Last autumn, the official journal of the construction workers’ union, UCATT, revealed the shocking details of a Blacklist operated by The Consulting Association (TCA), on behalf of a group of named construction companies. 3200 named construction worker trade unionists are on the list. This was followed by an impressive article, Boys from the Blacklist, published in the Guardian, on 21st November.
UCATT General Secretary, Alan Ritchie, was quoted extensively regarding his horror at these developments and his opposition to the employers behind them. The Blacklist had been discovered by Information Commissioners Office (ICO), so he called on UCATT members write to them to see if their name was on this Blacklist. If anyone found their name was on this list, they were to send the files to UCATT, which would then do something about this scandal.
Brian Higgins is Secretary of the construction workers union, UCATT branch in Northampton. He felt that his name must be on the Blacklist and sent off to the ICO asking if this was the case. After providing proof of his identity, the ICO sent him a copy of a 49 page file, which TCA had on him. It dates back to 1976 and goes on till December 2006. As well as personal, industrial and political details about Brian’s life and activities, there are also a few vile smears which must be libellous.
On 10th January, Brian took up Alan Ritchie’s call to send his file to UCATT, along with other related documents and a covering letter. He awaited a swift response and an expression of sympathy and understanding, along with a condemnation of the employers operating the blacklist. To date all he has received from the General Secretary is a 25 word letter, dated 26th January, with absolutely no mention of the Blacklist.
It is abundantly clear that the UCATT General Secretary is seriously dragging his feet over this. If a campaign to combat the Blacklist is left to full time officials and supporters then nothing effective will be done.
We have decided to print an edited version of Brian’s letter of 10th January to address a general trade union and political audience in the form of an open letter.
Open Letter To The Trade Union And Workers Movement
Dear Brothers, Sisters and Comrades,
When the Information Commissioners Office sent copy of the 49 page file held on me by The Consulting Association (TCA), I have to admit, even I, as a very experienced, case-hardened old trade union militant, was taken aback to see how much information they had on me, and the extent to which I was spied upon. Furthermore, I have a feeling they have not sent me everything. It certainly looks as if the state had a hand in providing information for TCA’s database.
Serious anger is one of the main emotions I’m experiencing at present. However, I’m also very concerned, although not surprised, at the comment in Phil Chamberlain’s excellent Guardian article, Boys from the Blacklist (21st November, 2009).
One effect of the release of files has been to question how far some union officials were involved in supplying details to The Consulting Association.
In 1996, the full-time UCATTofficial, Dominic Hehir, took me to the High Court in an attempt to silence me and those I represent in UCATT. He was unsuccessful because my supporters and I refused to be silenced. At the time, the then General Secretary did not try to stop, or even to oppose Hehir.
Furthermore, an ex-UCATT Executive Council member, John Flavin, set up a company to advise building employers not long after he was voted off the EC in 1995. Despite this, he continued to be a member of UCATT, and still is to my knowledge. Quite a few UCATT members, including the Northampton branch, protested to the General Secretary and the EC about this. Not so much a building employers’ mole as a big bloody big elephant in the room!
Therefore, it would be no surprise to learn that some UCATT officials could have been supplying information on me and others to the building employers, blacklisters, and who knows to who else. It is absolutely loathsome and repugnant in the extreme that there could be people in UCATT, and perhaps other unions, who could resort to such treachery and sink to the depths alluded to in the Guardian article.
It looks as if the names of one, two or more of these beings could be among the many names blacked out by the ICO on my file. Perhaps I should apply for the names of any union officials amongst these to be revealed using the civil laws on Discovery. I’d also like to see the file the state has on me.
Whatever happens there should be an investigation into this case. This should involve blacklisted construction worker trade unionists, and MPs, academics and investigative journalists with records of sympathy for the trade union and workers’ movement. If anybody is found guilty they should be named, rooted and drummed out of our movement in disgrace, If such an investigation does not take place, then the name of trade unionism will be tainted and sullied.
