Monday, 8 August 2011

Anti-Blacklist Campaigner Steve Acheson's Picket Pledge

By Lucy Ewing BBC News

Steve Acheson has vowed to picket outside Fiddlers Ferry power station until he secures what he calls meaningful employment

"I had a choice - I could either sit in my front room growing old, wishing I had done something, or I could actually do something," electrician Steve Acheson said.

The 58-year-old has spent the past two-and-a-half years protesting outside Fiddlers Ferry power station in Cheshire. It is the continuation of a battle against "blacklisting" in the construction industry - where firms allegedly compile files on workers that include notes of their trade union activities and can lead to them being refused work.

For all that time, he has been standing outside the giant plant - one of the North West's most well-known landmarks with its huge cooling towers looming over the outskirts of Warrington - accompanied by dozens of banners. "By hook or by crook I will not move from here unless I get meaningful employment," he said quietly. "I've not been out of work because I'm a bad electrician - but because I cared about health and safety and was an active union member."

Hundreds of CVs:

In 2008, Mr Acheson was offered a job by sub-contractor BMSL, working as a supervisor at Fiddlers Ferry. Within four hours, he said, it was withdrawn. He was eventually taken on. But less than six months later, on 18 December, he lost his job. Mr Acheson took the company to an employment tribunal last October. His claim for unfair refusal of employment - where his job offer was withdrawn after four hours - was successful but BMSL is currently appealing against the decision.

Mr Acheson places banners outside Fiddlers Ferry at least twice a week. But the tribunal also found he was not unfairly dismissed when he lost his job after six months. It stated that while Mr Acheson had been monitored on the blacklist while working at the site, BMSL had not been involved in a blacklist or had in any way been influenced by it.

A spokesman for the company said it had never been part of the blacklist.

"We were the only people for many years to employ Mr Acheson on the Fiddlers Ferry project," he added. "We would employ him again if any opportunities arose."

But as Mr Acheson, from Denton in Greater Manchester, is pledging to continue his picket until he gets a job, it would appear he may face a long wait. He eventually managed to gain possession of his own blacklist file by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) after officials raided Consulting Association, in Droitwich, Worcestershire, in March 2009. It included his name, address, date of birth, National Insurance number, mobile telephone number and the fact he was "probably EPIU" - referring to his union membership.

'Behaving himself' !

There were scores of entries from sources and clippings from the left-wing press. It monitored where he was working and included some places he had never been employed. Among the entries were: "Is behaving himself, now a foreman… Lads don't pay as much attention since he's not on the shop floor" and "Stephen (sic) Acheson is known to be currently visiting agencies looking for employment in the Liverpool area".

Officials from the ICO discovered a database which had details of 3,213 workers. Forty firms had subscribed to the list. Ian Kerr, one of four employees, pleaded guilty to breaching the Data Protection Act and was fined £5,000 in July 2009. Mr Acheson has argued the 40 subscribers should have faced a harsher punishment - they were given a warning by the ICO. He said that although having sent out about 100 CVs over the past two years, he had not had any offers of work. This is compared to 20 years ago when he would receive regular calls, he said. As well as highlighting his own plight, Mr Acheson is also campaigning against the blacklisting of other workers.

Mr Acheson lost his job at Fiddlers Ferry in December 2008. He said he was aware there was a blacklist long before he was able to hold his own file in his hand. His union activity started in 1996, after the death of a 21-year-old colleague at a site on which he was working.

From then on, he said he was determined to ensure companies for which he worked complied with health and safety legislation.

'Blacklist exists'

In 2000, he lost his job working on a plant after raising health and safety concerns about the site.

Unbeknown to him at the time, that incident marked the opening of his file on a blacklist. He was described as "one of the ringleaders" of a dispute. He was thrown out of work on several occasions on sites across England between 2000 and 2006. He won three cases of unfair dismissal at tribunals - including one in 2007, which he said proved crucial when it judged that a blacklist did exist.

"A blacklist exists within the electrical industry and has on it names of various individuals considered for various reasons to be unsuitable for employment," the judgement said.

"Union activity is a reason why individuals are entered on to that blacklist.

"The claimant Steven Acheson has appeared on that blacklist for a considerable length of time." That gave further weight and energy to Mr Acheson's campaign, which eventually led to the ICO taking up his case.

'Ruined lives'

The government introduced new regulations against blacklisting in 2010, making it unlawful to operate a list and to compensate those who suffer loss as a result of being blacklisted.

But Mr Acheson believes this does not mean the end for the blacklist. A manager in the construction industry has told him it still exists, he said. He also cited a dispute at the Olympic site, where two workers have claimed they lost their jobs because of a blacklist.

"I don't want to be here doing this. I would rather be working every day”

Dave Smith, spokesman for the Blacklist Support Group, said blacklisting "ruined family lives".

"The only reason I or Steve Acheson have been blacklisted is because we have raised concerns about health and safety issues," he added. Mr Acheson said his campaign had had a huge effect on his family - his wife Debra, 44, works full time to support him. And his 21-year-old daughter has not seen her father in continuous employment since she was 10. "I don't want to be here doing this. I would rather be working every day," he said.

The support group is now taking its campaign to Europe.

It recently raised the issue with the European Commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion László Andor.

The UK Contractors Group said its members were "well aware of their obligations under data protection regulations".A spokesman for the ICO said: "If anyone has evidence that blacklisting is continuing then they should inform the ICO."

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