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The construction industry blacklist: Paltry punishment for attacks on workers
Construction workers have been fighting an employers' blacklist for many years. The big construction companies have been using it to try to stop workers on their sites joining trade unions and getting organised.
Any effective union shop steward or safety rep ran the risk of getting put on this illegal blacklist and thus barred from working on such sites.
The blacklist has been exposed, but the task of union organisation is still difficult as Colin Trousdale, an electrician on the MediaCity project, Salford, Greater Manchester explains.
I have been campaigning for the trade unions to organise workers in the MediaCity construction project in Manchester. Now I have reported to my union Unite and to the Blacklist Support Group that myself and two others were put on enforced paid leave following an attempt by management to dismiss us on 22 January, falsely claiming that our jobs were redundant.
This followed a series of meetings with management where the three of us raised health and safety issues and the fact that the New Year pay rise has not been implemented. We also refused to work on Saturdays for the weekday rate.
There are seven of us working for an agency alongside seven full-time employees (not cards-in ie not directly employed) none of which are in the union. Two of the agency lads are non-union and have no desire to join, despite my best efforts. So if we formed a shop it would comprise only five lads in a workforce of 14.
However the full site has 300-350 men who are traditionally Unite members, amongst a total workforce of 1,800. These men are completely unorganised and most are lapsed members due to the abolition of the check-off system, whereby the companies used to pay union dues direct to the union.
There is a full-time building workers' union UCATT convenor on site who is trying to help our lads. I recently advised him on three cases:
- An apprentice plumber (member) being paid over £3 an hour below the rate for his age and qualifications.
- A group of cards-in sparks (lapsed members who feel Unite has done nothing to sign them back up after check-off was scrapped) accused of falsifying their time sheets, although management fill their sheets for them and just give them to the lads to sign!
- A sub-contractor paying well below the rate for sparks.
It is his opinion, and one which I share, that we should be organising the workforce, putting stewards and safety reps in place with all the sub-contractors. Then a convenor could split his time between working for one of the main mechanical and electrical (M and E) contractors and coordinating the efforts of the stewards and sorting out industrial relations problems amongst the subbies.
The trend on site at the moment amongst the M and E companies is to see who can get agency labour the cheapest, with no thought for national agreements or ratios of skilled to unskilled labour. I myself am approached on a daily basis to advise on some problem or another, something that has not gone unnoticed by management.
On 15 January I was called to a meeting with our project manager at which he said he had been made aware of the alleged blacklist. My reply was that we now had irrefutable proof of it. Although this meeting was minuted he is refusing to give me a copy of the minutes but has sent them to head office and my agency. I feel this meeting was the catalyst that led to the attempt to remove the three of us from site.
On 29 January we met with management. I had contacted the Unite national officer for construction and the Unite regional secretary. They each sent me a one-line email passing the buck to the regional officer for construction.
We were left by Unite to fend for ourselves at the meeting, though aided by the UCATT convenor. We managed to secure re-instatement for the following Monday.
Why do I persevere? Because if I didn't, what would happen to the people that aren't as gobby as me? They would be left to the mercy of the bosses. I don't want platitudes or medals, I just want some help and assistance from our full-time officers. Is that too much to ask, when it's supposed to be a union for the members like me who pay their subs to the union? Yet again, on this showing, it is too much to ask.
We must organise the Media:City site, and sites like it. We must defend our members and agreements, and our union should be leading from the front instead of being notable only by its absence.
I could fill The Socialist with my tales of horrible injustice done to my fellow construction workers because of blacklisting. Although me and my fellow workers had long known of its existence, we were eventually given irrefutable proof of it by a disgruntled human resources manager.
In June 2008 myself and Steve Acheson were quoted in an article in the Guardian. This was read by an officer from the Information Commissioner's office who contacted us and said: "If this is true, then I must investigate."
We confirmed that it was all true and gave him the evidence we had. With that he was able to launch his investigation, which resulted in his raid of the Consulting Association in February 2009.
After his investigation, the Information Commissioner found that a blacklist had been in existence for at least 15 years and that private investigator Ian Kerr was making thousands of pounds a year giving information on trade union activists to major building firms.
Kerr was fined a paltry £5,000 in July 2009 and his database was shut down. But construction workers have no guarantees that the blacklist will not continue under another guise.
On the blacklist
Graham Bowker is a little-mentioned hero of the Manchester construction industry disputes. Graham has stood shoulder to shoulder with Steve Acheson during the Marks and Spencer, DAF and Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) disputes. He has spent four of the last ten years out of work through being blacklisted, or on picket lines as a result of being removed from sites due to the blacklist.
He managed to secure work with a small family run company where he worked quite happily for six months with no myther (Lancashire dialect, problem or trouble).
Then they got a contract for one of the big boys involved in the MRI dispute. The big company highlighted Graham to his firm and demanded his removal from the site. This resulted in him losing his job and adding another venue to our peaceful protest roadshow. The banners go down well with the passing public.
Socialist Party members were at the Fiddlers' Ferry power station on Tuesday 16 February to show our continued support for blacklisted electrician Steve Acheson who was unfairly dismissed from the site in 2008.
Members of the Unite and RMT trade unions were with us to make a stand against the continued attempts by site security to intimidate Steve into ending his protest. This has included a failed high court injunction against Steve in October 2009. When the judge threw out the bosses' accusations, he described them as: "fanciful bordering on paranoia."
On 8 February site security, along with an officer from Cheshire police, confronted Steve and confiscated his banners pointing out the use of blacklisting on the site. They claimed they where "offensive" to the site operators Scottish and Southern Electricity.
In response to this, Tuesday's protest was organised by Warrington trades council to make it clear that these actions would not end Steve's protest but instead strengthen the support for him that has built up over the last 14 months.
As Steve himself said: "It's the solidarity I've been shown that has made all this possible." Steve will continue his protest with the support of the Socialist Party, Unite and trade unionists up and down the country.
In The Socialist 17 February 2010:
Socialist Party campaigns
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Socialist Party news and analysis
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis