The recent revelation that the police have been supplying information for the construction employers' blacklist confirms a practice activists have known for year.
The expose in last week’s Observer of the blacklist scandal in construction was an excellent morale-booster for all those activists who have been campaigning for years against this running sore.
The fact that it has achieved national prominence in the week that electricians in construction won a remarkable success can be no coincidence; but there is more to the blacklist than was covered in the article.
The article provides welcome publicity to a phenomenon that has ruined lives not just in construction, but through the whole range of employment. Construction was just one of the better organised (from the bosses’ point of view) areas of industry.
The Employers’ Federation that originally made use of this (illegal) means of victimising trades unionists was originally the Engineering Employers Federation (the EEF). Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, this nasty employers’ cabal spied on, infiltrated, and victimised activists in what was then a leading component of British industry. It was widely accepted by activists in engineering as a fact of life, though always denied by the employers.
Yet the blacklist has been a part of the employers’ arsenal for as long as workers have fought for a decent life.
In 1937, an American socialist called Leo Huberman wrote a book called ‘The Labor Spy Racket’. A paperback, less than 200 pages long, it is an indictment of the hypocrisy, vindictiveness, dishonesty, paranoia, class-hatred, and physical violence of major industrialists in the USA. It is not a work of fiction. Nor is it a work of allegation or assumption. It is a work based very largely on evidence given before the Senate Sub-committee on Education and Labor. That is, it is based on the employers’ own words, and paints a picture that will be familiar to many activists in Britain some three quarters of a century later.
It is a picture of a class of people prepared to mouth the platitudes of democracy and fairness; of truth and transparency; of even-handedness and tolerance; whilst all the while using every tactic of mendacity, intimidation, lies and distortion, and downright physical brutality, to try and smash any effective attempt by their employees to gain a safe working environment and decent wages.
75 years later, we begin to see just a glimmer of light shining on the same low-lifes that run this country’s affairs.
This is not just about the Balfour Beattys of this world condemning whole families to poverty and unemployment because one member of that family dared to protest against injustice. It is not just about the criminal behaviour indulged in by some 'captains of industry, and the compliance of the 'forces of law and order' in allowing them to get away with it.
It is about the active complicity of those forces of the state who loudly proclaim their virtue.
Senior officers of the Metropolitan Police gave evidence to the Leveson enquiry that they 'did not give priority to allegations of phone hacking' because they were too busy 'preserving lives from terrorist threats'. They actually meant they gave the nod to law-breaking by the rich and powerful and colluded in it by providing (free of charge) intelligence, gained by the state, to employers to help undermine the 'democracy' the police claim to be protecting.
What other conclusions can you draw from the appearance of information on the blacklist files which 'can only have come from' police or intelligence files?
The justification offered to the journalist for some of this ‘intelligence’ is that it was gathered as the result of anti-terrorist work (presumably justified on the grounds that if a building worker has a name like Kelly or O’Sullivan, he is automatically a terror suspect), and 'incorrectly' passed on to an employers’ hit list.
Add up the deaths and mutilations on British construction sites over the last 40 years – caused by badly maintained or incorrectly erected cranes; or tunnel collapses; or plain unsafe working practices; or the removal of safety equipment on cost grounds; or just plain excessive hours leading to horrendous accidents – and compare that to the deaths and injuries caused by your average terrorist organisation over the same period of time, and then ask yourself -who are the bigger criminals?
We have just witnessed the death toll of British service personnel in Afghanistan reach the 400 mark. Every one has led to private heartbreak and grief among those that loved them. But at least some consolation could be achieved from the public tributes paid by the great and the good, in recognition of the sacrifice made (although they never offer the same humanity to the civilian dead numbered in their thousands).
When was the last time you ever remember Cameron, MacAlpine, Blair, Brown or Balfour Beatty, offering similar crocodile tears over the deaths of workers in industrial accidents? And yet those who have been the victims of the blacklist have, in all too many cases, been blacklisted precisely because they have attempted to preserve life; through insisting that health and safety not be compromised; that profit should not be the altar on which innocent lives are sacrificed. And yet they and their families are condemned to unemployment, with the active collusion of the forces of the state who perennially prate on about their essential role in preserving all that is decent.
The blacklist is not a blot on the fair face of British industry. It is an essential part of the system that that judges a private soldier’s life as nothing when weighed against a politician’s prospects; and judges a worker’s life as nothing in the account sheets of profit and loss.
If the sparks achieve their goal of ending the blacklist, and ensuring well-paid safe jobs on the construction sites of Britain, they will have landed a mighty blow in the battle for justice.
Having forced Balfour Beatty and the other scumbags of Besna onto the back foot, the construction workers’ rank and file steering committee have resolved to press forward and demand an end to the blacklist; the enforcement of Rule 17 in their national agreement (which calls for the use of directly employed labour on JIB site, thus ending the employers’ reliance on agency labour as a backdoor method of enforcing the blacklist); the institution of a national scheme of apprenticeships; and an improvement in the rates of pay.
Their campaign deserves the support of every trade unionist, socialist, and all those revolted by the perversion of truth represented by the Murdoch press and its poodles.
The article in the Observer is a welcome example of how ethical journalism can help promote the fight for justice. But the case it highlights – that of Dave Smith – also shows the hollow nature of the law’s claim to offer justice. When a court can accept Dave’s claim that he has been unfairly subjected to victimisation, but then says it can offer no remedy because he was not directly employed by Balfours, but was an indirect agency worker, we can see why construction workers feel so abused. To me, it provides yet another proof of the old adage ‘British justice – it’s the best that money can buy’.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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