For as long as the workers’ movement in this country has attempted to make people’s lives better, so too has the Great British tradition of blacklisting attempted to ruin the lives of those who advocated for their workmates. It has yielded some unexpected results; the author of the quintessential English folk ballad ‘Dirty Old Town’, Ewan MacColl, was only in a position to pen that ode to his hometown of Salford because his father was forced to take up work in the city after being banned from every single engineering factory in Scotland.
The first organisation to coordinate efforts to exclude large sections of workers from entire industries arose during the First World War. The Economic League, which was founded in 1919 to combat post-war industrial radicalism, was led by former naval intelligence chief Sir William Reginald Hall. The League’s economic council was led by forty-one members, including two members of the House of Lords, fifteen knights, the BBC chair Lord Gainford, and various senior military officers and press barons. Several of the League’s leading lights, such as its director John Baker White, sat on the Grand Council of the British Fascisti. The League played a vital role in organising scabbing gangs during the 1926 general strike and disrupting unemployed marches organised by the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) in the early 1930s.
It was around this time that the League began cultivating a formal blacklist of left-wing workers as a way of disrupting the lives of people who wanted to change society (interestingly, the Creedon Report, compiled by the police, politely describes the League’s activities as ‘maintain[ing] records on individuals deemed to be non-conducive to the economic well-being and growth of the UK’). This work continued until the early nineties, when serious investigative journalism and undercover work exposed the systematic listing of left-wing workers.
As a result of this pressure, the League dissolved in 1992. However, it quickly resurrected operations in 1993 under the auspices of the Consulting Association (CA). Until police officers finally raided their offices in 2009, the CA went about orchestrating an industrial-scale blacklisting operation on behalf of some of Britain’s biggest employers, such as the engineering giants Carillion and Balfour Beatty. A centralised database held information on 3,213 individuals; the vast majority of whom were blacked for being trade union members, while others were merely conscious workers who had raised honest concerns about workplace safety problems.
On 6 March this year — ten years to the day that the CA’s offices were raided — the Creedon Report was finally released to the public. The report, which was commissioned in 2012 after a landmark case established state collusion in blacklisting, showed the depths of the blacklisting industry. In practically every industry in Britain, the report showed, the Special Branch had an ‘Industrial Unit’ which spied on union members and organisers. Documents reveal that they attended conferences, militated on picket lines, and developed relationships with union organisers.
Detailed dossiers on the working and private lives of scores of activists were passed by the police to employers, often under the provisos that the workers supported ‘terrorism’ or other forms of subversion. Some of the infiltration revealed in the report is staggering; a particularly alarming detail is how the construction union UCATT was infiltrated by undercover policeman Mark Jenner, who cultivated detailed intelligence files on over 300 members at all aspects of the internal structures of the union.
The fact that people’s lives were ruined as a result of this work is obvious. Blacklisted workers constantly describe the strain placed on themselves and their families by the poverty caused by sustained periods on the dole. Blacklisted brickie Brian Higgins spoke of the ‘economic and social deprivation’ he experienced after months of unemployment, and the ‘impossible demands’ put on his wife, who took up three jobs to sustain the family. Joanne Fowler, whose electrician husband Lee was blacklisted, established a support group for partners of blacklisted workers, Families Against Blacklisting, because of the perception that while the men had comradeship, their wives faced the indignities of poverty alone.
In May 2016, the lawyers of the companies engaged in the blacklist issued a joint statement accepting the ‘secret vetting operation’ that ‘never should have happened’ and caused ‘harm to the employment opportunities of so many workers’. However, despite these admissions of guilt, outrages continue. In February, workers at Paddington Station threatened rank and file strike action after Martin Overy, a Unite member who had featured on the blacklist, was sacked just five hours into a new contract with an electrician’s agency. Union action saw Overy reinstated, but Skanska’s denial of any blacklist involvement remains hard to believe.
Cases such as these are why the Blacklisting Support Group are demanding a public inquiry into blacklisting, and why Unite has launched legal proceedings against various blacklisting employers. Although Labour has backed the call for an inquiry, there is road still to travel. A recent report from the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) calls for the right to be free from blacklisting to be enshrined in law. Under such circumstances, criminal prosecution would be ensured for those found guilty, while all management and HR staff would be trained to ensure that workers’ personal and workplace data is properly protected. If we are to root out this longstanding British institution, that is the least we will need.