Sunday, 28 June 2015

Blacklisting book exposes collusion between bosses and unions in the UK building trade!

As Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain point out in their excellent book on blacklisting, (Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business And Union Activists), being a union activist who worked in the British construction industry, was the primary reason why a person was included in the blacklisting files of the Consulting Association.

The authors, however, do not accuse any union official of any illegality or deliberate collusion in blacklisting, even though the names of certain trade union officials, are identifiable as a source of information in the Consulting Association files. But as they point out, even if entries in the files can be attributed, it is often difficult to prove intent.

It is clear from these files that certain trade union officials were having conversations with construction bosses and that these conversations were being reported back to the Consulting Association, which was closed down following a raid by staff from the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in 2009. What was reported back often had a detrimental effect on construction workers. Yet was this down to loose tongues or deliberate complicity in blacklisting? 

The authors of the book contacted a number of union officials to ask how their names arrived on the files as sources for information. Some declined to comment. Others claimed that they were unaware of blacklisting or the Consulting Association, or that their conversations with the construction bosses, were being recorded. Many of these people have now retired on generous union pensions and in some cases, are now working for the construction companies that were involved in blacklisting.

These kind of excuses hardly bare scrutiny. It is difficult to believe that experienced trade union officials could have been so naïve as not to know about blacklisting in the British construction industry or that you should be careful what you say about people to the bosses. However, it is known that certain practices existed in the British construction industry that tended to create a culture of collusion between the bosses and the trade unions.

The so-called JIB agreement between the EETPU and the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) which was established in Britain in 1968, effectively regulated the working conditions of electricians working for JIB companies. Under this legally binding 'social partnership', imported from America, every electrician working for a JIB company was enrolled into the EETPU and the firm paid his union contributions. In return the union agreed to discipline its own members, improve productivity and eliminate strikes. In 1987, the EETPU and the ECA, even set up their own employment agency, ESCA services. 

This cosy relationship between the bosses and the union officials, effectively led to a culture where some union officials saw it as their job to police the sites to exclude trade unionists who were thought to be militant. Conversely, some employers seemed to think that the union was their union because they paid the workers' union contributions.

Moreover, as Smith and Chamberlain point out, many union officials were also happy to take advantage of corporate hospitality: free meals at hotels and gentleman's clubs, free tickets to sporting events, free piss-ups, boat trips on the Thames, were all on offer as sweeteners to union officials. George Brumwell, the General Secretary of the construction union, UCATT, told one union official that taking corporate hospitality was okay because "sometimes you got more from sugar than salt."

Entries in the files which are referred to in the book, record such damning stuff as: "EETPU says No", "Reported by local EETPU officials as militant", "AEEU describes as f.evil as far as internal union dealings are concerned", "Not recommended by Amicus."

In February 2013, Steve Acheson, an electrician from Denton, Greater Manchester, spoke at a meeting in Liverpool. During his speech he was continuously interrupted by a group of officials from UCATT, who accused him of making allegations of union complicity in blacklisting without any real evidence. He was challenged to name the names. Acheson then read out notes that had been written by Ian Kerr, who had been employed to run the Consulting Association blacklist on behalf of the 44 construction companies affiliated to it. On the note Kerr had written:

"AA (Alan Audley of Vinci) met George Guy of UCATT NW Reg Sect + 2 others - who thought a storm in a tea cup. G Guy. Would you employ St Acheson? I bloody wouldn't. We've known for years - just a question of when it would happen. AA unions will have a problem now as they will get on site and cause problems." UCATT's response was to threaten to sue Acheson for slander.

George Guy denies the allegation and claims that he never discussed  Acheson with Audley or any one else. He told the authors that he has a statement from Audley (who is implicated in the blacklisting scandal), confirming this. Alan Audley of Vinci, "was a guest at the UCATT conference in Scarborough in 2012, three years after his company's involvement in blacklisting was known."

When the Scottish Affairs Select Committee began to investigate blacklisting in June 2012, Alan Ritchie, of UCATT, was one of a number of senior trade union officials who regularly met with committee members to discuss strategy. Curiously, at these meetings it had been agreed that certain aspects of the blacklisting scandal would not be covered. It was agreed that alleged union involvement in blacklisting would not be looked into nor would the involvement of the police and security services in blacklisting. The Chairman of the committee, Ian Davidson MP, told the authors of the book, that these and others aspects of blacklisting, were not investigated because it was felt they would have diverted attention away from the consequences of blacklisting on working people.

Both UCATT and Unite the Union, carried out internal investigations into union complicity in blacklisting. The authors point out that some people refused to be interviewed or agreed to be interviewed, only under "tight preconditions" and that both investigations, relied on "fragmentary documentation." UCATT commissioned Keith Ewing to investigate blacklisting. His report, "Ruined Lives: Blacklisting in the UK construction industry", was published in August 2009.

Unite, appointed Gail Cartmail, the Assistant General Secretary of the union, to carry out an investigation which was published in September 2011. Having read her report, one cannot help but feel that she started off with a conclusion and tried to fit the facts around it. The most obvious lacunae in her report, is that she failed to interview the important whistleblower, Alan Wainwright and Derek Simpson, formerly joint-General Secretary of Unite. Mr Wainwright, who had an intimate knowledge of how the blacklist operated in the British construction industry, claims that he wrote to Simpson about blacklisting in the construction industry in 2006. In a letter to Cartmail, he wrote:

"I'm therefore now writing to you to appeal to you to investigate Simpson's lack of enthusiasm to investigate and act upon this in 2005/2006 and provide reasons behind this. To the best of my knowledge, he did nothing." Cartmail replied:

"As you point out Mr Simpson is now retired. The union has no capacity to secure Mr. Simpson's co-operation in an investigation." Wainwright replied:

"I put it to you that this evidence was deliberately withheld to protect the financial relationship between the union and these employers in the hope that it would go away."

In concluding her report, Cartmail says: "Despite considerable effort I have not discovered evidence against officers." However, she told the Blacklist Support Group (BSG) at their AGM in November 2011 that union collusion may have taken place in the past - "It shouldn't have happened" and "offered the blacklist workers present, an apology."

Brian Bamford, Secretary of Tameside TUC, and a Unite member, wrote to Cartmail about her investigation into blacklisting in September 2014, but failed to get a satisfactory reply to the questions he posed. (see Boys on the Blacklist - Derek Pattison & Brian Bamford).

The authors of the book say that despite numerous requests, both verbal and written, asking UCATT for a response to questions raised in the blacklisting files, its officials have refused to provide any substantial comment for publication.

A class action which has been brought by over 100 construction workers against Sir Robert McApline and other major construction companies, is due to go to full trial in March 2016. The issue of alleged union complicity in blacklisting, may well become a prominent feature of the court case.

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