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       Hazards special online report, December 2013
Blacklisters and the government feel the heat
First the construction firms denied they’d done it. Then the government refused to investigate it. And the privacy watchdog said it would not alert the victims. But a massive mobilisation of unions and campaigners against blacklisting of safety activists has forced a dramatic about face and made justice for victimised workers a genuine possibility.

The Blacklist Support Group had simple enough demands. The construction employers that had victimised a generation of union reps and safety reps should own up, pay up and clean up. The firms though didn’t want to know.

Dave Smith, the group’s secretary, was an unabashed site safety activist. Like over 3,000 others, his name appeared on a blacklist run by The Consulting Association and bankrolled by the major construction firms. And like the others, the highly skilled engineer saw his work dry up at a time of major labour shortages (Hazards 107).

NATIONAL ACTION  Protests were held nationwide on 20 November 2013 to mark the Day of Action on Blacklisting. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady was joined by union leaders Steve Murphy of UCATT, Gail Cartmail of Unite and Paul Kenny of GMB at a lobby of parliament. 

“Our case – and our campaign – is about much more than money,” Dave said. “It’s about justice; it’s about getting those companies and those HR managers to tell us they are sorry for what they did to thousands and thousands of people for more than a decade; and it’s also about getting us back to work. Those are the ‘red line’ issues for us.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office named 44 firms supplying information to and using the illegal database. Still, no construction firm was prosecuted for a crime blacklisting campaigners believed had been committed with the complicity of the police.

The big names in the industry continued to claim they had done nothing wrong, and thousands of workers remained unaware they’d been secretly blacklisted. The government, which had thought phone tapping of celebrities was worthy of an inquiry, led by Lord Justice Leveson, refused to subject the construction industry’s far more damaging and sometime deadly behaviour to the same scrutiny.

Beating the blacklisters

The temperature though was rising. Unions held a rolling programme of demonstrations, targeting major sites, blacklisting company HQs, their supply chains and shareholder meetings in the UK and abroad. Construction firms found themselves facing a series of High Court appearances for human rights and privacy offences. The TUC called a 20 November 2013 National Day of Action on Blacklisting.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady explained: “There is a clear need for a Leveson-style inquiry into blacklisting to make sure it is stamped out once and for all. It is essential that companies who have blacklisted workers own up, clean up and pay up.

“It is scandalous that so many people's livelihoods have been ruined or put at risk just for raising health and safety concerns. The government cannot sit on the fence any longer. Blacklisting must be made a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and an unlimited fine.”

And one by one the admissions and concessions came. Eight of the major employers offered a compensation scheme and apologised for their involvement with The Consulting Association. The Independent Police Complaints Commission conceded it was “likely” the police had collaborated with the blacklisters.

As the 20 November day of action loomed, the Information Commissioner’s Office said it was going to contact directly 1,200 workers who were unaware they were on the blacklist. And the government said blacklisting would be the subject of an inquiry after all.

Getting ratty

It was movement, but it was grudging movement. The government investigation into blacklisting was tacked onto a party political inquiry set up to help the Conservative Party bash unions, said the TUC. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said a government review of industrial relations could be extended to include blacklisting of union activists by employers.

NOT FUNNY  Nick Clegg tacked blacklisting on to the to do list for David Cameron’s review of “intimidatory tactics” in industrial disputes. Many believe the deputy prime minister was attempting to distance himself from another round of Tory union bashing.

This wasn’t in the mind of ministers when they announced the review. It was the government reaction to Unite’s highly effective use of ‘leverage’ techniques to get companies to take safety and other union concerns more seriously.

Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, said: “Allegations about trade union industrial intimidation tactics, including attempts to sabotage businesses supply chains and harass employers' families are deeply concerning. That's why we need an independent review to get to the bottom of these activities, as well as to look at the role played by government, employers and employees in industrial disputes.”

The union’s smart organising methods, which include demonstrations outside the homes and offices of company directors and targeting shareholders and the wider supply chain, were used to startling effect in the recent Crossrail blacklisting dispute. Electrician Frank Morris was reinstated in September 2013, a year after the union says he was fired for his trade union activity and safety whistleblowing.

The review’s terms of reference make no explicit reference to blacklisting but both coalition parties subsequently said the issue could be addressed since the review will look at “existing legislation to prevent inappropriate or intimidatory actions in trade disputes.”

Unions say feigning concern about blacklisting when the real objective is a bout of old-fashioned union-bashing is unacceptable. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told the 20 November union lobby of parliament on blacklisting: “Blacklisting is real. It has ruined thousands of lives. Families are still suffering because a worker joined a union or raised a health and safety issue. We need a full inquiry into its scope. It must have the legal power to call witnesses, seize records and put employers on the spot.

“Companies guilty of blacklisting should be barred from public contracts until they can demonstrate that they understand the basics of human rights and good industrial relations.

“Blacklisting cannot be tacked onto the government inquiry set up purely to devise laws to limit union campaigning. The inquiry is a cheap electoral stunt set up in response to a non-existent problem, a taxpayer-funded initiative devised to generate a union-bashing headline or two for the Conservative election campaign. Everyone knows that we already have the most restrictive laws on unions in any advanced democracy.”

GOOD START Blacklisters in Wales and Scotland could be barred from public sector contractors. More.

