Union blacklisting and police infiltration, ten years on

Progress has been slow since the 2009 revelations of workers being blacklisted for union activity, Phil Chamberlain writes.

Credit: Dun.can/flickr

For those working in the gig economy on self-employed contracts that give few protections, an exchange between the Prime Minister and a Scottish MP may have little consequence.

Scottish trade unionist and MP Chris Stephens used Prime Minister’s Questions this week to ask Theresa May if, in the light of reports of police collusion in the blacklisting of trade union activists, she would order a public inquiry.

A few years back Stephens would have been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist. May batted the question away saying that the government had responded to this proposal in the past. Indeed it has. In 2015, when May was Home Secretary, she ordered a judge-led inquiry into undercover policing. This came after it was revealed that officers had infiltrated campaign groups, had relationships with female activists and in some cases even had children with them.

Step back a little further and, in 2009, The Guardian revealed that more than 40 of the UK’s biggest construction companies had funded a secret organization to monitor union activists.

The Consulting Association, based in a non-descript building in the West Midlands, kept files on more than 3,000 people. If someone applied for a job and their name was on the file they would often be secretly blacklisted. If they raised health and safety concerns or took part in legitimate union activity, it would go on their file. The result was livelihoods destroyed and careers ended.

The Consulting Association arose out of the ashes of the Economic League – an anti-union, free market movement founded a century ago to suppress communist activity. Part of the battle meant collecting information on subversives and then charging companies to access those files so they could blacklist workers. Hundreds of companies signed up for its services and tens of thousands of files were kept, until the League folded in the early 1990s as a result of exposure by journalists and MPs.

Work by independent researchers, activists and journalists has revealed that more than 1,000 groups were infiltrated. These also included justice campaigns for those who had died in police custody or, like the Stephen Lawrence campaign, who alleged police malpractice.

Blacklisting, then, has a long history. ‘It probably dates back to the pyramids,’ a former League official told MPs smugly. And it is not restricted to the private sector. The spirit of 1950s McCarthyism lived on in the UK with, among others, the secret government committee on Subversion in Public Life.

The committee kept tabs on some 1,400 civil servants considered a threat to democracy and estimated there were some 50,000 subversives across the country. It began in the 1970s, lapsed and was then revived in the 1980s before lapsing again. Much of the work of monitoring subversives was taken over by an alphabet soup of different police agencies who continue their work today.

What has become accepted, judging by May’s bland response, is that the monitoring and blacklisting of workers involves corporations and the government in a symbiotic embrace. A parliamentary inquiry into The Consulting Association heard that prestigious public works programmes such as the Olympics and Crossrail were implicated in the scandal.

All this history may mean little for our precariously employed worker, but one positive outcome from the last ten years has been the ways workers have made common cause. Much as the private and public sector have colluded, so workers and activists in different areas have found new allegiances.

Construction workers have long suffered from so-called bogus self-employment contracts where the company washes its hands of legal obligations to look after staff. Dave Smith was on the Consulting Association blacklist and had a file running to more than 30 pages. When he discovered this, he took Carillion to court as it was named in the files as denying him work. Carillion cheerfully admitted doing it – and won the court case because, under UK employment law, Smith was not directly employed by them. This was upheld in the European Court of Human Rights.

Carillion is now no more having gone bust, but that gaping hole in employment protection remains.  Smith’s case helped bring to public attention one particular problem. Blacklisted construction workers used a variety of tactics to get their grievances heard from flash mob demonstrations to social media. 

Similarly the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain has won campaigns to support workers such as outsourced cleaners and self-employed delivery riders. Such groups have been sharing ideas, tactics and lawyers in an effort to force changes.

The unfolding scandal has also exposed that blacklisting is not restricted to history or a few sectors such as construction. In 2015 Sir Robert Francis QC produced Freedom To Speak Up, a report into whistleblowing in the NHS. Francis said that many people reported on fears that whistleblowing would have a detrimental effect on their career and received evidence of ‘vindictive treatment’ of people who raised concerns.

A conference a year later, co-organized by New Internationalist, brought together these different groups to hear their stories and find mutual support. Organizations like Protect, formally Public Concern at Work, now have specific advice for people who think they are blacklisted.

Common cause has also been found with the many groups targeted by undercover police officers. On the Consulting Association files were environmental campaigners, journalist and academics. Those involved in anti-roads protests and animal rights were of particular interest to the police and corporations.

Work by independent researchers, activists and journalists has revealed that more than 1000 groups were infiltrated. These also included justice campaigns for those who had died in police custody or, like the Stephen Lawrence campaign, who alleged police malpractice.

Some of the changes since 2009 have been cosmetic – a 2010 law to make blacklisting illegal has been largely useless. A £75m out of court settlement with major construction firms was a victory – though not one company official has been forced into the dock or out of a job. Unions continue to press the legal route.

What has been successful is the solidarity at home and abroad that the campaign against blacklisting has generated. The stories of these workers have been heard around the world and their experiences have galvanised others.

And long may that continue.

Phil Chamberlain is co-author of Blacklisted: The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists (New Internationalist)