Behind Union Collusion

A cosy culture between union officials and industry bigwigs in the construction sector undermined workers for decades – creating conditions that allowed unions to collaborate in the blacklisting of their own members.

Eric Hammond was the longtime leader of the electricians' union EETPU and famously helped Rupert Murdoch to break the Wapping strike. (Credit: Getty Images)

When the campaign over blacklisting started, we concentrated our efforts on exposing the conspiracy by big business and the police. It was directors of multinational corporations who ran the notoriously anti-union Economic League and Consulting Association blacklists, in an operation that lasted five decades and involved a two-way sharing of intelligence about union activists between company executives and Britain’s most secretive political police units.

Over the past twelve years, the exposure of corporate and state wrongdoing has led to new legislation, a select committee investigation, record compensation and a public apology in the High Court, and a dedicated union strand in the ongoing public inquiry into undercover policing. The Blacklist Support Group acknowledge the important role played by the trade unions in our campaign for justice.

But there remains unfinished business. It was known from the very beginning that some blacklist documentation included entries where full-time union officials were recorded as the source of the information. Multiple files include the entry ‘EETPU says NO’, a fact so appalling that the select committee investigation even discussed it. Witness statements prepared by blacklisting managers for the High Court trial claim that some union officials provided them with information.

In his statement, Trevor Watcham—a former chairman of the Consulting Association—claims to have shared a table at an Economic League event with ‘Leon Brittan of the Conservative Party (who had been the main speaker) and Eric Hammond of the electricians’ union together with some members of his union executive’. Norman Tebbit’s recent revelations about secret meetings with the EETPU General Secretary only add to the growing pile of evidence that union collusion in blacklisting took place at the highest levels. This is totally unacceptable, and the union movement needs to face up to this unsavoury aspect of its past.

But this treachery did not occur in a vacuum. To understand why this happened it is necessary to appreciate the industrial relations context of the construction industry. For decades, the leadership of the construction unions adopted strategies that concentrated on winning favour with employers rather than mobilising supposedly ‘self-employed’ workers to take action.

In their hunt for members, the union bureaucracy made sweetheart deals with employers that abandoned the most basic principles of trade unionism. The right wing EETPU was expelled from the TUC following their support of Rupert Murdoch during the Wapping dispute that saw over 6,000 unionised print workers lose their jobs overnight. Branches that opposed the leadership were closed down and leading left-wing members repeatedly disciplined or expelled. As an aside, the Labour MP John Spellar was the Political Officer for EETPU throughout this period.

But it was not just EETPU: other construction unions also adopted overtly business friendly strategies. Bulk membership agreements—where a union official strikes a deal with a manager to pay a set amount of union subs each month without ever talking to the workers—might sound like gangster-style protection money to buy industrial peace, but they were common in the sector.

The phenomenon of appointed convenors, where a union regional secretary and a major employer would jointly agree on who the full-time union representative on a project should be, in the vast majority of cases without any election by the workforce, has existed for decades and continues to this day. Companies guilty of blacklisting union activists were often the most vocal in their support for appointed convenors, who became incorporated into corporate industrial relations and safety structures. The lack of democracy and potential for favouritism in the opaque appointment process is obvious and has no place in any union that claims to be member-led.

To be clear, it is not every union official in construction. Many are honest, value-driven trade unionists who have stood up for workers’ rights. But it is beyond doubt that over a fifty-year period, some general secretaries, some senior union officials, and some appointed convenors formed overly cosy relationships with employers.

Enjoying hospitality in pubs, restaurants, and hotels, or attending sporting events with industrial relations managers from blacklisting firms was viewed as acceptable practice. Press reports from the 1990s actually name UCATT and TGWU officials accused of taking bribes and other inducements from employers, including procurement of prostitutes.

A revolving door exists through which, upon leaving the union, officials regularly take up positions as industrial relations consultants working for the very construction firms they previously negotiated against. It is in this context that gossip about ‘troublesome’ left-wing union activists gets discussed – and appears on blacklist files.

While many cases may be ‘loose talk’ encouraged by alcohol, in some cases the collusion in blacklisting appears more premeditated. It was documentary evidence that forced blacklisted union members to write an open letter in 2016 calling for a fully independent investigation into potential collusion by union officials in blacklisting their own members. The letter states that ‘every union activist in construction knows who the named officials are, as does every major employer’, and describes potential collusion as an ‘open sore’ within Unite.

Branches flooded the Unite Executive Council with motions and in 2019 an independent QC led investigation to look into possible collusion was set up by Len McCluskey. Blacklist Support Group applauded the Unite independent investigation, encouraging anyone with documents or oral testimony that may be relevant to contact lawyers collating evidence.

Solicitors have travelled the country taking witness statements from blacklisted workers who have made serious allegations, including claims that some officials gave evidence at Employment Tribunals in support of the employers, rather than in support of sacked union members. And this is only the beginning, even more documentary evidence has been presented to the investigation by activists.

This includes Subject Access Request disclosures that show that a number of senior union officials were blind copying internal emails about union activists to third parties – including to industrial relations consultants working for blacklisting firms. Searches of Companies House database have discovered that some construction union officials were directors of consultancies providing services to the industry while they were employed by the union. This needs to be fully investigated at the very least.

Yet despite making good progress early on, the Unite investigation appears to have ground to a halt during Covid-19. Jane McNeill QC, the independent lawyer who will write the final report, has only just been formally appointed, and a full search of the Unite ICT system and the archives of predecessor unions has yet to take place. Everyone accepts that the unions and lawyers have been exceptionally busy during the pandemic. But if courts and public inquiries are operating, the investigation into possible collusion should also be able to continue.

The election for the next general secretary of Unite is now underway. The Blacklist Support Group calls upon every candidate to publicly pledge that the investigation into union collusion will continue under their watch, and that if any officials currently employed by the union are criticised in the final QC written report, that they will face appropriate disciplinary action.

The investigation into union collusion in blacklisting is a key battle in the long-term struggle over the very soul of trade unionism in construction. It begs the question: what kind of trade unionism do workers deserve?