Emancipation & Liberation has been giving its support to Jerry Hicks, the rank and file candidate for the General Secretary of UNITE. In this article reprinted from the rank and file Siteworker bulletin, Jerry attacks the current UNITE leadership’s ‘Johnny-come-lately’ attitude towards the pernicious system of blacklisting, of which Jerry has himself been a victim.
Blacklisting of workers is a ‘National scandal’ and the scandal is that it has gone on for so long and not enough was done by those shouting the loudest now.
Millions of people would be forgiven for thinking that the illegal blacklisting of 3,200 construction workers has suddenly been discovered. Yet it has been the worst kept secret for over two decades that those who spoke up with concerns for Health and Safety on construction sites or defended wages and conditions were punished and denied employment. Brave people paid a heavy price as each year, each month, each day brought more discrimination – more lives were being wrecked, houses lost to repossession, stress induced ill health, heart attacks and even worse.
It was more than 3 years ago in 2009 when the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided the offices of the Consultancy Association and found the illegal records of files kept on 3,200 workers. Ian Kerr was fined a paltry £5,000 for storing information contrary to the Data Protection Act. To add insult, the fine was paid not by Mr Kerr but by the employers who had enlisted his services.
Then last year before he met with his untimely death Ian Kerr ‘spilled the beans’ when he gave evidence to the Scottish Select Committee.
Now there are people all but silent until recently that liken ‘our’ scandal to the ‘phone hacking’ scandal, but I believe this has more similarities to the Jimmy Saville affair. I so much as, how many institutions knew or suspected? How many employers outside of the contributors knew? How many MPs suspected or knew? How many union officials suspected or knew and perhaps benefitted? What and how much did the police know?”
Why the lack of effective action? Why has it been left to the determined struggle of the Blacklisting Support Group along with some very courageous people already on the list to expose the abuses and attempt to redress the wrongs and bring those responsible to book.
As a spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office rightly pointed out to today’s outcry from trade union leaders, “Where were the unions 3 years ago ?”
I know who the enemy in this is, and that’s the bosses but and it’s a big but, the union had the perfect opportunity to confront blacklisting employers. That opportunity was the Olympics, it could have, should have been the time and the vehicle to take on and defeat the blacklist, It would have propelled the abuse into the national news, and ended the blacklist once and for all. It was an opportunity lost.
Back in 2010 I was among those protesting at the Olympic site over workers failing to find employment there. At the same time trade union leaders at the TUC conference only a mile away made speeches about the need for ‘civil unrest’, yet not one of them came to the protest.
It would seem that some band standing is going on here. After all who spoke out the loudest or even at all during those long grim years? Labour in office? Unite’s leadership?
Two years ago during the last election for the top job [General Secretary] in the UK’s biggest Union, Unite, I was the only one of four candidates that made blacklisting in construction an issue and to promise to redress the wrongs – both in my campaign and election address. Mr McCluskey, and Ms Cartmail also candidates chose not to mention it. They obviously had other priorities. Perhaps for them it has only just become a National Scandal.”
Now there is another election on for Unite’s General Secretary, it having been called ‘out of the blue’, brought forward 3 years and fast tracked.
Many believed that because of all the manoeuvres it would go uncontested, allowing McCluskey to extend his term of office without actually going to the members. But I decided to stand and have been successful in securing far more than the 50 branch and workplace nominations required, including many throughout the construction industry. It’s a fantastic victory for democracy, 1.5 million members will have a voice and will be able to make their choice.
There are just two candidates and members will have one vote.
One on the blacklist, me, who has always spoken out and acted against it and the other candidate M McCluskey, who decides to shout about it now it has hit the headlines. In life everything is about timing. I have my views as to why Mr McCluskey has chosen now, but I leave it to you to draw your own conclusion.
I know who the enemy in this is, it’s the bosses, but, I have a beef with the Labour party too. Shadow business minister’ Chukka Ummna is now calling for an investigation into allegations that firms involved in major projects, including the Olympics and Crossrail, blacklisted workers. Great! But why wait until you are in opposition? What did Labour do during its 3 terms and 13 years in government? As every year went by demands for justice went unanswered, while trade unions poured £10s’ millions money into their coffers.
Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey calls for a “Leveson-style enquiry” which is correct but also an easy demand now that it has already hit the headlines. Why didn’t Unite leadership maximise the opportunities that previously came their way to highlight the abuse.
Assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmail, who openly supports Len McCluskey in his election campaign, described the 40 or so guilty firms on Radio 5 Live as – “an industry in denial, failing even to apologise”. She is right.
However it’s not just employers Unite officials can be hard on. In 2011 when 8 construction companies gave notice of unilateral withdrawal from a national agreement ‘BESNA’, 500 Unite electricians took matters into their own hands, met, agreed and embarked on a year long campaign of protests and unofficial actions which proved to be a very successful strategy. Official backing did eventually come ‘better late than never’. But Unite’s initial response to this campaign beggars belief.
In an email to Gail Cartmail copied to every Unite construction official and some staff, the National Officer for construction Bernard McAuley began “Good morning Gail, reference to our conversation last night” and went on to spew his bile at those very same members of the union describing them as a ‘cancerous group’, ‘opportunists’, ‘mindless individuals’ and mentioned me by name.
When I received that e mail [fourth hand] I this outrageous and libellous diatribe and its wide circulation. No formal apology ever came nor condemnation, and both officials are still responsible for ‘looking after’ construction members. It is easy to see how by design or carelessness names can appear on blacklists.
A ‘class action’ legal case being taken to the High Court on behalf of around 100 construction workers which includes myself, who are seeking compensation for having their names on the blacklist. But shamefully this, the only major court case, is a private case brought by the workers themselves and not funded by Unite. It has been left to the good offices of Guney, Clark & Ryan to take legal action on behalf of the construction workers
Just as the blacklist was more than just rumoured for years, so was the possible involvement of some union officials in supplying information to the consultancy agency. A Leveson-style enquiry that Len McCluskey now calls for, may embarrassingly prove if union officials were involved, where internal union investigations have failed in the past to find sufficient evidence.
In life, chances to really make a difference come and go. The Vestas occupation on the Isle of Wight was one. It was wasted, I believe the best chance to save the Remploy factories would have been protests and occupations during the Para-Olympics but that chance went begging. There will be other chances to fight injustice and the Con-Dem cuts but who will recognise them and act and who will inspire people to believe that big victories are possible.”
Jerry Hicks, March, 2013