When Mickey Guyll was a young crane driver, he had it made. “Up until the age of 24, out of all the friends I hung around with in a working-class circle, I got nice pay and had the best prospects. Then to go from the best prospects to having no job and making fence posts...” Like many people whose lives seem pretty sorted, Mickey screwed up. His crime wasn’t a drunken indiscretion at a Christmas party, or even being a shitty crane driver – it was much more serious: He became the health and safety rep at a construction site on the Docklands Light Railway.
While that would probably be a sackable offence if Richard Littlejohn ruled the world, he doesn't, and people's careers and bank accounts shouldn't suffer because they give a damn about elf 'n' safety. Unfortunately, Mickey found himself on a list telling future employers to give him a wide berth, along with thousands of other construction workers who'd had the audacity to do things like care about their colleagues' safety or involve themselves with unions.
“Before then we had a death and some serious accidents [on the DLR site] – people being crippled and things like that," Mickey told me. "Without blowing my own trumpet... a lot of the times, when I said I was going to inspect a certain site on a certain day, they’d spend all week tidying it up and making it safe so that when I walked round it it’d be safe... I could go to management and bring up their [the workers'] concerns. So things improved after that.”
Shortly after he finished working there in 1992, work mysteriously dried up for him and he turned to being a cabbie, a job which he has done pretty much ever since and which he describes as “a bit crap”. He’s now 46. It wasn’t until a year ago that Mickey was able to prove what he was already pretty sure of – that his name was on a blacklist. The text next to Mickey's entry was; "'involved in safety issues, said to be led by' and then redacted. That's it. That's the whole lot," he told me.
In 2009, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) carried out a raid on The Consulting Association (TCA) and found that the organisation was holding information on over 3,200 construction workers with details going back to the 1980s. With the help of the police and even a trade union in one case, TCA’s business was selling the information to construction firms who wanted to weed out any bad eggs – troublemakers, trade union rabble rousers, people who didn’t want their colleagues to get maimed in a horrifying industrial accident – from their pool of employees. Lives went awry and careers were ruined as qualified tradespeople found it difficult to get work. If that wasn't shitty enough, the information used was often inaccurate.
Yesterday was a national day of action organised by the Trade Union Congress, to demand that the companies involved – more than 40 of them – “own up, clean up and pay up”. TCA’s manager Ian Kerr died in 2009, but the companies involved might still face consequences as the trade unions are starting legal action against them.
At the protest in London, trade unionists gathered outside a building site being run by Laing O’Rourke, one of the firms which is facing High Court action. The Unite trade union claims that its members are barred from the site. The disgruntled protesters shouted their anger in the rain and invited the builders on the site to come and join them in their fight for safer workplaces and against victimisation.
These guys pretended not to notice and awkwardly looked away.
This guy wasn’t too into the idea, either.
The irony of this sign was appreciated by all.
I talked to an electrician called Steve, who said, “There’s 18 pages [on the blacklist] all about me. ‘Do not employ under any circumstances. Goes on strike at the drop of a hat. Militant. Organising workers. Threatening people to join the union.’ It’s all lies. They saw me as a troublemaker. All I was ever trying to do was improve people’s lives on building sites and prevent accidents.”
Steve said he was a shop steward on the Jubilee Line extension in the late 90s. The job saw a lot of agitation from electricians after a fire alarm failed and the 12 most complain-y workers were moved to a different site. Accusation and counter-accusations of victimisation, sabotage and being overpaid flew between workers and bosses. Some of the workers formed an unofficial union to ramp up the pressure and for a while it seemed that the Millennium Dome might become an embarrassing failure because there would be no trains to transport people to it. At the time, nobody knew that it was bound to be an embarrassing failure anyway, but that's not the point. The consequences for Steve were career-ending.
"I couldn’t get any work so I suspected it. Continually turned down for work. I had to leave the industry in the end, I’m doing something else now. I haven’t worked in construction for 12 years. I trained as an electrician and I’m unable to carry out my chosen profession, basically," said Steve. "The directors should be jailed, really."
Dirk McPherson, a welder, told me, “I was called an agitator for organising some protests about safety in Kent in 2000. It said, ‘applied for a job: not employed / applied for a job: not employed’.
“I was a shop steward down there. We organised a sit-in in the canteen until all the safety issues were dealt with. Obviously that did not make me very popular and I was blacklisted. People were working right alongside high-pressure pipes that were being tested – totally unacceptable, it could kill you – very bad scaffolding, very bad sign posting for safety exits, et cetera – a list as long as your arm.
“When I am in work, everything seems to be going cushty," Dirk explained, "then all of a sudden I’m laid off despite the fact that there’s still a lot of work to be done. You phone up for a job and they say, ‘Yes, you can start Monday,’ then a day later they say, ‘Oh sorry, it’s been cancelled,’ but you find out from other workers that it wasn’t cancelled. That job there, they’re crying out for tradesmen and I’m a shit-hot tradesman. I’ve been in the game 42 years. They will not employ me because I’m on the blacklist.
“It’s reasonably depressing but I try to keep a cheerful smile on my face. I haven’t got the money to spend on my daughter that I’d like to,” he concluded, glumly.
Eight of the firms involved have set up a fund to compensate the workers, offering between £1,000 and £100,000. Better than a poke in the eye, but Steve was less than impressed. "It’s derisory," he said. "We’re looking for loss of work for about 15 years."
Dirk agreed and said it wasn't really about the money. "They’ve been shot in the foot because they’re getting bad publicity, so this compensation scheme is like a little public relations stunt. My worry is that people will accept the compensation and they’ll carry on with the blacklist. We’re not here fighting just for ourselves, but for future generations of construction workers. If we knuckle under and take our 30 pieces of silver then future generations are going to have it even worse than we have."
Other sticking points include the fact that the compensation includes a gagging clause. It also doesn't amount to an admission of guilt from the companies, which is kind of weird if you think about it.
Over the next few days, 1,200 further workers who have spent the last few years wondering why it's so hard for them to find work will get a letter from the ICO telling them that they were on the blacklist. Meanwhile, the BBC’s Panorama pointed to evidence that blacklisting might still be going on.
The unions are demanding an inquiry into blacklisting. On Monday, Nick Clegg said they might get it, but tacked on to another review looking into the controversy surrounding the Grangemouth dispute. So the unions are worried that it'll be a neat way to sell them "a party political inquiry set up to help the Conservative Party bash unions".
For people like Mickey, the damage has been done. "Who wouldn't want to be up there?" he asked me, pointing up to the building site. "Can you imagine the view? I went from earning £300 to £400 a week, some weeks you’d do a lot of overtime and go home with £500 pound in your pocket. This was the 80s. A lot of people don’t earn that now, do they? Now I’m driving a cab. It’s worse money. If you work the weekends you're dealing with drunks and god knows what else. I’d like to know who blacklisted me. I’d really like to know so I could look him in the face."
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