Investigate the role of union officials in blacklisting

Thanks to the efforts of the Blacklist Support Group, construction industry blacklisting has been exposed and some compensation settlements obtained. Ian Allinson, the left rank and file candidate in the General Secretary election, supports calls for the next stage of investigations to include the shameful role played by some union officials who colluded with employers to victimise activists and drive effective union organisation out of the construction industry.

Photo: BESNA 2011 protest, Becca Francis

Blacklisting union activists, often for raising health and safety concerns or other legitimate union activity, is a serious breach of human rights and the law. However, the law provides inadequate protection or sanctions and many activists believe that the blacklist uncovered is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is right that Unite campaigns for stronger protection. Is this the political campaigning Gerard Coyne wants us to do less of?

Over 40 construction industry activists, many of them former victims of blacklisting, recently signed an open letter from the Blacklist Support Group calling for the next stage of the investigations to cover the role of certain officials of both the UCATT and Unite unions in assisting construction companies to identify union activists and put them out of work. Their letter explains:

‘It is now in the public domain that officials in both unions were recoded as the source of information on the Economic league and Consulting Association blacklist files. Some of those named, remain senior officials in UNITE and UCATT to this day. Every union activist in construction knows who the named officials are, as does every major employer.’

 ‘The leadership of both unions have now seen the evidence: discussions about those officials potentially implicated in blacklisting or with overly cosy relationships with industrial relations managers has been part of the behind the scenes discussions in the run up to the (Unite and UCATT) merger’.

It is great that Len McCluskey has backed calls for an enquiry, but the gap between the blacklisted workers’ view of the evidence and his own is worrying. McCluskey says: “While new evidence has unfolded in the High Court proceedings it is not the case that this evidence points towards present or previous union officials”.

It is hard to believe that the employers’ blacklist could be as extensive and long-lasting as it was without the treacherous role played by some union officials. One example of the role of some officials was the events on the Wembley stadium construction site, where members were locked out and put a picket on the site. One officer responded by escorting scabs across the picket line. I was expelled from the “left” caucus on the Amicus executive for refusing to repudiate the locked out members who were picketing.

Give the merger a democratic start

With the Unite / UCATT merger to take effect from 1st January 2017, UK construction workers have, for the first time, the possibility of being organised in one big united union, apart from small numbers of workers in GMB. However, if the merger takes place at a purely formal and bureaucratic level, the chance to extend real democracy and rank and file control would be lost. Worse still if we missed the chance to clean the Augean stable of the complicity and corruption which has robbed union activists of their livelihoods and wrecked families.

Construction activists have shown that grassroots democratic movements, the Construction Rank and File and the Blacklist Support Group, have begun to make officials accountable as well as building the beginnings of a real fighting union at workplace and sector level.

The newly merged Unite construction sector would have the best start if those officials who contributed to the blacklisting scandal were not allowed to play any further part. Unite should officially extend every assistance to the Blacklist Support Group in rooting out collusion and backdoor deals with the employers. The rank and file experience of democracy and accountability should be emulated elsewhere in Unite.