Brian Parkin reviews Blacklisted: the secret war between big business and union activists by Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain
When I was a young engineering draughtsman in the early 1970s I was involved in a shop stewards and union activist organisation in Leeds. The group comprised rank and file union members from factories across the city and surrounding district and was naturally led by militants from a number of left organisations. One day there was a flurry of activity in our drawing office when a mate of mine- a member of the Communist Party- brought in a copy of a list of names and addresses of local engineering workers that had been circulated in confidence by the Yorkshire and Humberside Engineering Employers Federation (EEF).
The list had come into our possession via a young shop steward at a factory just down the road from ours, The Hunslet Engine Company, and whose wife had just obtained a secretarial job at the EEF offices. One day while updating a list of names, she had come across the name and details of her husband, and both shocked and outraged, she had secretly photocopied it for his attention. The list while containing basic information- name, address and date of birth – also contained background information regarding employment history, union positions, record of strike activities and, of course, details of membership and support records of political organisations and campaigns.
The list, clearly a blacklist, caused a variety of reactions; mainly anger at being snooped upon and being the subject of an employer’s blacklist, but also some amusement at the inaccuracy and sheer fancifulness of the ‘background’ information. People were usually put down as ‘extremist’ and often lumped together under the title ‘known communist’. And given the nature of the political period, anyone with an Irish sounding name was designated as being an ‘IRA sympathiser’, usually followed with ‘known to the authorities’.
But what was a clear feature of the list, was both its inaccuracy and the extent to which it was out of date. For instance, two of the ‘leading trouble makers’ had been retired for years, a ‘notorious cell’ still supposedly active was based in a factory long since closed, and one ‘extremist’ noted for his ‘dubious evening activities’ was in fact a member of the Salvation Army who practiced two evenings per week playing his tuba with the local brass band.
The laughing matter was really that virtually all of the people named on the list had continued to be able to obtain and retain employment locally, not due to the benign generosity of the employers, but because throughout the 1960s and early 1970s there had been a persistent skilled engineering labour shortage. But the laughing matter was short-lived for Derek at the West Yorkshire Foundry. Derek, although a dedicated shop steward, was also a devout and practising Roman Catholic; and although never a member of a left organisation, his inaccurate blacklisting as an ‘extremist’ was enough – out of fear of rejection by his priest or family members, as his final note explained – to drive him to hang himself in his garage.
The Leeds EEF blacklist was passed on via a left union official to the Labour Research Department for their analysis, who immediately saw behind it the work of a clandestine anti-communist and witch-hunting organisation called the Economic League. Which brings us up to date with Blacklisted: The secret war between big business and union activists- a book that explains how a construction employers blacklisting organisation with its origins in the Economic League, conspired for over four decades to destroy trade union organisation in construction, and with it, the lives and families of thousands of workers.
And whereas we in the engineering industry may have enjoyed nearly three decades of full employment and relative job security, construction workers, even to this day, face an arbitrary hire and fire situation with episodic periods between jobs which makes ripe for systemic blacklisting. This was the situation that gave rise to the historic 1972 national building workers strike, an act of insubordination for which some workers paid for with imprisonment on trumped-up conspiracy charges. And no review of Blacklisted can be complete without referring to The key to my cell by Des Warren, an autobiographical-,and often harrowing account, of the now notorious Shrewsbury conspiracy show-trial at which Warren and (later to be actor) Ricky Tomlinson and two other pickets were sentenced to prison.
What Blacklisted and Des Warren explain- albeit from different perspectives- is the extent to which employers associations sponsored extensive snooping operations and funded seemingly ‘objective’ research bodies engaged in ‘legitimate’ industrial support work, but the extent to which these operations were intricately woven into the surveillance activities of the state. Throughout much of the early post-war period the Economic League and its twin Aims of Industry operated in a cold war climate of anti-Communist paranoia on the part of many employers and leading politicians. For much of the time, this involved the production of anti-union ‘fact-sheets’ for employers associations and the setting-up of seminars at which right-wing union leaders would rub shoulders with big business bosses and Tory politicians.
In 1970 Michael Hanley of MI5 suggested the establishment of an ‘interdepartmental committee’ that would advise the cabinet on all aspects of ‘subversive activities in public life’. This effectively resulted in the rationalising of internal surveillance between official government security departments and local police forces. Its crowning glory being an entirely fabricated conspiracy extravaganza in the form of the Shrewsbury conspiracy trial which was a celebration of the MacAlpine construction family, their political friends within the Tory establishment, the local constabulary and the upper echelons of the judiciary.
Callum MacAlpine is quoted in Blacklisted as saying that surveillance as carried out by the Economic league (and later the Consulting Agency) was justified
to provide information on individuals who acted in a disruptive way on building sites, had broken some of the working rule agreements, had sabotaged such things, or had committed criminal acts such as theft, vandalism or threatening behaviour- or that kind of stuff.
Of course what this MacAlpine omits to say is that for the period in which the Economic League was morphing into a construction dedicated snooping operation, his uncle, Sir Alfred MacAlpine has been the treasurer and main fund-raiser for the Tory party.
The neutral state?
When the body of evidence against The Consulting Association became a bump under the carpet too big to ignore, a raid by the Information Commissioners Office in February 2009 spelled to end, at least for the time being, of the construction industry’s dirty tricks and victimising operation. In the ensuing investigation over 43 construction companies were found to have provided :”names, addresses, National Insurance numbers, comments by managers, newspaper clippings, vehicle registrations; a number of files even contained information about their spouses”.
Throughout Blacklisted and without any hint of paranoia, there are frequent references to the embedded relationship between the Consulting Association, the big construction companies and various arms of the security state. And later in the book is the inevitable reference to the long-term and systemic collusion between some union full-time officials and the blacklisting process. And it is this symbiosis between blacklisting employers and venal and rotten union officials which is due to be revealed by the next blacklisting report to be published in early 2017.
Blood in the concrete
Since the inception of the trade union movement, workers in the construction industry have been forced time and again to organise around two basic demands; the right to secure employment and the right not to be killed or maimed at work. And today, it is around those fundamental demands that building workers organise, a crime for which some pay with the forfeiture of the very right to work.
Over the course of the past seven years I have had the privilege to work with the construction rank and File organisation in the capacity of research adviser. And in the course of those years I have continued to work with many construction workers- some of who are mentioned in Blacklisted, and who, despite all the slings and arrows thrown at them by the construction bosses (and not a few union officials) continue to fight for a safe industry in which decent and regular income based on collective bargaining is a right.
Yet as each year passes on average one construction worker per week is killed and at least three seriously injured. And on major construction sites the price of a worker taking on the job of a safety rep all too often results in the sack and the risk of the reputation as a trouble maker. Yet Spartacus like a perennial crop of workers continues to come forward to resume the fight for which Des Warren was imprisoned. Fitting then, that the authors of Blacklisted begin their book with a quote from John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle; “Out of all this struggle a good thing is going to grow. That makes it worth while”.