The Class War Behind the Blacklist

The Class War Behind the Blacklist

These are difficult times for anyone who believes modern democratic capitalism isn't riddled with corruption. From the phone hacking scandals involving the press and the police in the Leveson Inquiry to the more recent revolting revelations about serial sex-abuser Sir Jimmy Savile and his paedophile activities over several decades, it seems there isn’t a state institution that hasn’t been tarnished with some scandal recently. And yet the capitalists choose their scandals carefully. They are very deliberate about which scandals receive publicity and which don’t. In a way its not surprising that the news of the construction industry’s blacklisting of over 3,200 workers, news which first broke in 2009 is still only getting minimal publicity; after all it’s not a story which involves celebrities or has anything to do with the media industry or the ‘chattering classes’ in general. It’s simply a story which shines a light on the real need for the capitalist class to crush those who question, let alone resist, exploitation.

Blacking in the building trade

Many workers had suspected for decades that a blacklist existed in the building trade but it was difficult to get hard evidence. During lat year’s rank and file electricians’ strikes the blacklisting of “troublemakers” became more obvious but those who mentioned it were dismissed as paranoid. After all, such things only happened in the old Eastern Bloc, not under a democracy. However in 2009 the existence of a blacklist had already been uncovered by the Information Commissioner’s Office (IOC) when it raided the Droitwich offices of a shady group calling itself the ‘Consulting Association’. Here it found files and proof that most of the major construction companies had been paying for information on thousands of workers for decades.

In all some 44 construction firms subscribed to the list, including McAlpine (Conservative donor and builder of the Olympic Stadium and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium), Balfour Beatty, Costain and Skanska Construction to name a few.

The Consulting Association was run by Ian Kerr, a private detective who had links to the Economic League, an organization set up in 1919 by industrialists to target militant workers after the Russian Revolution. By 1993 the League had ceased to exist but Kerr kept going, compiling a huge database on workers from every part of the country.

The database was used by building groups to vet new recruits and share information on ‘troublemakers’, i.e. mostly workers who took part in union activity or simply raised concerns about health and safety. A typical file would contain a worker’s name, address, date of birth, national insurance number, car registration number, details of relationships and family. One file gave an example of a worker who had been ‘apprehended,’ but not arrested, at an anti-racism rally. Another, Dave Smith, a 46-year-old engineer had a 36 page file and was repeatedly victimised for highlighting safety hazards on sites, including the presence of asbestos. Another, Steve Hedley, was working on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link when his employer falsely accused him of theft. The claim was later retracted but he was told there was no more work. This was the start of four years of almost permanent unemployment. The last entry in his 18-page file noted that he had been elected as an RMT union organizer. Other notes described his disapproval of New Labour. Many in fact were blacklisted for speaking out on safety issues, in an industry where deaths at work have always been high (in 2010-2011, even in the middle of a building recession and with the construction industry noticeably shrunken, fifty people died in accidents that could have been prevented).

Since the discovery of the files in 2009, it has emerged that much of the information was supplied by both the police and the security services, especially MI5. The revelations call into question the supposed independent role of the police at a time when they are already implicated in a number of cover-ups. The recent report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel on the tragedy found that police had deliberately altered witness statements on the disaster in an attempt to blame Liverpool fans for the crush. In all 96 fans died, but reports state that if police had acted promptly some 41 people could have been saved. The pattern of police lies persists. Decades on we are beginning to hear the real truth about police brutality at Orgreave and in North Nottinghamshire which was covered up at every level.

In the blacklist tale some of the workers affected have decided to launch a legal battle for compensation. So far 84 claimants have decided to pursue a High Court action to claim for lost earnings of between £20,000 and £450,000. A further 10 claimants are said to be considering taking action. The High Court group action is directed against Sir Robert McAlpine as part of a wider ‘unlawful conspiracy’. According to documents seized, Kerr billed Sir Robert McAlpine £26,841, £5,951 of which was paid at the time McAlpine started the Olympics project. Individual workers could be checked out for £2.20 a time.

Evidence of other blacklists or intrusive records keep on appearing. In October 2012 David Clancy, investigations manager at ICO, told the Commons Scottish affairs committee that the construction worker database represented just ‘5-10 per cent’ of the materials seen during the 2009 raid on the Consulting Associations’ office. When asked why they didn’t retrieve the other files, he said to do so was outside ‘the extent of the cover of our warrant.’

In the three years since the blacklist was discovered, only 14 of Kerr’s clients have been given enforcement notices demanding they comply with the law. Only three people have won a claim at a full employment tribunal.

As for Kerr himself, he was fined a mere £5,000, a small price to pay for all the lives and families he ruined.

We wish the workers who are taking legal action against the construction industry well. We hope they will find some justice. As one of the blacklisted builders, Dave Smith said:

This is about human rights. I have not done anything illegal. I am a member of a trade union. I have worked in an attempt to improve health and safety on building sites and yet it appears my employers, the state, security services and the police have been conspiring against me.

He might be right, but justice, real justice under capitalism is a rare animal. Already the vast majority of those who have attempted to gain redress have failed. According to campaigners, in some cases lawyers took too long to file court papers and as a result actions were ruled out of time. Other claims cited a breach of employment laws that didn’t exist at the time. Even those who do win find themselves awarded a measly sum in comparison with their years of suffering. (Electrician Steve Kelly got £2,400 for 10 years of blacklisting). No members of the police or security services have been brought to justice.