The Blacklist is an economic, social and political prison. I have served a life sentence and other workers continue to be imprisoned. In cases like my own, the Blacklist effectively takes the form of house arrest because of its effect on a person’s social life. My wife was also deeply affected and badly scarred. More often that not, she was forced to financially support me, and our two children, on her low wage as a care worker. This has had a devastating effect on our standard of living. To her great credit my wife supported me and our family unstintingly. She held us together when things got really tough – which it did quite often. We kept our dignity intact and just managed to keep our heads above water by almost completely sacrificing our social life. My wife had to take out loans, which we could not afford, since my credit rating was zero due to very long spells of unemployment. All of this is the direct result of the building employers deliberately using the Blacklist, time and again, to deny me the right to work and to earn a living.
Not content to kill (some would say murder) and maim on unsafe construction sites; and to super-exploit site workers through subcontracting on low wages, they blacklist those who dare to try to do something about this through the trade unions on the sites – mainly UCATT in my case. Through the Blacklist, the employers deny us the right to organise. As a punishment and a warning to other workers they rob us of the right to earn a wage and to provide for ourselves and our families. This is criminal behaviour and the employers responsible should be treated as criminals. The heads of the blacklisting construction companies named in the ICO’s exposure of the TCA should be jailed – no ifs, no buts.
There is some talk of court cases and compensation. Building employers must owe me hundreds of thousands for wages I lost, whilst they kept me in their economic and social prison. I am in favour of using the Industrial Tribunals to get some compensation. However, this on its own will NOT put a stop to blacklisting in construction. Surely the main objective of any campaign against the Blacklist must be to get rid of this vile anti-democratic and inhuman practice one and for all.
The campaign for justice must be taken all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. I ask UCATT to get myself and other blacklisted construction workers the best civil and human rights lawyer to help us to do this. I also ask that UCATT sponsored MPs, and others known to be sympathetic, are made aware of my case, and bring it up in the House of Commons, to show just how bad blacklisting can get.
Given the severity and lifelong nature of my blacklisting, now proven beyond doubt, I am willing to participate in a campaign by UCATT against the Blacklist and all that this entails. Perhaps brother Ritchie and I could share a platform speaking out against this. I could explain what it is like to be on the receiving end of this blatant and sinister denial and violation of human and trade union rights for so long.
We have all known and spoken of the Blacklist for many years. However, this is the first time its existence and practice has been proven. The blacklisting companies and those they blacklisted have been named and made public by the ICO. We must not fritter away this unique opportunity to tackle and stop the Blacklist. It can not just be left to those who will weep copious tears and make sweeping statements of opposition in public, but in reality will do nothing effective to get real justice, or stop the Blacklist being imposed on other site workers and trade unionists in the future.
We call on blacklisted workers in UCATT and other construction trade unions, as well as sympathisers in other unions, as well as sympathetic political organisations and MPs, to form a united front campaign to outlaw the Blacklist once and for all. We must use every means at our disposal, especially calling upon construction union members and site workers to take industrial action wherever the Blacklist is in operation.
How can we possibly succeed with anti-trade union laws and everything else arraigned against us? In February 1986, five UCATT members, who formed an organisation called the Laings Lock Out Committee, of which I was the chairperson, were issued with a High Court Injunction, under the 1982 Anti-Trade Union Laws (Tory then, Labour now) by the huge construction company, John Laing. This was to stop us picketing, meeting and even talking about the dispute we had with Laing over their use of the Blacklist to sack us, when they found out that we worked on one of their sites. With the help of thousands of workers and their shop stewards, who threatened to take what would have been political strike action if we were jailed, we successfully defied Laing and their High Court Injunction, anti-Trade Union Laws and all. So, if we, with the support of thousands of our brother and sister trade unionists could do that then, why can’t we do that now? It’s time for us all to take a stand once more!
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AN UPDATE ON THE BRIAN HIGGINS CASE
The ICO have written to Brian notifying him that unredacted files (i.e ones without the names blacked out) will be retained as long as there are ongoing cases which may require access to them by those involved in court action over the files. This after he had written to the ICO asking them not to dispose of his unredacted file as he would be asking for access to names blacked out in the redacted files. It is a real breakthrough and advance in the struggle for justice in these matters.
Brian’s lawyer also wrote basically informing him a date for a Tribunal would be set after he has notified them of any dates that he could not attend a hearing. Things appear to be moving but of course this will be a long and hard struggle for all seeking some form of real justice over this issue and is only really beginning and will no doubt end up in Europe.