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Blacklisting Hasn’t Gone Away

Taj Ali

Despite what bosses and politicians say, the blacklist is still a living reality for many trade unionists – and it can only be defeated by ending casual labour and building real collective power among workers.

Building workers on strike for £30 per week pay, September 1972. (Evening Standard / Getty Images)

Moe Muhsin has worked on the London buses for a decade now. As a health and safety rep in Unite the union, he was instrumental in lobbying for key safety measures to ensure that his fellow drivers could do their jobs during the pandemic. At the time his efforts were celebrated by the Unsung Heroes campaign, a popular YouTube website which sought to recognise acts of compassion and bravery during Britain’s biggest crisis since the Second World War.

But Moe’s stellar work advocating for better conditions has been at a significant personal cost. In March last year, he lost his job at a London bus company. While he was dismissed on grounds of ‘allegations of misconduct’, Moe believes that the real reason for his dismissal was because of his trade union activities. Since his dismissal, he has found it incredibly difficult to find a job at other bus companies. ‘A good seven to eight companies have rejected me with the same kind of standard responses,’ he says, ‘when I’ve got full qualifications and substantial experience.’

Moe strongly suspects that he has fallen victim to the Great British tradition of blacklisting. ‘I’ve constantly been raising health and safety issues even before the pandemic about casualties on the buses,’ he tells Tribune. ‘When they didn’t have adequate heating or air condition facilities, I was out there speaking. It was attracting media attention — much to the annoyance of the company.’

Dave Smith has also been an active trade unionist throughout his working life. He has campaigned and written extensively on blacklisting, helping to uncover the practice within the construction industry. Though it has only been legally recognised as a practice in recent times, blacklisting is nothing new to him. ‘When I first started working on a building site and joined the union, everyone talked about blacklisting. As soon as you became a rep,’ he tells Tribune, ‘it was likely you’d be victimised, and people who’d been around a long time had trouble getting work.’ And for decades, many people outside of the labour movement did not entertain the notion that such a practice existed.

That was until 2009, when the Informa-tion Commissioner’s Office raided the offices of a shadowy organisation known as the Consulting Association. The raid revealed papers showing that between 1993 and 2009, more than forty construction firms had kept confidential files on thousands of workers. These files contained information about workers’ employment histories, political views, health, and even personal relationships. ‘If I remember correctly, there were 3,213 names on the list,’ Dave says. ‘If you thought you were on this list, you could apply to the Information Commissioner’s Office to get a copy of your own file.’

Dave picked up his, and so did thousands of others, for whom it was confirmation of what they had known all along. ‘When we used to say it to people, people used to think we were conspiracy theorists. But in reality, it was a conspiracy. All of the big multinationals were keeping tabs on us. Even for companies like Skanska — a big Swedish multinational which was apparently very union friendly — the blacklisting process was part of their standard recruitment process. The Consulting Association was even an agenda item on HR meetings for Skanska — it was embedded into what they did.’

A Tool of Control

As a practice of ensuring that workers struggle to find employment across a sector or industry, blacklisting has been in existence since the beginning of the labour movement. But it gained real organisation following the formation of the Economic League — the predecessor of the Consulting Association — after the First World War. Through these blacklisting bodies, thousands of workers had their lives ruined. ‘Every time someone applied to get a job on their building site,’ Dave says, ‘even if you were from a subcontractor or from an agency, they used to check your name against this blacklist. And if your name was on the list, you basically never got the job.’

The reasons for doing it are simple — it is a tool of leverage against workers. It discourages union activity, and acts as an open deterrent from speaking up about issues like paltry wages or inadequate health and safety. As Dave explains, ‘When the union rep gets sacked, all the other workers think — if they can sack the rep, then we’d better keep our heads down.’ This is one of the reasons Dave believes that unionising the construction industry is so difficult: ‘The likelihood is that if you work for a local authority and they don’t like you, they’re not gonna sack you for being the union rep, and nor will they share secret information about you to every other local authority to ensure you don’t get a job again. That’s exactly what was going on in the building trades.’