And its not just the building trade …

Meanwhile as a class we are more spied upon than ever. Potential employees are now ‘screened’ in almost casual ways via Facebook or twitter. More organized surveillance is also growing, such as the Action Against Business Crime which charges £4,000 annually and has a National Dismissal Register holding details of all workers who have been dismissed or left work under allegations of acts of dishonesty, whether proven or not.

All of this is nothing new to seafarers. Seamen are recruited through manning agents and they openly state they have blacklists. And this is used by the shipping companies. It is a weapon of intimidation. As a Christian charity for seamen reported recently,

Port chaplains visiting seafarers tell of the palpable fear of being blacklisted. Conditions on ships can be tough, so working conditions will have to be pretty tough before a seafarer would even considering making a complaint.

It is not unusual for shipping companies to dump sailors at remote ports unpaid for three months work and without the means to return home. Things came to light in 2011 when 150 Indian catering workers on the P&O cruise liner Arcadia found out that their tips were now to be taken by management and they would get a share in return as a “bonus”. These workers were getting 75p an hour! They staged a 90 minute strike. The website Fairplay finishes the story

No disciplinary action was taken at the time, and the crew members were allowed to complete their contracts. However, [P&O’s owners stated]: “Given the serious and inappropriate nature of the staff's actions, P&O Cruises has decided not to offer any further contracts to the crew concerned.”

And the recruitment agency in Mumbai has made sure none of them have worked again.

As with the building blacklist, many workers will find themselves named and unemployable as a result of action by anonymous managers (or ship’s officers) who, in the case of the building trade, often supply false allegations. If you are named in this way, you have no way of putting forward your point of view, you just find door suddenly closing in your face and for years to come. In fact the first concrete evidence of a blacklist came from building workers forced to set up as self-employed who were then, as a “business” offered access to the very blacklist which prevented them working!

Scab Unions?

Exposing underhand surveillance and fighting for compensation is both necessary and admirable, and those workers who have fought back deserve full credit. As most workers on the blacklists appear to be there just for raising health and safety issues (construction and maritime trades being on the high end of mortality rates at work) you might think that even the unions would take up their cases. Not so. As one worker, blacklisted in the 1970’s put it:

My experience of UCATT is that it was more interested in getting the subscriptions deducted directly from wages by the employers in return for not rocking the boat.

And : In terms of UCATT

they were, and for all I know are worse than useless. I discovered from other building workers over the years that they were really interested in sweetheart deals with employers to ensure the direct payment of union dues to the extent that even if you weren't a member of a union when you went to a firm you would find the deduction taken from your wages every week. Full timers have to have their wages paid after all.[1]

And this is no isolated incident. In 2009 the Guardian printed an item from Ian Kerr’s blacklist files.

Mick Anderson, 40, married with three children, from Kerry, Ireland Submitted 250 job applications and took courses to keep his electrician training up to date but was out of work for 16 months. …His file includes "Information received by 3271/81 site manager at Heather T5 that the above is 'not recommended' by amicus."[2]

This is concrete evidence that Amicus which is today part of the Unite union was a willing accomplice of the employers. Those who can remember Amicus in its former incarnation as APEX will not be surprised at this. During the Cold War APEX was virtually controlled by the CIA whose “intelligence” supported its own blacklisting efforts. But of course the denials continue. Last year in an effort to stem the tide of bad publicity Unite commissioned Deputy General Secretary Gail Cartmail to investigate. Her report (which she delivered to the Blacklist Support Group Annual General Meeting) was contradictory. Whilst she could not name a single union official involved in the practice “despite considerable effort”, she concluded, “If you ask me if there was collusion in the past, I say probably yes.” And she apologised!

Blacklisting with union collusion goes on all over the planet. Some ICT members know it to their own personal cost. Seeking redress in the capitalist justice system, as we have shown here is unlikely to be very successful and individuals who are victims take some time to work it out. Class solidarity is difficult against a secret dirty tricks campaign but blacklisting is part and parcel of the class struggle. They want to intimidate us into accepting any conditions they wish to impose.

Those demanding democracy in the Arab world should have pause for thought. The whole blacklisting saga with it tale of union collusion sheds real light on the real meaning and value of capitalist democracy for workers throughout the world. Our only strength lies in our class solidarity. We have to create a strong working class response which is prepared to stand up to the bullying of capitalists and the exploitative system that breeds them. It’s class war on their part, and it can only be countered by class war on ours.


[1] Both quotes by Terry Fitzpatrick, the first on , the second on


Saturday, November 3, 2012


This article is so good, and it's made me so angry I don't know what to do. I used to think the fight against capitalism would be so easy, once we got going. (Dont know why I thought that!) But now it seems more and more everyday that capitalism and the bourgeoisie are the most horrific and pernicious manifestations that have ever been invented. And that to fight against them is going to take so much bravery, persistence, solidarity and clearness of mind - in short, class consciouness - that it seems doubtful at times that we, mere working class humanity, will ever be able to pull it off. What we are being invited to do - overthrow this incredibly awful way of life - just appears a super-human task. Can we really do it?

Sometimes the bad guys appear to have everything on their side.

The "Blacklist" of course originates in the US. It was an actual list of troublemakers distributed to employers in a community to tell them who not to hire. It was a practice that goes back well into the 19th Century at any rate.

As for Kerr himself, he was fined a mere £5,000, a small price to pay for all the lives and families he ruined.

And in this morning's Financial Times (Nov 28 2012) it reports that Kerr admits to a Scottish Parliamentary Committee that the fine fine was paid by .. McAlpine's who also gave him £20, 000 more.