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Police Infiltration of Unions: We Need the Truth

For decades, undercover police have given workers’ names to the employers' blacklist if they demanded decent pay or safe conditions. Bringing this dark history to light is long overdue.

Postal workers marching through the streets of London in support of the industrial action at Grunwick photo-processing laboratory in Willesden, 1977. (Evening Standard / Getty Images)

After years of delays, and costing over £60 million to date, the public inquiry into undercover policing finally reaches the end of its first tranche of evidence gathering this week. While the women activists deceived into sexual relationships by undercover officers and spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence made headlines, the targeting of trade unions is less well known.

Early on, the inquiry created a specific category to investigate hidden state surveillance of trade unions, with the Fire Brigades Union, National Union of Mineworkers, UNITE, and the rank-and-file union campaign the Blacklist Support Group as ‘core participants’. Now, eight years since Theresa May announced the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), what have we found out?

To start with, we know that ever since the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) was set up in 1968, targeting trade unions has been an important element of the political police unit’s work. The SDS annual reports reveal that industrial disputes, such as national strikes by miners, dockers, and building workers in 1972 were of key interest to the SDS.

Intelligence on leading union activists and union-led campaigns was recorded on SDS files. One such campaign was the Shrewsbury Two Defence Campaign calling for Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson to be released from prison. The two construction workers were jailed following the national building workers strike (and their convictions were finally quashed in the Court of Appeal in 2021.)

Another particular target of the SDS was the historic Grunwick dispute in West London (1976-78), involving predominantly Asian women workers who stood on a picket line due to victimisation, working conditions, and low pay. During the strike, the Daily Express ran a front page with ‘The Secret Demo Squad, Special Branch men to join pickets’:

‘The undercover men already have thick dossiers on extremists. The authorities are anxious to establish whether there are links with political organisations whose aim is solely to disrupt industry.’

Unfortunately, this clipping is not amongst the files the Inquiry disclosed. The chair, John Mitting, chose not to investigate the Grunwick dispute, even though it features as a major public order event in the SDS Annual Report 1977, and despite the fact that at least four undercover officers attended the pickets.

Police were not merely attending public events such as picket lines and protests; undercover SDS officers joined unions, and in some cases played influential roles. The inquiry has confirmed that police spy Mark Jenner, using the false name ‘Mark Cassidy’, infiltrated the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT). He attended the Hackney Branch, voted in union elections and participated in grass roots initiatives such as the Building Workers Safety Campaign. Throughout his five-year deployment, Jenner had a relationship with ‘Alison’, a member of the National Union of Teachers.

SDS officers using the cover names ‘David Hughes’ and ‘Barry Tompkins’ both joined the Transport & General Workers Union during their deployments from 1971 to 1983. Another SDS spy using the name ‘Jim Pickford’ attended Battersea & Wandsworth Trades Council meetings in 1975.

Police infiltration of trade unions was so obvious in the 1970s that Labour MPs (including John Prescott) met with Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and demanded a special inquiry. Instead, in response to the MPs voicing concerns, Michael Hanley (MI5 Director General) decided to remind all Special Branches of ‘the particular need for care and discretion in the industrial field’.

At inquiry hearings, SDS managers confirmed that for much of the time, the SDS took direct instructions from MI5 on the targeting of specific individuals. This is evidenced by ongoing requests from the Security Service and copies of SDS documents being referred to Box 500 (code for MI5) appearing in ever-increasing numbers of disclosed documents.

Another aspect that has come under scrutiny at the Inquiry is what exactly happens with the intelligence gathered by the SDS and MI5. We now know that the information doesn’t just sit in archives.

Part of the answer is in memos disclosed by the Inquiry. It shows in the liberal use of the anodyne terminology of ‘vetting’ to justify the sharing of information about union activists with major employers such as the civil service, NHS, BBC, Post Office, British Airways, British Steel, and British Leyland.

‘Vetting’ gives the impression that such intelligence sharing is similar to checking on a worker’s qualifications. But in reality, people were being sacked or denied promotion because of their political and trade union activities. One disclosed report describes what would happen to a member of the Socialist Workers Party spied on by SDS: ‘it was likely that her employment with [a government body] would be terminated’. This is blacklisting—plain and simple.

Campaigning by the Blacklist Support Group to expose this collusion eventually led to the police investigation Operation Reuben. Only a heavily redacted version of the report was eventually disclosed, but the conclusions were clear: it was proven that both the security services and Special Branch provided information to the construction industry blacklist, and:

‘Special Branches throughout the UK had direct contact with the Economic League, public authorities, private industry and trade unions.’ (Operation Reuben Paragraphs: 4.2 and 13.1.2)

One example of the direct contacts was via the Special Branch Industrial Unit (set up in 1970 specifically to spy on unions), which had an official liaison with the Economic League. Furthermore, one of the undercover officers giving evidence at the hearings let slip that his former boss at Special Branch, Bert Lawrenson, upon retirement immediately took up a senior role in the blacklisting organisation.

Cabinet papers from around the same time reveal how easy it was for the chairman of Massey-Ferguson to get access to the then-Prime Minister Edward Heath. While senior civil servants as well as the head of MI5 did not think it was a good idea, the captain of industry managed to get a private briefing from the permanent secretary about potential troublemakers at his plant. The file also confirms that the policy of referring ‘the enquiring industrialists to unofficial sources’ was ‘well accepted’. In this case, however, the PM thought ‘Mr Powell of Massey-Ferguson too serious a person to be dismissed with a reference to the Economic League’. John Mitting, leading the public inquiry, decided not to add this file to the evidence bundle, missing a crucial opportunity to investigate the hidden links between corporate power and the UK’s secret state. (Fortunately, it was found by the Undercover Research Group found in the National Archives: CAB-301-661.)

The British state is complicit in the blacklisting its own citizens. Honest working men and women lost their jobs and suffered long periods of unemployment. Marriages ended, families lost their homes, blacklisted workers committed suicide. This is unacceptable: those responsible need to be held to account. Core participants in the union strand of the public inquiry do not believe it will provide justice. But campaigning has finally started to expose the hidden underbelly of the British political police.

This is the end of Tranche 1. There are seven tranches in total. The fight to expose the truth continues.

About the Author

Dave Smith is a blacklisted construction union activist. He is the co-author of Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists.

Eveline Lubbers is a Research Fellow at the University of Bath, and an independent investigator with SpinWatch. She is the author of Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark: Corporate and Police Spying on Activists (Pluto, 2012) and the initiator and contributing editor of Battling Big Business: Countering Greenwash, Front Groups and Other Forms of Corporate Bullying (2002).