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When Unions Spy for the State

Last month, Norman Tebbit revealed that senior figures in the old EETPU helped Thatcher's government spy on trade unionists – it's a cautionary tale about labour leaders who side with the state against their class.

Last month, the former Tory government minister Norman Tebbit admitted that Special Branch officers regularly reported to him about the activities of trade union activists.

In front of parliamentarians, legal experts and campaigners from the Blacklist Support Group, the ‘Chingford Skinhead,’ as he was once called, went so far as to admit he had regular meetings with a general secretary of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU), to discuss how to undermine left-wing trade unionists.

But although his admission was astonishing for many, it came as no surprise to former EETPU members such as myself. The history of the union makes for interesting reading, but not for reasons of pride.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the EETPU’s precursor – the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) – was a union in which Communists held greater prominence. At one point, the Communist Party of Great Britain could boast of having an ETU general secretary and a general president as loyal members, bucking a national movement which saw Communists banned from holding office in British trade unions, formally barred from holding jobs in certain industries, and many facing the sack or the blacklist.

After the ETU’s general secretary elections in 1959, amid allegations of ballot rigging, the union was taken to court by Jock Byrne and Frank Chapple, charges of ‘conspiracy to fraud’ were made against general secretary Frank Haxell and fourteen others. In 1961, Byrne and Chapple won the case, with the court deciding that Byrne would become the new general secretary. Thereafter, Communists were banned from holding elected positions in the ETU, and we begin to see the direction of travel for the new, ingrained right-wing leadership.

By 1973, as the result of various mergers and changes, the union became the EETPU. However, 1968 saw the biggest change for the membership – and not for the better. This year, the Joint Industry Board (JIB) was formed. As a partnership between the union and the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA), the initiative supposedly sought to bring stability into the electrical contracting industry after years of industrial turmoil.

However, the reality was somewhat different. In practice, this new ‘partnership’ was used to suppress trade union activity and stifle activists – especially if they were of the Left. Throughout the 1970s, the EETPU became a firmly entrenched right-wing body under the leadership of Derek Chapple, a former Communist turned Cold Warrior. But it was in the 1980s, during the reign of Eric Hammond, that the union demonstrated its ruthlessness towards both other unions and their own members.

Active EETPU members, many of whom had been involved in representing their workmates on construction sites on industrial and health and safety matters, found themselves out of work and unable to find any more. Fears grew among many members that they were on some sort of blacklist. But although many suspected this was the case for years, nobody knew the true extent of the EETPU’s involvement in blacklisting their own members until 2009.

As a result of the EETPU’s class collaborationist approach inside the JIB, electrical contractors and construction companies paid the union weekly trade union contribution fees on behalf of their workforces. This was in exchange for the EETPU supporting the removal of its own militant members from certain sites and allowing them to be put on a blacklist.

The EETPU leadership selected its own shop stewards, with workers having no say – with one member observed, ‘we are subordinate to the leadership.’ During a protracted and frustrating wage negotiation in 1988, the partnership arrangement with the ECA inside the JIB was broadly viewed as the toxic legacy of two decades’ collaboration.

The Flashlight, a rank-and-file electricians paper, reported that the growth of casualised labour in the trade – ‘the lump,’ as it was known – had ‘obviously been assisted by the erosion of traditional trade union attitudes and rank-and-file organisation’ since the JIB’s creation.

The union’s murky association with electrical contractors and construction bosses was further exposed by Francie Graham, a Dundee electrician whose comprehensive investigations alongside Dundee socialist Labour MP John McAllion led to questions being asked in parliament.

However, the power and pull of the EETPU ensured that this investigation was stopped dead in its tracks. This was because the union had become the darling of the political elite, within both the Labour and Tory parties, and were godsend to the right-wing press.

At every opportunity, they were lauded by the Tories for their actions, including attacking the miners’ leaders during the 1984-85 strike.

While the EETPU also broke ranks with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) by signing no-strike agreements, their deal with Rupert Murdoch in the print industry at Wapping was seen as their final callous act of betrayal by the trade union movement.

As their attacks on other TUC unions became increasingly belligerent, the EETPU eventually left the body. Yet no other union joined their attempted exodus – in what was a huge blow to the EETPU’s legitimacy and ideological outlook.

Many remaining union militants formed the Electrical and Plumbing Industry Union (EPIU) in 1988, which merged into the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) seven years later.

In 2009, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided the offices of The Consulting Association (TCO), lifting 3,213 files of blacklisted activists, including construction workers and environmental campaigners. It soon became evident that trade union collusion in aiding the blacklisting of their own members was very much a reality.

These acts by officials in EETPU and the UCATT builders union were utterly reprehensible, and one of the biggest acts of betrayal documented in the history of the British labour movement. Union militants and their families – many of whose lives were ruined as a result of the blacklist – deserve justice, and the Unite inquiry promised by Len McCluskey has to begin now. These workers have suffered long enough.

Furthermore, questions are now being asked regarding Warley MP John Spellar’s role during the time undercover police officers had reported on trade unionists, and to what extent he may have played a part in the blacklisting of workers.

Some of the most egregious examples of blacklisting working people took place while Spellar was an EETPU political officer, a role he held between 1969 and 1992. Imran Khan, the solicitor representing the Blacklist Support Group, has written to him with specific questions regarding his position. He has yet to respond.

If he is indeed guilty of such a betrayal, then he must face justice, along all other union officials involved. Only then can the working class heroes forced to live their lives under the weight of the blacklist gain justice and peace.