The Blacklist Support Group also rejected the government move. A spokesperson said: “The Tory proposals are nothing more than an anti-union witch hunt masquerading as an inquiry. To equate the blacklist scandal with Unite’s leverage campaign exposes the government’s entire attitude towards organised labour. Blacklisting is a human rights conspiracy involving multinational firms and the state. Leverage is perfectly legal protest with an inflatable rat.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband praised “trade unionists and other campaigners have worked tirelessly to keep the scandal of blacklisting in the public eye.” He added: “Blacklisting is about a race to the bottom: lower standards, insecurity at work, fewer rights and worse conditions,” calling on the government to “end its refusal to act and hold the inquiry into blacklisting that common sense and decency demand.”

BROAD SUPPORT  Comedian Mark Thomas discovered illegal blacklister The Consulting Association held a file on him. He joined union protesters on the Leeds day of action.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “There is now a moral urgency for justice. Blacklisting is a scandal on the scale of phone hacking. Except it was ordinary working people whose lives have been torn apart by a conspiracy hatched by a greedy elite who were prepared to go to any length to attack decent hardworking men and women. It is time they owned up, cleaned up and paid up.

“While the government continues its demonisation of trade unions we will continue the very real task of giving the best legal and industrial representation to members who have been dehumanised by employers.”


See you in court

In November 2013, Unite issued its first tranche of five High Court proceedings against blacklisting employers, with 45 more High Court cases to follow, with UCATT and GMB announcing similar High Court action. The cases will return to court in March 2014.

The decision to proceed through the courts came after eight major construction employers offered a compensation deal for blacklisted workers, a scheme dismissed by unions as “a travesty.”

The companies establishing The Construction Workers Compensation Scheme - Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O'Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and Vinci - did not admit liability. Instead an October 2013 joint statement said they all apologised “for their involvement with The Consulting Association and the impact that its database may have had on any individual construction worker.”

The proposed scheme would require a blacklisted worker to drop all other legal claims, described by UCATT as an attempt to apply a “gag”. It would be open for just one year and would have a payment rate starting at just £1,000, with a £100,000 cap.

UCATT member Roy Bentham, a blacklisted joiner in a Blacklist Support Group delegation to the talks involving the companies and construction unions, said: “If there was any justice in the world, the directors implicated should be on their knees begging our forgiveness. We will settle for offers of employment, full compensation and a public inquiry into this squalid conspiracy.”

Blacklist Support Group secretary Dave Smith, said: “They’re so terrified of the truth that they’ve tried to offer a few blacklisted workers a few thousand pounds on condition that they don’t tell the court about the suffering they endured for years and on condition that they drop any further legal action. If they think we’ll accept this ‘take it or leave it’ compensation and go off with our tails between our legs, they’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Meanwhile, more revelations of industry blacklisting are starting to emerge. In October 2013, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) confirmed it holds documents relating to another blacklist in the construction industry which contains “names and national insurance numbers of individual construction workers on what are termed the Pfizers, Royal Opera House and Jubilee Line lists.”

Blacklist Support Group co-chair Steve Acheson won an employment tribunal after being unfairly dismissed when he raised safety concerns on the Pfizers project in Kent. “Along with 240 other workers, I was sacked and placed on a blacklist for raising health and safety concerns at Pfizers in 2000,” he recalls.

“The ensuing years my family life was wrecked. Those wretches who conspired against so many thousands of decent workers scandalised our industry with their hypocrisy towards real health and safety and their belated disingenuous apology is merely a means of self preservation. If there be any justice in the world, each and every conspirator should receive a custodial sentence.”

Unions and the Blacklist Support Group had long maintained the existence of a blacklist on these large, long-running sites. The companies had denied it.

The blacklist and the lies continue. And for all the belated concern professed by construction firms and ministers, blacklisted workers continue to be denied justice.



Blacklist Support Group: Blacklist blog and facebook page.

Unite, GMB and UCATT are all running high profile blacklisting campaigns.




Scotland and Wales bar blacklisters

Blacklisters in Wales and Scotland could be barred from public sector contractors.

In September 2013, the Welsh government  issued a Procurement Advice Note to all Welsh public bodies to outline the necessary steps that can be taken through procurement “to help eradicate blacklisting – which can be very damaging to the careers and livelihoods of trade unionists.”

Finance minister Jane Hutt said: “Procurement is an important part of the overall policy toolkit of the Welsh government. Under no circumstances is it acceptable for any business in receipt of public procurement expenditure to use blacklists.” She added: “I am determined to take action in Wales. I trust that other governments in the UK will take similar action if they have not already done so.”

In November, the Scottish government followed suit, publishing its own guidelines. The new rules mean companies bidding for work must disclose whether they have been involved in the illegal practice, and if so, they must show that “remedial action” has been taken. In future, companies found to have breached laws against blacklisting could have their contracts terminated.

A new contract clause, to be included in the standard terms and conditions for bidders, allows for contracts to be terminated if a supplier has broken the law. The guidelines are likely to be made statutory as part of the Procurement Reform Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament.

First Minister Alex Salmond said: "The Scottish government is opposed to blacklisting in any form, given the serious impact it can have on the career, livelihoods and lives of those affected. Everyone has a right to work and to raise concerns, including through a union.
“We are making it absolutely clear to any company wishing to tender to supply, build or service parts of our national infrastructure, or to deliver our public goods and services, that blacklisting will not be tolerated and that they face being excluded from bidding for public contracts if found to be taking part in this unacceptable practice."

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First the construction firms denied they’d done it. Then the government refused to investigate it. And the privacy watchdog said it would not alert the victims. But a massive mobilisation of unions and campaigners against blacklisting of safety activists has forced a dramatic about face and made justice for victimised workers a genuine possibility.


Beating the blacklisters
Getting ratty
See you in court

Also see Scotland and Wales bar blacklisters

More information
Blacklist Support Group,
Blacklist blog and facebook page.

Hazards webpages
Deadly business