In-depth research to support campaining for justice – review of Blacklisted

19 Mar
  • Jack Winder - Ecomonic League, recruted Kerr, moved on 
    to found Caprim Ltd, testified @ Scottish Committee
  • Micheal Noar former EL boss: 'of course we helped 
    Special Branch' (source Hollingsworth)
  • Ken Day (p.247) 1969 – 1998 Met Special Branch spent time 
    cultivating top union sources source (True Spies)

Instead of writing a review, I find myself jotting down notes, names of Special Branch officers that the authors of the Blacklisted have quoted, sources that I have yet to scrutinise in much more detail myself. The reports of the Blacklisting in Employment Inquiry by the Scottish Affairs Committee, for instance, have been sitting on my desk for almost two years, and I now regret not have made time for it before. Although it is good to have some kind of division of labour and I gladly leave the topic of blacklisting in the hands of these two, the rigorous job they did brought up quite a few precious nuggets that just beg for further research.

Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain have done an incredible job, their combined expertise leading to an excellent book. The two of them could not be more different, Dave knows what it is to be blacklisted from his own experience, an engineer elected as safety rep at a building site he was not able to find work for many years thereafter. Not taking no for an answer, he tirelessly filed complaints and appealed decisions, encouraging many comrades to do the same, he is now a frontrunner of the campaign against blacklisting. An easy speaker, ever-present and always supportive to like-minded causes he is quite opposite to his co-author, a somewhat thoughtful softly spoken personality, an investigative reporter teaching skills to the younger generation. It was his article in the Guardian in 2009 that initiated the investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office eventually leading to the raid of the Consultancy Association (the agency set up by the construction industry) premises and the seizing of the blacklisting files that confirmed what many in the building sector had known for years.

Together, they gathered a wealth of material, piecing it together to map the history of blacklisting in the UK. The absurd claims in the uncovered blacklist files are matched with impressive interviews to show the harm done by the careless storing and sharing of gossip and judgemental opinions, mostly based on unfounded fears of workers united and disruption of ruthless money-making. More than that, Smith and Chamberlain managed to get access to a wide array of people actually involved in blacklisting, former HR managers in construction, people who have worked for the Consultancy Association, or the Economic League before that, and most remarkable of all, Mary Kerr, the widow of Ian Kerr who died suddenly two months after testifying to the Inquiry of the Scottish Parliament in their first round of hearings. The Consultancy Association was officially a one-man’s band with the occasional intern or extra, but in fact run by Kerr and his wife (who – typically – never got that status recognised, either by the Information Commissioner Office, or by the Scottish Affairs Committee); after his untimely death, she is the only source as to what went on at that weird office, and the authors of the Blacklisted book got her to talk.

The book is not just a detailed story of the devastating effects of blacklisting to the lives of countless workers, but also a testimony of how employers try to destroy the power of unions – or more to the point, of people who are trying to organise and address the most elementary health and safety issues at the work place. Blacklisted documents the changes in arrangements, building companies forcing people to sell their labour as if they each were a small company themselves, employees working through agencies, subcontracting to no end, every single step to break organised labour and the right to unionise, and to undermine the routes to bring complaints about unlawful lay-off s to the Employment Tribunal. Unions that sold out to employers in exchange for a seat at the negotiating table and Courts that chose to persevere with the strictest interpretation of the law and terms only added to the deterioration of the social climate in the past three decades. With its unambiguous case studies and insights from a wide array witnesses, the book offers a compelling and meticulous analysis the destruction of the welfare state at a micro-level – which brought us the advanced stage of neo-liberalism we find ourselves in now.

At the same time, it is an inspiring exercise as well, fortunately. The book shows that in-depth research, patience and persistence can uncover evidence needed to acknowledge where injustice has been done. In that sense, the Blacklisted book is an inspiration for others who aim to leave no stone unturned such as the activist groups that have been spied upon, while it offers support to those who have fought for justice for the past few decades and will continue to do so – such as the Hillsborough Families and the family justice campaigns, particularly around black deaths in custody and police corruption in solving racial murder.

Long-term campaigning, like that of the Blacklist Support Group, requires the support of investigative research, by activists, academics, journalists, or – even better – by joining forces, as I suggested in my book Secret Manoeuvres and work since.

And joining forces in research is what we aim to do the Undercover Research Group. Time to get back to work now!

  • Update the profile of undercover officer Mark Jenner, 
    with some new details from Chapter Nine of Blacklisted
  • See which sources from my research the authors have 
    used and elaborated on
  • Think about further Freedom of Information requests 
    that could be filed...

Blacklisted, the secret war between big business and union activists by Phil Chamberlain and Dave Smith is available direct from New Internationalist Books for £7.99, printed or ebooked.

Currently the authors are doing a tour talking about the book and experiences of being blacklisted.

Twitter @BlacklistedBook

About the Authors

  • Dave Smith is a blacklisted union activist from the construction industry, and an award-winning campaigner on human rights, health and safety, anti-fascism and employment rights issues. Apart from being a trade union education tutor, he is a PhD candidate too.
  • Phil Chamberlain is an experienced investigative journalist who has written for the Guardian, Observer and the Independent amongst others. He is also a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Bristol.