UK unions colluded with police and employers in construction blacklist

An Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report has confirmed that police provided information to firms for a blacklist of construction workers.

Eight of the major construction firms implicated in the blacklist are discussing establishing a compensation fund in negotiation with some of the trade unions in the industry, apparently as a means of avoiding any admission of liability and deflecting an intensifying legal challenge.

An attempt is being made by the unions to reinvigorate their tattered credentials by citing the issue of possible compensation as their victory. In reality, the evidence points to the fact that the unions collaborated in the blacklist and sought to block legal challenges to the companies.

The existence of a blacklist of construction workers for their politics or militancy was long suspected. Concrete evidence came to light in 2009, when a raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) revealed a 30-year database of information on workers held by The Consulting Association (TCA). Most were union members. Some had been reported simply for raising health and safety concerns on site. TCA was run by a former Special Branch officer and funded by the major construction companies. (See “Britain: Militant construction workers blacklisted and denied employment”)

Last year the ICO announced that reports found in the TCA database could only have come from police or security service sources. The reports concerned around 3,400 construction workers. This information was only finally released for an employment tribunal for Dave Smith, one of the blacklisted workers and a spokesman for the Blacklist Support Group.

Workers wanting to find out if TCA held a file on them have first to approach ICO for information. Solicitors have noted the ICO have previously provided inaccurate information, wrongly telling some workers that there is no entry on them in the TCA database.

Last week the IPCC advised lawyers representing blacklisted workers that a Metropolitan Police inquiry into police collusion concluded that it is “likely that all special branches were involved in providing information” for blacklisting purposes.

The police moved to deny this almost immediately. Detective Inspector Steve Craddock, who heads an inquiry into the activities of undercover police officers, wrote to the solicitors saying this was incorrect and he had seen “no conclusive evidence” of police informing on the blacklisters.

The IPCC stands by its statement, insisting it was based on discussions with the Metropolitan Police. A spokesman for Craddock told the Observer that he was “aware of the apparent contradiction and is looking into how that may have arisen”. Operation Herne, Craddock’s investigation into undercover officers, “will report on the ‘blacklisting matter’ to the Metropolitan Police commissioner in due course.”

The extent of union collusion revealed by the documents is yet more revealing.

Six workers, thought to be members of the Electrical Plumbing Industrial Union (EPIU), were blacklisted from the Jubilee Line extension work in 1998-99, for example. This followed information obtained at a “liaison between union, contractor and managing agent”, according to TCA documents.

The EPIU was formed after the expulsion of its predecessor, the EETPU, from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) for poaching members from other unions. Its recommendations against hiring also appear in TCA documents.

The EPIU became part of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union, which merged in 2001 with the AEEU, the engineering workers union, to form Amicus. TCA documents reveal that Mick Anderson, an electrician, was reported “not recommended” by Amicus when he applied for a job at Heathrow Airport in 2005. In 2007 Amicus, in turn, merged with the Transport and General Workers union to form Unite.

When documents revealing Amicus’ involvement in the blacklist were disclosed, Gail Cartmail, Unite’s Assistant General Secretary, led an internal investigation that failed to find conclusive evidence of collusion. Cartmail told Construction News “I couldn’t prove officer collusion. But it is clear that there was an element of union source … It could be a paid union official or a lay member. Who knows?”

John Flavin, the former president of UCATT, the construction workers union, became industrial relations advisor to construction giant Laing O’Rourke. Flavin was Laing O’Rourke’s representative at bonus negotiations on Heathrow’s T5 project in 2005, the same job from which Mick Anderson was blacklisted.

In 2009 UCATT held a dinner in honour of Flavin’s 40 years of service to the union. Alongside union officials were representatives of most of the major construction companies. The Kerryman, reporting the event, described Flavin as a man “who managed to retain the affection of employers while battling fiercely for the rights of his colleagues.”

When the TCA documents were revealed in 2009 a large number of blacklisted workers contacted their unions for representation in a High Court action. The unions did not agree to represent them in any High Court claim.

Many of the blacklisted workers then sought independent legal advice. Solicitors Guney Clark and Ryan (GCR) led the legal claim against the employers. It is in response to this ongoing legal claim that eight major construction companies—Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK, and VINCI—launched their Construction Workers Compensation Scheme last week as a damage control exercise.

GCR partner Sean Curran said that he “cautiously” welcomed the proposal, but insisted the solicitors will “not be diverted” from their “primary commitment to achieve justice for the claimants.”

The Blacklist Support Group was blunter, noting that the proposal so far contained “only a vague promise of compensation”. The scheme also does not appear to cover all the workers appearing on the TCA blacklist. It is “no coincidence that all of the companies signed up to the Blacklisting Compensation Scheme are named defendants in the High Court claim. This is a cynical move intended to reduce corporate reputational damage”, the support group stated.

In their announcement the companies mentioned that they would be consulting UCATT and Unite in the formulation of the proposed scheme.

GCR’s Curran expressed “serious concern about the involvement of those organisations”. He told the Observer, “We have seen evidence that implicates Amicus (which evolved into Unite) and UCATT officials in the supply of negative commentary about the suitability of their members for employment. That commentary frequently made its way onto the Consulting Association database and was no doubt one of the factors that led to denials of employment.

“It is also worthy of note that those unions refused to support their members in bringing a High Court claim so that they could seek redress for the hardship that they suffered. Many of those that we represent are firm that they object to Unite or UCATT playing any part in negotiations with the relevant companies for these reasons.”

The unions involved have all issued platitudes over the blacklist, with GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny urging, “It has to become a criminal offence for either police or managers to interfere or impede the civil rights of workers to seek help from unions.”

Unite’s Cartmail supported the call to “give the law real teeth”, while UCATT General Secretary Steve Murphy said blacklisting firms now have “no place to hide” and their “crimes will not go away.”

What then of the crimes of the trade unions? Why has nothing been done about their collusion with the blacklist, with not even one official being disciplined, let alone a plausible account provided of what took place?

The unions have been exposed once again as corporate snitches and nothing more than a fifth column working with management and the police. The blacklisting case poses the need not just to remove corrupt individuals, but for the working class to build independent class struggle organisations to fight for a socialist alternative in direct opposition to the yellow company trade unions.