Unions demand inquiry into blacklisting

In November 2013, trade unions in the UK held a national day of action to highlight the issue of blacklisting, the practice of illegally denying workers employment because of their union activities, particularly in the construction industry. Unions are seeking a full inquiry and legal action has been started against several construction companies. The Scottish government has taken steps to exclude companies from public contracts if they have used blacklists.

Day of action to highlight issue

On 20 November 2013, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) held a national day of action to highlight the issue of blacklisting. Blacklisting is the practice of illegally denying construction and other workers employment because of their union activities which can include raising health and safety concerns on building sites. The practice of blacklisting has been a long-standing union grievance, especially since 2009 when a raid on an organisation known as the Consulting Association revealed a database containing personal information about more than 3,000 trade unionists and others, which had been used for blacklisting purposes by 44 construction companies (UK1210019I).

Protests were held around the UK during the day of action. The TUC, with construction unions the British General Union (GMB), the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) and Unite mounted a lobby of parliament to call for justice for the construction workers who had been blacklisted. In several cities, UCATT members protested outside the premises of the construction company Sir Robert McAlpine, which the union claims was the company most closely involved with the Consulting Association.

At a rally held close to the houses of parliament, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:

Blacklisting has ruined thousands of lives. Families are still suffering because a worker joined a union or raised a health and safety issue. We need a full inquiry into its scope. It must have the legal power to call witnesses, seize records and put employers on the spot. Companies guilty of blacklisting should be barred from public contracts until they can demonstrate that they understand the basics of human rights and good industrial relations.

The TUC leader criticised a belated move by ministers to add the issue of blacklisting to a review set up by the government in November 2013 to investigate ‘inappropriate or intimidatory’ tactics used during industrial disputes (UK1311039I).

Union initiates legal action

On the day of the strike, UCATT announced it was starting legal action against a number of leading UK construction firms over their involvement in blacklisting.

The cases, brought on behalf of blacklisted UCATT members, allege the misuse of private information and breach of confidence. The companies concerned include Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska, Balfour Beatty, Bam, CB&I, Costain, Carillion, Laing O’Rourke, Lend Lease and Vinci. The union will also pursue legal action against a former chair of the Consulting Association who was a senior human resources manager at one of the major construction companies accused of blacklisting.

UCATT’s General Secretary, Steve Murphy, said:

Blacklisting companies wilfully destroyed the lives of ordinary construction workers and acted as though they were above the law. Our legal action will ensure that the victims receive the justice they deserve.

The union’s legal action follows the announcement by eight construction firms in October 2013 that they were setting up a scheme to compensate workers whose names were on the blacklist.

Scottish government takes anti-backlisting measures

To coincide with the day of action, the Scottish government published a procurement policy document, Exclusion from public contracts of companies which engage in blacklisting (176 KB PDF). It is designed to exclude blacklisting companies from public contracts. Companies bidding for work must disclose whether they have been involved in blacklisting, and the new rules also stipulate that:

…any company which engages in, or has engaged in, the blacklisting of employees or potential employees should be considered to have committed an act of grave misconduct in the course of its business and should be excluded from bidding for a public contract, unless it can demonstrate that it has taken appropriate remedial steps.

Such steps include:

  • an appropriate apology acknowledging wrongdoing in the use of blacklists and/or discriminating against workers on the grounds of their union membership;
  • making a statement about future conduct;
  • collaborating fully with investigating authorities;
  • taking concrete measures to prevent further criminal offence or misconduct;
  • complying fully with any tribunal ruling;
  • paying compensation for any damage caused by any wrongdoing.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) welcomed the Scottish government’s new guidelines, which followed ‘extensive and constructive discussions with unions’. The STUC said it would work ‘with the Scottish government to monitor the use of this guidance and provide further evidence where we believe the practice of blacklisting continues’. The move follows a similar initiative by the Welsh government in September 2013.

Mark Hall, IRRU, Warwick Business School

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