been locked from the outside.
Tazreen was not a one-off tragedy. Since 2005, around 700, mostly female, garment workers have perished in similar fires, revealing a systematic flouting of safety rules that amounts to a policy of calculated manslaughter.
These corporate murders, blamed on local sweatshop bosses but carried out to feed monopoly capital’s insatiable hunger for cheap labour, are inseparable from the intense superexploitation that is essential to the country’s annual export of $18bn worth of garments.
Workers are fighting back courageously against this oppression, organising strikes to demand better wages and conditions. One union leader was found tortured and killed outside Dhaka last year, but the struggle will only intensify.
See also: Victory to the garment workers of Bangladesh!
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 8 December meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
Last November, substantial coordinated strike action behind the pensions issue took thousands onto the streets in Britain. Since that struggle was sold out by the TUC, and despite the subsequent unanimous passage at the TUC’s annual congress of a motion tentatively mooting the possibility of a general strike, the momentum has drained away, thanks to the continued left-social-democratic character of even the most militant sections of organised labour.
On the eve of this year’s 14 November ‘day of action’, faced with the looming failure of the British TUC to mount even token support, the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) couldn’t advance any higher goal than to ‘get back to’ the glorious heights of last year’s ‘N30’ action, yet again calling upon the TUC to ‘name the day’ for a (one-day!) ‘general strike’.
A recent rally in defence of the NHS in Bristol illustrated the problem clearly. Speaker after speaker repeated the same mantra: “Labour must stop implementing Tory cuts.” Whilst this approach came in ‘militant’ wrapping – “Don’t let the Labour councillors get away with it! Don’t give them any peace! etc” – the subtext that got reinforced was inescapable: stick with Labour, it’s the only show in town.
The Bristol march was well supported (and barely reported), and drew attention to the way that the NHS is being prepared for balkanisation, with clinical commissioning groups purchasing services from NHS trusts and private companies.
Particularly flagrant have been the efforts of the so-called South West Pay Cartel to introduce regional pay agreements, undermining the existing national banding of jobs and preparing the ground for cuts in pay and conditions.
It appears that the Cartel’s honesty has made even the government a little nervous, with health minister Dan Poulter describing the consortium as “somewhat heavy-handed” during a Commons debate. It’s clear enough that the Cartel’s flat feet are trampling in the same direction the rest of the NHS is destined to travel in due course.
However, rearguard defence of national banding alone is not enough to mobilise health workers in the struggle, any more than rearguard defence of Joint Industry Board arrangements is enough to mobilise electricians in the construction industry or rearguard defence of the Agricultural Wages Board (now threatened with the chop) is enough to mobilise agricultural workers.
What is needed across all sectors of employment is a class-wide struggle to break with the social-democratic politics of the Labour party and all its friends and overthrow the crisis-ridden capitalist system.
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 21 October meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
As European leaders met for the Brussels summit on 18 October, the Greek working class staged its 20th general strike since the onset of the acute crisis.
Just how desperate that crisis has now become was summarised by Konstantinos Balomenos, a utility worker whose wage has been halved and whose two sons are without work: “Enough is enough. They’ve dug our graves, shoved us in and we are waiting for the priest to read the last words.”
The strike effectively shut Greece down for 24 hours. Ships were stuck in port, planes stranded on the tarmac, public transport paralysed, ministries and public offices closed down, traffic down to a trickle and big shops shuttered up. Many of the smaller shops, too, which had on earlier strikes stayed open, closed their doors, even down to the street kiosks.
In Athens, the communist-led popular-front union PAME mobilised 25,000 to march separately to Syntagma Square, then joining forces with other trade unionists. According to the Guardian, the two major Socialist Party-oriented federations, the GSEE and ADEDY, by their own estimation mustered only 3,000.
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 21 October meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
In Andalucia, where over 30 percent of workers are unemployed and austerity is becoming a euphemism for semi-starvation, the SAT union has responded by organising ‘expropriations’ of supermarkets, with liberated basic foodstuffs distributed amongst the poor.
According to Bloomberg Business Week, 30 union activists in Ecija stormed Carrefour and Mercadona on 7 August, piled the trolleys high with cooking oil, salt, sugar, pasta and rice, and wheeled them out.
Another raid in Cadiz stalled when staff locked the activists inside the store. A compromise was then negotiated: 12 carts of unpaid-for food and permission to leave for all. And when Angela Merkel came to Spain, activists marked the occasion by occupying Lidl.
Lacking the guidance of our brave TUC, these activists did not think to preface their actions with an Early Day Motion asking for shoplifting to be made lawful.
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 21 October meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
With more and deeper cuts every day chipping away at things to which everyone had long become accustomed (a fire engine turning up in reasonable time when you dial 999, a proper investigation when someone loses a finger in an industrial accident, an affordable train ticket even), people quite reasonably look to the unions to do their traditional job of standing up for the rights of ordinary workers.
Yet with unions less interested in organising strike funds than they are in donating to the Labour party, we can expect little more from the TUC than the odd day’s protest march.
The efforts of union militants in the NSSN and elsewhere to kick-start the do-nothing TUC into leading a coordinated strike campaign against the imposition of austerity in Britain continue to run into the same brick wall at congress after congress.
Each year one or other resolution in favour of this, suitably militant in presentation but hedged about with enough caveats to reassure the labour aristocracy, is passed unanimously and then left to gather dust on the shelf, with at best another chance to let off steam at another ‘day of action’.
This year proved no exception, with what the NSSN describe as a ‘bold resolution’ from the prison warders proposing “a coalition of resistance taking coordinated action where possible [!] with far-reaching campaigns including the consideration [!!] and practicalities [!!!] of a general strike”.
But the harsh truth is that, until the social-democratic politics of the union movement are taken on and faced down, the TUC will continue its history of treachery to the working class – a history unbroken since 1926.
Trying to cheer ourselves up by telling ourselves that “The passing of this motion is a great step forward in the battle that has been waged to push the leaders of the TUC towards mobilising the weight of the trade-union movement against the government’s cuts agenda” merely reinforces the reformist notion that piling more pressure on the labour aristocracy will eventually oblige them to lead the fight against capitalism, disarming workers ideologically.
And in the end, the key question is not whether the TUC refuses to call a general strike or calls one in order to betray it. The key question is rather: what is meant by ‘A future that works’?