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Proletarian issue 59 (April 2014)
Industry matters: Blacklisters in the dock
Blacklisters in the dock

The Blacklist Support Group (BSG) is continuing to hold fast to its minimum demands for reinstatement, full compensation and a public inquiry covering all blacklisted workers in the construction industry – raising such a big stink that initial efforts to quietly bury the issue have stumbled badly.

Scared by the prospect of seeing all their dirty laundry dragged out and picked over in open court, eight of the biggest funders of the Consulting Agency (nominally run by the late Ian Kerr but in reality the hand-reared creature of the McAlpines and their ilk) tried to head off legal action by cobbling together a derisory compensation package.

Issuing a half-hearted apology “for their involvement with the Consulting Association and the impact that its database may have had on any individual construction worker” – a form of words clearly designed to combine mock-contrition with denial of any legal liability – the eight titans of the building industry offered a take-it-or-leave-it compensation offer.

In return for the blacklisted workers agreeing to renounce any further legal claims, this hard-sell offer, valid for one year only, would have a payment rate starting at £1,000 and stopping at £100,000. This package, when set against the loss of earnings suffered over many years and the toll taken in personal debt, mortgage defaults and the destruction of working lives, was correctly identified by unions as a “travesty” aimed at imposing a “gag”, and was rejected accordingly.

So, in November, the three main unions involved (Unite, GMB and Ucatt) duly began high court proceedings against the blacklisting employers. Whilst expecting justice to prevail would be naïve, it at least seems likely that the monopoly giants bestriding the construction industry will be squirming under prolonged scrutiny when the cases return to court in March.

So bad has the stench around blacklisting become that Nick Clegg has sought to distance his party from the Tories – tacking an anti-blacklisting clause onto new legislation designed to criminalise the lawful use of ‘leveraging’ tactics (ie, doorstepping company directors at home, targeting shareholders etc).

Rather than resurrect Clegg’s long-defunct ‘man of principle’ status, however, this manoeuvre was more accurately seen as an effort to grease the passage of the bill by making its provisions seem more ‘even-handed’ – ‘against intimidation in industrial relations, no matter from which quarter’. In case any were fooled by this trick, BSG helpfully explained the difference between ‘leveraging’ stunts and blacklisting in the following terms: “Blacklisting is a human-rights conspiracy involving multinational firms and the state. Leverage is perfectly legal protest with an inflatable rat.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is no more convincing an opponent of blacklisting than is Clegg, though he too feels the need now to go through the motions, praising “trade unionists and other campaigners” who “have worked tirelessly to keep the scandal of blacklisting in the public eye”, and calling on the government to “end its refusal to act and hold the inquiry into blacklisting that common sense and decency demand”.

Yet Labour in government already had a golden opportunity to hold such an inquiry in 2009 had it so wished, when Ian Kerr was busted on data protection offences and the blacklisting scandal first blew up. Far less did Labour then seek to criminalise the actual practice of blacklisting itself, outlawing only such instances where it could be definitely be proved that someone had been forbidden employment on the sole grounds of a negative comment on a blacklisting database – a basically impossible requirement.

With Labour for the moment out of office, it is now safe to let TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady call for blacklisting to be “stamped out once and for all”, and to let her posture by declaring: “The government cannot sit on the fence any longer. Blacklisting must be made a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and an unlimited fine.”

Whilst we wish the blacklisted workers every success in their ongoing court battles, more than most they are in a position to know that whatever progress has been achieved in exposing capitalism’s dirty tricks has been won by their own unaided efforts, and will be wary of reposing their trust in either Labour, the TUC or bourgeois justice.

Floods reveal depth of fire service cuts

February’s floods have cruelly exposed the real effects of the cuts in central funding across the fire service.

The service’s largest post-war mobilisation found itself hampered at every turn by lack of equipment, inadequate staffing levels and insufficient training. Workers were obliged to tackle floods whilst dressed in protective clothing designed for dealing with fires, only then to discover a shortage of dry gear to change back into.

There were not enough specialist vehicles built to cope with driving through deep water made available, and some of the boats that were provided were ancient and in a state of disrepair.

Add to that the fact that specialist water training had been curtailed because of budget constraints, and it can be seen that it is only down to the stamina, dedication, courage and patience of the firefighters themselves that this natural disaster did not bring in its train far worse consequences.

Teachers’ set-back

Last term, the NUT was joined by fellow teachers’ union NASUWT for two days of strike action, and there were hopes that this unity of action would extend to the next planned strike day on 26 March. However, the NASUWT executive has pulled back from this, on the grounds that education minister Gove says he accepts the review body’s recommendations.

According to the NASUWT, these supposedly “protect important contractual entitlements”. The NUT reads the situation less rosily, pointing out that: “Whilst Michael Gove, by accepting the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), has been prevented from making teachers’ conditions of service worse, nothing has changed for the better for teachers.”

Latin-American cleaners’ strike

The long-running struggle of the Latin-American agency cleaners at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to win parity of terms and conditions with directly-hired staff continues with a strike on 4 and 5 March.

At present, the ISS agency that employs them refuses to give the same sick pay, annual leave and pensions as those received by permanent staff at the college.

The campaign, which has drawn support from both permanent staff and the student body, has become so confident that the ballot for the strike vote drew a 100 percent vote in favour, with 62 percent of Unison members turning out. This prompted campaign organiser Lenin Escudero Zarsoza to remark (enthusiastically, if a little inaccurately) that: “This is possibly the best ever ballot result in the history of British trade unionism.”

Bakers campaign against zero hours

The bakers’ union BFAWU, flush with success from last year’s successful strike in Wigan that forced Hovis to retreat on zero-hours contracts, is now leading a campaign against zero-hours contracts and lousy pay in the fast food industry.

The national campaign, which began with rallies on 15 February, draws inspiration from a similar movement in the US, which has seen ‘wild-cat’ strikes in pursuit of improved wages and conditions.

Despite the fact that the campaign is being piggybacked on by the likes of Labour MP John McDonnell and sundry Trots, this show of fighting spirit from the BFAWU continues a tradition of militancy that, some years ago, saw the then general secretary Joe Marino turning his back on Labour and embracing the SLP (before that organisation faded into invisibility).

‘Mass party of the working class’?

In all these skirmishes in the class war, the biggest obstacle to workers uniting and taking the fight to capitalism remains social democracy and its primary agency, the Labour party.

In this light, it is excellent news that the ‘party of the working class’ is so desperate to staunch the haemorrhage of its membership that it is now proposing to drag people in off the street at £3 a shot like witnesses at a runaway wedding.

Explaining that he wants to remove from fully paid-up members the monopoly on deciding who the leader is and what the party’s policy should be, Ed Miliband says that the “registered supporters” can “be part of our party without having to go so far as joining it”. How this panic-stricken effort to bump up membership rolls will serve to raise the morale of the dwindling band of poor suckers who have already been relieved of their annual subs of £45.50 for full membership is yet to be seen.
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