Blacklisting: The Secret War Big Business Wages on Workers

I spoke to the authors of a new book about the blacklists kept by bosses in the UK to make sure that employees who complain can never work again.

Mar 16 2015, 3:10pm

A protest against blacklisting in 2013. Photo by Simon Childs.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

You'd hope that construction work would be one area of life where tabloid stories about "health 'n' safety going mad" were actually true, in order to stop people getting in the way of machines designed to smash concrete, or falling off some 20th floor scaffolding. In fact, for years, the opposite has been the case, as people raising health and safety concerns have been systematically nixed from getting a job in construction.

From at least the 1980s, construction companies kept a secret "blacklist" of some 3,200 workers that they wanted to ensure never found work. These included various types of people who somehow got in the way of the companies making a fat profit—workers who complained about dangerous practices on sites, trade union organizers who tried to get a better wage, and even environmental protesters who weren't employed in the industry but got in the way of construction. Lives were ruined as tradespeople found that they were mysteriously denied work all the time, despite being qualified. Some people were even pushed to suicide as they couldn't provide for their families.

In 2009, an article written by journalist Phil Chamberlain in the Guardian ended up being put on the desk of an investigator at the Information Commissioner Office. That kick started a chain of events which exposed the truth of blacklisting that many had already suspected for years. Following a raid on the organization set up by the companies to manage the secret blacklist—the Consulting Association—the Blacklist Support Group was formed to represent blacklisted workers. The secretary of the group Dave Smith, a trade unionist who was blacklisted himself, has teamed up with Phil Chamberlain to write a book exposing the practice. Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists tells the story of multinationals and the state colluding to undermine trade unionism and thousands of workers fighting for their dignity—a fight which continues to this day. I caught up with the pair at the book's launch last week.

VICE: Dave, you've written this book as somebody who has been a victim of blacklisting. Tell me about your experience.
Dave Smith: My blacklist file is 36 pages long and runs from 1992 until 2006. The first entry records a protest about several week's unpaid wages on a Balfour Beatty site. The rest of my file is about safety concerns I have raised including asbestos and overflowing toilets. I could never get a job for any of the large companies but managed to find work with small subcontractors or via employment agencies for a while. But it reached a point where even the agencies wouldn't offer me a job. This is recorded in my blacklist file. I went from driving a large four by four to a £300 [$445] fiesta van and during the height of the building boom I was virtually unemployable. I had to leave the industry to pay the mortgage.

"Blacklisting people who complain about safety causes deaths on building sites. It's as simple as that."

How big was the human cost throughout the industry?
Some people we interviewed for the book have been out of work for 20 years. When you first tell someone that, they go "out of work for 20 years? Building work? That can't be right," but then when you actually see their file, they're out of work and as soon as they get a job, the company find out, and they're sacked. They get another job as soon as they're fired and they're sacked again. We've been talking not just to the workers but their wives and their partners. Kids aren't getting new trainers, kids aren't going on school trips. People have lost their houses over this. Quite a few people, their relationships have broken up. This isn't just about numbers, it's about the fact they've taken food off our tables and that's why we've taken it so personally.

One of the main reasons workers were added to the blacklist was for raising health and safety concerns. What kind of impact does this have on building sites?
Well everybody knew there was a blacklist. It wasn't a secret, although the employers always denied it whenever the politicians asked them. Management used to say, "If you carry on like that we'll make sure you never work again in the building industry" and it wasn't an idle threat—it was true. The impact on health and safety is, if somebody moans about a bit of scaffolding or the toilets overflowing and gets sacked for it, then next time when the toilets are overflowing or there's asbestos, people just keep their head down and don't say anything, which is one of the reasons why constructions got such a terrible health and safety record. Blacklisting people who complain about safety causes deaths on building sites. It's as simple as that.

The promotional video for 'Blacklisted.'

The blacklist was mainly a list of construction workers, but not entirely. What other kind of people were on the list, and why?
Phil Chamberlain: It started off as a construction blacklist and—I think it's the nature of the surveillance—once you start compiling it takes in more and more people. People who the companies are concerned about suddenly get drawn in. If we look at the road protests [anti-road building activism] that grew up around the 1990s, they affected construction companies. The environmental protesters who took part in roads protests aren't union members but they're people the companies want to keep tabs on. That coincides with the kind of people which the state are interested in keeping tabs on as well. That's when you start to see that kind of cross over. We've got academics and journalists on the list as well. People who start to cause worry to the companies started to be added in.

So you're talking about a cross over between the construction companies and the state. Was the list compiled with the active collusion of the police?
It appears there were links between construction companies and the police. The question is about how systematized that contact was. In some cases it would have been personal contacts developed up over a number of years or inherited. We've spoken to industrial relations officers from the companies who have freely acknowledged meeting Special Branch people and we know the industrial desk at Special Branch was tasked with looking at trade unions and maintaining contact with corporations. We know those links existed and have done for a number of years. In some cases it would have been done on a fairly informal basis and in other cases perhaps more systemically done.

The files are quite clear in that some of the files contain information that could only have come from the police. That not just us saying that, the Information Commissioner's Office looked at the files and came to the same conclusion independently to ourselves.

It's quite clear this is much wider than construction and much wider than the UK but that's because it's the nature of the economic system which can't deal with that kind of dissent, which is ultimately about preserving some profit margin at the expense of democratic, legitimate forms of protest.

In the book you draw a lot of parallels between the blacklisting scandal and the the phone hacking scandal. Why is that?
I think it's fascinating in the sense that when Rob Evans and I wrote the article for the Guardian in March 2009 and in the summer Nick Davies writes that superb piece showing the breadth of phone hacking. The numbers are relatively similar.

But phone hacking victims are getting some sense of justice, whereas blacklisting victims are having to fight to be listened to.
The differences is who they are. The celebrities have got a lot more access to mechanisms to make their voice heard. They can employ better lawyers, they can apply pressure in a number of different ways.

The willingness to address the issue of phone hacking is in stark contrast and I think it's because they've treated it as a corruption issue, but with blacklisting this was the normal mode of operation. That says something fundamental about the way we handle industrial relations in this country, the way we handle dissent in this country, which is far more frightening and needs to be resisted.

The book ends by putting blacklisting in its global and historical context. How widespread is the practice, and similar tactics?
One of the guys who ran the Economic League [predecessor in many ways to The Consulting Association] said to Parliament: "it's gone on since the pyramids," as if it's part of your hazard of working. I think there's a danger of accepting it because then we don't get to challenge it and say that fundamentally this is wrong.

It's quite clear in this country it's operating in the NHS. There was a story published two weeks ago about keeping files on people involved in airline disputes with British Airways. We've looked at cases that have taken place in Canada where migrant workers from Mexico have been monitored and refused visas to go and work in Canada. There was a case in France in 2013 where Ikea used access to police files to monitor people in their stores. We've got evidence of a company based in Ireland which recruits migrant workers keeping files on workers in Europe who might be causing problems.

It's quite clear this is much wider than construction and much wider than the UK but that's because it's the nature of the economic system which can't deal with that kind of dissent, which is ultimately about preserving some profit margin at the expense of democratic, legitimate forms of protest. Most of these people are simply just raising health and safety issues. There was a case in Indonesia where people were upset about conditions at an Adidas company and they reached for the blacklist. It's a tool for managing, but it doesn't mean it's right.

Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists is available from New Internationalist Books

Follow James on Twitter.

VICE Channels