For 20 years the Consulting Association illegally blacklisted thousands of construction workers for being involved with unions
8-14 Feb 2016 is heartunions week. To mark the week, Left Foot Forward are running a series of articles about trade unions. You can find out more at heartunions.org
A lot of people will have heard the story of how 44 British Construction Companies illegally blacklisted thousands of construction workers over a 20-year period, denying them access to work in the industry simply because of their union activities.
What is less well known is that, in the seven years since the scandal was first exposed, the companies have done all they can to stop paying decent compensation to those whose lives they tried to ruin.
They would probably have got away with it if it had not been for the dogged tenacity of the trade unions.
The Consulting Association, which ran the blacklist, was closed down by the Information Commissioner in March 2009 after they raided their offices. At the time, unions demanded an inquiry and legislation to prevent it happening again.
However, the companies themselves, (who owned the Consulting Association) initially denied they had blacklisted any workers. Faced with claims for compensation as early as August that year, the employers stonewalled.
One, Skanska, even claimed that they only used the list to vet employees with a history of violence and drug or alcohol abuse.
Initially, many workers did not know they were on the blacklist and the first that a lot of people realised why they had been unable to find work in the construction industry was when their union contacted them.
However, in November 2010 the first person managed to get compensation after backing from the union Unite. Nevertheless construction companies continued to try to prevent cases coming to court.
The following year construction giant Carillion argued unsuccessfully that a case should be dismissed because the blacklisting had happened in 1998-2000, despite the blacklist only being revealed in 2009.
Later on the same company was to deny any legal responsibility because they did not directly employ the worker, but used an employment agency.
It was only when the Scottish Affairs Committee started investigated the practice that the construction companies began to admit that they had used the blacklist, but of course they all said it was in the past and that they had not knowingly done anything illegal.
By 2013 the pressure was on. The Scottish Affairs Committee had published a scathing report on the blacklisters and many of the companies found that local authorities were refusing to consider them for contracts as a result of union campaigns and the work of the Blacklist Support Group. Also, the companies had started to fight amongst themselves.
One of the biggest companies, McAlpine, insisted that nine other companies be added to a legal action by blacklisted workers, and by 2013 everyone thought that the companies had eventually caved in.
A few weeks before a TUC day of action on blacklisting, the eight biggest blacklisters offered to set up an industry-funded compensation scheme. However, within days, it was clear that this was a joke. Some people could receive as little as £1,000 and most would be expected to get only a few thousand.
The proposals were dismissed as being ‘derisory’ (that is one of the politer words used) and unions recommended that their members refuse to use the scheme, and lodged further claims in the courts.
The legal process continued with the companies still trying to stop the cases being heard. Despite public claims that they are sorry for their actions, they did everything they could to prevent payouts. One company even claimed thousands of pounds of costs from one worker just days after issuing an unreserved apology to him.
There was also evidence that they had deliberately destroyed or withheld documents, and as recently as last month, they had to be ordered by the High Court to release all the emails and correspondence they had kept.
This week, 71 former construction workers received ‘full and final settlements’ worth £5.6 million. The average payout is £80,000, but some are as high as £200,000. This is a far cry from the sums that were being offered by the industry under their 2013 scheme.
Even these payouts are no recompense for the thousands of ruined lives that resulted from the illegal actions of these companies, but they do show the importance of being in a union.
Without the support that the GMB, Unite and UCATT gave and the work they did with the incredible Blacklist Support Group, the workers would have either received nothing, or, at the very least, some token amount.
There are many more cases to be heard, especially an important one in May, but people are now receiving money.
Of course it is more than just about money. The unions also want to protect future workers, which is why they are pushing for a full inquiry into blacklisting and strong laws to make sure that this scandal is never repeated.
The Trade Union Bill is an attempt to stop us doing that by making it harder for us to recruit and represent members, campaign, and strike. In addition, new provisions will compel picket organisers to pass their names and addresses to police.
The Certification Officer will have new powers to investigate membership records, even where no complaints have been made. This all raises concerns about the confidentiality of union membership and activism.
The blacklisting scandal is clear proof of why we need trade unions. Workers need them to ensure they are protected and, when things go wrong, to fight for their rights against employers, through the courts and to campaign for action from governments.
To read more about the background to the scandal read the Hazards Magazine Blacklisting blog
Hugh Robertson is the TUC’s senior policy officer on Prevention, Rehabilitation and CompensationLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.