Dan became an apprentice electrician in 2004 and got actively involved with his union in 2011 during a major industrial dispute. ‘There was an attack on terms and conditions by mechanical and electrical companies,’ he said, ‘and we had a big nationwide campaign by electricians to fight it off.’ In the aftermath of this successful campaign, Dan stopped getting the jobs he would’ve got before the dispute. Not that he was ignorant about the risks of his involvement: ‘You knew if you organised on sites and put your head above the parapet, there’s a risk that you were going to get blacklisted,’ he tells Tribune. ‘If you were to look at all the old footage of people on our demos, everyone’s got their face covered because they’re so concerned about being identified.’

For Moe, the fear of dismissal and subsequent blacklisting in the bus industry was particularly acute during the pandemic. ‘People were afraid to speak up,’ he tells Tribune. ‘I think it would be a lot different if there wasn’t a pandemic. People were scared about not getting paid and losing their jobs.’ This fear and uncertainty, Moe believes, was the perfect catalyst for bus companies to attack unions and weaken the standing of health and safety reps particularly. ‘They’ve been reliant on a culture of ignoring safety. I have minutes from meetings where I’ve been challenging for sanitisers! When you challenge anything on health and safety, you’re attacking their profits. That’s where they cut corners and save their money.’

An Attack on Livelihoods

As it stands, Moe’s career as a bus driver has been effectively terminated. Scores of London bus companies have rejected his job applications, and it couldn’t come at a less opportune time. ‘Just before being suspended, my wife gave birth to our first child,’ Moe says. ‘Returning from paternity leave, the first thing the employer did was suspend me.’

It’s a predicament that cannot be overstated, and one that far too many have faced for demanding better for working people. ‘The long periods of unemployment when everyone else is earning lots of money doesn’t help,’ Dave says. While Moe is challenging his suspension at a tribunal and has picked up plenty of national support through social media appeals, Dave points out that there is ‘documentary evidence’ that some workers have committed suicide as a result of their blacklisting.

While Moe has the right to challenge for unfair dismissal, it is a relative luxury for many in industries like construction, where the bogus classification of construction workers as self-employed has meant there are no viable avenues to challenge the practice of blacklisting — something another construction worker, Dan, is keen to highlight. ‘In the South East,’ he says, ‘there’s a very limited number of people directly employed by the company. The vast majority of employees will be made up of a mixture of limited companies, bogusly self-employed sole traders, umbrella companies, several different agencies.’

These employment loopholes, Dan explains, strengthen the hand of the large construction firms who were involved in blacklisting. ‘The fact that I’m a sole trader through an agency means I can’t really do anything about being dismissed, because technically I employ myself. It’s all done intentionally — so you haven’t got any rights.’

Don’t Believe It’s Over

The national backlash from what was uncovered in the raids on the Consulting Association led to the enactment of additional legislation which prohibited the compilation, use, sale, or supply of blacklists. Blacklisted workers took a collective litigation — the British equivalent of an American class action — which saw hundreds of workers take a claim at the High Court and win. For the construction union UCATT (which has since folded into Unite), it was the largest payout they’d ever won in court.

Yet despite victorious court cases, new laws, and sympathetic media coverage, blacklisting remains an issue for many workers. Dave thinks that the idea blacklisting will vanish after this saga is ‘laughable’. Citing the weakness of the new legislation, he points out to cases like Dan’s. ‘There are young activists who aren’t necessarily on that original blacklist we found back in 2009, but who just can’t get a job.’ Dan agrees. ‘They’ve just changed how they’ve done it. You’ve got a dozen agencies that supply the labour for the twenty biggest construction companies in the country. If you’re blacklisted by one of those agencies, and their client base are those companies, they can take a massive chunk of opportunity from individuals.’

Dan is clear on what needs to change. For him, direct employment is an absolute necessity. ‘Nothing really changes without it because with direct employment you have rights and protections. Companies are less likely to act as they do and be as brazen with sacking people.’ For Dave, who calls himself an ‘optimist’, he still believes in the power of the masses of people to determine these things.

‘I genuinely believe mass mobilisations of working people can change the world. We can beat the biggest multinationals. Even when the official channels are closed to us, workers will still fight back.’ In this respect, Dave believes the movement must learn the lessons of the big disputes of the seventies and eighties. ‘In construction, there has been a tradition over the last four decades that all of the big industrial battles are led by rank-and-file groups.’ If we really want to turn round conditions in industries where bosses can still call ruin the lives of workers who want better for their class, Dave believes, ‘we need to encourage that sense of militancy that the movement was known for, when we were powerful.’