Tim Lezard reviews Blacklisted by Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain
Most people now know how it works: between 1993 and 2009, 43 construction companies paid the Consulting Association to vet job applicants. If you appeared on the CA’s blacklist (and you might be on it because you’re a trade unionist, or because you wear ANL badges or “talk like a young Alf Garnett”), then you would be denied work because you were deemed to be a troublemaker.
Blacklisted reveals the extent of the scandal (Balfour Beatty alone in five years forked out a staggering £38k at £2.20 a pop to check people) and records the devastating impact of being unable to find work and not knowing why. Learning of the consequences of losing confidence, self-esteem and, sometimes, your family, makes hard reading.
But maybe what you didn’t know – and what the book uncovers – is the foot-dragging response by the authorities.
This book is important, not only because the diligent research deservedly makes it the tome of record for a disgraceful chapter of corporate corruption, but also because it’s a tribute to the resilience of working people who, for however long it takes, will seek – and receive – justice
Because as much as it details the scandal of denying people work, where Blacklisted excels is in documenting the contempt in which working people are held both by large corporations desperate to make profits regardless of the human cost, and by the establishment, happy to allow them to do so.
As Dave and Phil write: “Industrial relations in the building industry do not constitute a cosy discussion around a table: this is a war. A war in which some people are bullied, assaulted and lose their lives, while others make a lot of money.”
‘Losing lives’ is a reference to the dangers caused by the blacklisting of health and safety reps, ‘bullying’ manifests itself in several ways (including cramming workers into a cold, unlit steel transport container as a canteen) while ‘assault’ has its own horrific place in the story.
Perhaps the most shocking example is from 1984 when two brothers, trade union activists John and Garry Churton were sent to different parts of the same South London building site.
Garry was approached by a “cocky lad” who had only started the day before. The lad hit him with a hod. “He clouted me. I didn’t go down. I just wrestled it off him and he ran off.”
John wasn’t so lucky. “As I went to the canteen I saw my brother walking up staggering. Blood gushing from his head. The lad did my brother first and then he came round and done me.”
John ended up with a fractured skull and never worked again. The police were called, but the assailant was never found. Convenient, eh?
This is just one case of worker being set against worker, union member against non-union member, in a bid to demoralise the workforce and weaken collective power.
Even when the blacklist came to light, after considerable lobbying by employers’ trade associations, the establishment closed ranks to deny justice to workers.
As blacklisting was not illegal – a 1999 consultation found no evidence of it, so did not bother to introduce legalisation to ban it – individuals resorted to Employment Tribunals to seek justice.
By the autumn of 2009, more than 60 claims had been submitted, with blacklisted workers travelling from all round the country to Manchester for a preliminary hearing.
They were aghast to see employers’ lawyers use a technicality to get their claims thrown out. An ET claim needs to be submitted within three months of the incident, but some of the blacklisting cases went back three decades.
How could people complain about being blacklisted in 1992 when the blacklist only came to light in 2009?
The answer came in 2010, when a judge at the Manchester Tribunal, whilst professing to have “sympathy” with those on the blacklist, ruled in favour of the construction companies, saying the claims were “presented out of time”.
Only a handful of cases were allowed to proceed, but those that did came up against another hurdle: employee status. As Dave Smith found out when he lost his tribunal, UK employment law only protects employees, not those who are sub-contracted.
In his ruling, the judge stated: “We have reached our conclusions with considerable reluctance. It seems to us that he [Smith] has suffered a genuine injustice and we greatly regret that the law provides him with no remedy.”
Crocodile tears, I would suggest.
Unions and blacklisted workers resorted to different methods to seek justice and, thanks to what is effectively was class action, in November 2013, they finally made it to the Royal Courts of Justice, where a full trial is expected to be heard later this year.
Hopefully the report of a successful trial will be published in a re-print of this important book. Important, not only because the diligent research deservedly makes it the tome of record for a disgraceful chapter of corporate corruption, but also because it’s a tribute to the resilience of working people who, for however long it takes, will seek – and receive – justice.
* You can buy a copy of Blacklisted here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.