In 2009, the Information Commissioner’s Office raided a clandestine organisation known as the Consulting Association and found 3,200 names on a construction industry blacklist. In total 45 companies were found to be paying the organisation for ‘intelligence’ on workers including eight major companies now building Crossrail – Europe’s biggest construction project. The list included details of workers’ relationships, political affiliations, whether they were union members and even if they had worked on a site where industrial action had taken place, regardless of whether they were involved. The details of 200 environmental activists were also found.
Construction is still the most dangerous industry in the country, seeing an average of three fatal accidents per week. Crossrail is the UK’s biggest construction project in a generation. It will cost £15 billion of public money and involves building nine new stations and a line spanning London. It will employ 14,000 workers at its height. If there’s any project that can set construction industry standards – for better or worse – it’s this one. Companies know it, and unions know it. And the fight for rights and sites is on.
New fertile beds of activism
The Jubilee line extension was the last major organised project in London that saw serious grassroots union power. It started like many sites today. Bob Jones, an electrician from Southend, worked as an apprentice on the extension between 1994–2000. He recalls, ‘If you didn’t get up and leave your breakfast on the table in the canteen when the foreman came in, you would get a written warning.’
The conditions were gruelling, with workers on 12-hour shifts deep underground on tunnel-boring machines, at risk of lung disease due to dust inhalation, deafness from the scream of the machines, and Weil’s disease, caused by ingestion of infected rat urine. Workers were expected to wash their hands in buckets as there were no adequate washing facilities on many of the sites.
When a fire alert began at London Bridge one day, workers only found out through word of mouth. The alarm system was inadequate and the employer – Drake & Skull – refused to fix it. Jim T, at the time a member of the rank-and-file electricians’ union Sparks, recalls: ‘The company wouldn’t confirm the suitability of the fire alarm and workers wouldn’t go back to work until the fire alarm system was proven suitable. Because we were one workforce, we all went out on strike – we’d had local skirmishes before – but the issue at London Bridge brought everybody out.’
The Jubilee line job, according to Jim, had been about 80 per cent unorganised to begin with, meaning no real union representation. This changed with the arrival of the ‘Essex mafia’ – a nickname given by employers to what was effectively a network of well-organised union activists who knew each other from previous jobs. ‘Management singled them out in a union meeting because they challenged the existing committee. They said they could do a better job, took on the demands of the workforce, tackled health and safety and because they were effective the employer decided to sack them. We conducted a sitin and managed to get them un-sacked but they were dispersed over the entire line. The tactic to split them up over the other sites backfired because what it really meant was that it seeded new fertile beds of activism.’
A power shift
The balance of power began to shift. ‘We had numerous sit-ins, all safety-related over faulty electrical leads or sanitation, so we’d cabin up until the issues were resolved,’ says Jim. ‘Our cabins were directly beneath the management, and we’d be down there drinking tea, and to show protest we’d start stamping our feet, until we’d build up to into a mass, almost orchestral crescendo.’
‘After the London Bridge incident, we started to fight for more and more,’ Jim continues. ‘We took an active part in our own safety, we weren’t going to have it dictated to us. We educated ourselves. We appointed more safety stewards. And we earned more. By the end of the job our wages had gone up from £300 per week to £1,500.’
They also organised their own sick fund to compensate for the derisory levels of sick pay from the employer. ‘No one abused it, everyone paid into it and it meant your mortgage could be covered if you fell ill,’ remembers Bob. ‘We all looked after each other’.
The Jubilee line had to be ready for the queen’s jubilee and millennium celebrations, and this gave the workforce a large amount of leverage. The employers responded with blacklisting. They used firms like the Consulting Association to mark names, share information and stop people working on sites before they’d even started. Union officials and police were also part of the conspiracy, including spycops like Mark Jenner (aka Mark Cassidy), who infiltrated both the construction worker groups and anti-capitalist network Reclaim the Streets.
The official exposure of the Consulting Association’s blacklist proved what many workers had long suspected: that they were deliberately being denied work, and through it access to workplaces where they could protect health and safety standards and organise for economic and social justice. Blacklisting meant collective punishment not just for workers but their families too, as many suffered mental breakdowns, divorce, and poverty over years of unemployment.
The Blacklist Support Group was formed in the wake of the raid. It was organised and led by blacklisted workers themselves. Today it is still at the forefront of agile grassroots union activism in the UK and has mounted legal challenges to some of the companies involved.
Last year Frank Morris, an electrician from Enfield who had been a shop steward on previous major construction projects in London, including the Olympic stadium, got a job on Crossrail for the Bam, Ferrovial and Kier (BFK) consortium. After raising concerns about dangerous cabling and an unstable gantry (which later collapsed) he was taken aside by management, labelled ‘a union man’ and sacked. Taking the fight to the gate, often on his own, he spent six months protesting before Unite’s organisation and leverage department began an anti-blacklisting campaign to get his job back and union access onto all Crossrail sites.
Using multiple levels of leverage, including daily protests outside investors, partners, contractors, councils and HR managers’ homes, as well as giving evidence in government select committee hearings and lobbying US senators and UK MPs, Unite managed to cost BFK over £1 billion in lost work. The blacklisters were getting blacklisted. Their brands were becoming toxic.
The rank and file continued to lead on direct action, blocking streets and roads in central London and Manchester. In one protest blacklisted electrician George Tapp was run down and suffered two broken legs. Still activists kept taking to the streets.
The combination of top-down support for a bottom-up campaign won Frank Morris his job back this August. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group said of the victory, ‘Frank never gave up. The rank and file never gave up. Unite never gave up. We are no longer prepared to sit back when our best activists are victimised and blacklisted. We have been calling for an industrial solution to end the blacklist and Unite have delivered the goods.’
Will this kind of worker-led action make blacklisting too costly to continue? Crossrail will be the test case.
Some names have been changed to prevent further blacklisting.
Ewa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.