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Years before George Orwell wrote such books as ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ and made the art of social reportage uniquely his own, the American author Jack London penned an excoriating first hand account of the rank poverty endured by England’s working classes. The ‘People of the Abyss’ was based on the author’s experiences over several months living in London’s East End at the turn of the last century. When I first read it, one chapter struck me above all others, and seems strangely pertinent now. The passage recounts a meeting with a former docker, Dan Cullen, who had been languishing for years in a state of near indigence, sustained only by charitable donations from friends. London describes the process by which he had been reduced to this condition:
He did not cringe to other men, even though they were his economic masters and controlled the means whereby he lived, and he spoke his mind freely, and fought the good fight. In the `Great Dock Strike’ he was guilty of taking a leading part. And that was the end of Dan Cullen. From that day he was a marked man, and every day, for ten years and more, he was `paid off’ for what he had done …. Dan Cullen was discriminated against. While he was not absolutely turned away (which would have caused trouble, and which would certainly have been more merciful), he was called in by the foreman to do not more than two or three days’ work per week. This is what is called being `disciplined,’ or `drilled.’ It means being starved. There is no politer word. Ten years of it broke his heart, and broken-hearted men cannot live.
Dan Cullen was a victim of the deplorable practice of blacklisting. His crime was to have been a member of a union and to have stood up for his fellow workers. The private employers whom he had dared to offend never let him forget the consequences of his waywardness.
Usually, books like this are treated as historical documents affording an insight into the desperate economic plight of Britain’s poor, before the advent of the welfare state and legislation to rein in the free market’s excesses. They inspire a sense of revulsion among modern readers at the petty vindictiveness of private employers, able to ruin a man’s life beyond repair merely because he would not quietly accept the indignities heaped upon him by avaricious bosses, and settle down to a life of back breaking toil as a wage-slave. Recent startling revelations, however, demonstrate that we have no cause for smug self-satisfaction about how far we’ve come in the intervening century, since, in at least one important respect, we are still living in the Britain described by Jack London.
A hundred years after Dan Cullen died, thousands of working people are still being placed on black-lists for such offences as raising concerns about health and safety and being a union rep. Last July, 86 people launched a legal action for the loss of earnings and psychological distress they experienced after being denied work for years. An ex-scaffolder, Mick Abbot, whose file stretches back to 1964, gave some idea of the shattering impact being blacklisted had on his life: ‘This nearly ruined my marriage and it meant that my children were on free meals at school….They have been watching me all these years and passing this information around, blighting my life over four decades.’ Steve Kelly, an electrician, was fired by the building firm McAlpine and blacklisted after refusing to work on a moving platform without proper training. As a result, he ‘suffered severe financial strain, my wages were cut in half which caused immense stress paying bills and putting food on the table. I was out of work for a year apart from few weeks here and there in 2001. Being sacked from Colchester Barracks after only two days piled up the stress and caused a nervous breakdown for me eventually.’
The legal action comes several years after a raid on the offices of the Consulting Association unearthed a list of 3000 workers, mainly in the building sector. For a subscription fee, 40 construction firms were able to gain access to the list and cross-check the names of job applicants against it. Many of these firms were beneficiaries of lucrative public sector contracts. Speaking to MPs, the directors of McAlpine and Balfour Beatty admitted that they had vetted workers employed in the construction of the Olympic stadium. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, since, according to the Information Commisioner’s Office, only 5% of the Association’s documents were seized during the 2009 raid. Not only the building sector, but a number of other professions may well be affected. For his involvement over 16 years in supplying firms with information on workers, the chair of the Consulting Association, Ian Kerr, was fined a measly £5000.
Even more astonishingly, there has been no public inquiry in the years since the list was exposed, and the current government has refused to conduct one unless it is presented with some evidence that the practice is ongoing. In contrast to the massive attention given to phone-hacking by the press, which was universally regarded as an unforgivable intrusion into the private lives of mainly celebrities, this far graver breach of people’s liberties is not deemed sufficiently important to warrant a leveson-style inquiry. Last week’s Parliamentary debate on the subject was notable for the rows of empty seats, and the lethargic performance of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who after a few pro forma, perfunctory condemnations of blacklisting concluded that, as far as he was concerned, the matter was not one for further investigation: ‘Obviously, if there is fundamental new information, logically we will look at that, but we have not yet seen it.’ Labour MP Michael Meacher rightly scolded the government for its apathy in relation to what was ‘arguably the worst human rights abuse against workers in the UK since the war. It is worse than imprisonment in that it is usually imposed on the victim without his being given any opportunity to defend himself and it lasts for an indefinite period—often decades.’
There is in fact ample circumstantial evidence that blacklists are still being used. A few months ago, it was revealed that one of the managers on the Crossrail project – the new rail link being built in Greater London – had frequently referred to blacklists whilst employed by a previous company. Ian Kerr also told a parliamentary select committee that Crossrail was regularly discussed at meetings of the Consulting Association. Crossrail denies any knowledge of blacklisting, whilst Bechtel, the particular Crossrail contractor for which the manager has been working, has pleaded ignorance of the fact he was formerly involved in the vetting of job applicants. John McDonnell, though, made the point last Wednesday that blacklisting is far more pervasive than the assurances of ‘ethical’ employers might lead us to think, and is a routine tactic employed against those who are seen to question authority: ‘I have been on the cleaners’ picket line across the city—at Schroders, John Lewis and elsewhere. People employed as cleaners join a trade union and become the trade union representative. They are then victimised—and yes, in some instances, physically assaulted; we have evidence of that. Eventually, they are sacked or have to leave. All of a sudden, coincidentally, they cannot find employment anywhere else.’
By refusing to investigate blacklisting, the government has indicated its fundamental indifference to large-scale violations of workers’ rights, so long as it is done covertly and in a manner not likely to attract publicity. Interestingly, none of the companies implicated in the use of blacklists have been subjected to criminal proceedings. Many of them are still engaged in carrying out profitable government contracts, and seem so far to have escaped the public opprobrium that attached to the tabloid press in the wake of the phone-hacking charges. Other companies will surely take note of this lax approach, and, rather than being deterred by the recent furore, as Vince Cable seems to think, will be encouraged by the lack of penalties. As Professor of Public Law, Keith Ewing, has noted, there are multiple loopholes these companies can exploit if they so wish. In UK law, though it is illegal to dismiss workers for being part of a trade union, it is not technically an offence to fire a worker for trade union related activities. Moreover, workers are only protected against any loss they might experience as a result of blacklisting – blacklisting itself is not strictly speaking unlawful. Hitherto, the government has given no sign that it will close these loopholes.
For years proponents of the market have lost no opportunity to warn us against the dangers to liberty posed by an expansive state. Interfering with the unbridled operation of the market not only discriminates against hard-working men and women, it stymies the spirit of capitalist enterprise and innovation. But, in light of the foregoing, people must surely be led to ask whether there is any system better calculated to crush the human spirit than one in which employers, facing no checks on their activities, are permitted to act like petty tyrants and deny livelihoods to thousands of workers, simply for the crime of speaking up for themselves.
Joseph Richardson is a freelance journalist in London. He studied history at Merton College, Oxford. His blog can be found here: josephrichardsonblog.wordpress.com