Unite to investigate claims of collusion with construction blacklist

Allegations focus on union officials passing information to bosses about potential ‘troublemakers’


Britain’s biggest trade union has launched an inquiry into longstanding allegations that union officials colluded with a clandestine blacklist which was run and funded by large construction firms to prevent specific workers from getting jobs.


The inquiry set up by Unite will examine claims that union officials privately passed information to construction industry managers who compiled secret files on thousands of workers.


Previously confidential documents have suggested that union officials warned company managers not to employ some of their own members because they were considered troublemakers. Managers involved in the blacklist have claimed that union officials gave them information as they wanted to prevent disruption on construction sites.


The inquiry has been commissioned by Unite’s leader, Len McCluskey, following pressure from blacklisted workers who said the allegations were a “running sore” for the trade union movement.


Details of the inquiry were circulated in an internal letter by Andrew Murray, Unite’s chief of staff, who is also an adviser to the Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.


Murray warned that the position was “quite clear”, that any official found to have colluded with blacklisters would be subjected to the union’s disciplinary rules.


A team of lawyers will examine claims that the alleged collusion involved officials still working for Unite as well as those who worked for unions that merged with Unite. The complicity is alleged to have spanned at least three decades to 2009.


In a statement, Unite said it was always committed to transparency about this issue, adding: “This ongoing commitment will see us review all documents that are in the public domain, listen to the accounts of individuals and ask people to come forward with any evidence they want considered.”


Evidence of the alleged collusion emerged from documents drawn up for a high court lawsuit which led to more than 1,100 blacklisted workers winning payouts totalling £55m from the construction firms.


As part of an out-of-court settlement, eight construction firms, including Sir Robert McAlpine and Balfour Beatty, were compelled to apologise unreservedly to the blacklisted workers.


In 2009, an official watchdog had closed down the blacklist after concluding that more than 40 construction firms had unlawfully stored secret files on more than 3,200 trade unionists.


Construction industry managers pooled information about the workers’ employment records, political views, health and personal relationships in the files.


When workers applied for jobs, the managers ran their names through the files to vet them. Those considered by managers as politically awkward were rejected, and not told why. Some of the workers were denied work for long periods. Some files recorded how the workers had raised simple health and safety concerns on construction sites.


The files suggested trade union officials had described individual workers as “militant”, a troublemaker or with a warning to be “careful”.


For 30 years, Daniel O’Sullivan was a construction industry manager who was once chairman of the Consulting Association, the bland name given to the secret agency that managed the blacklist.


According to the legal documents, O’Sullivan said he often met trade union officials as part of his job. He said the officials gave him information about particular individuals as they were “concerned to prevent unnecessary disruption on site”. He cited as an example a worker who was described in his file as a “troublemaker” by a union official in 2005.


Another former construction industry manager, Dudley Barratt, has saidunion officials gave him names of individuals they thought should not be employed as there was a “quiet acceptance” by some unions of the blacklist and the “benefits” of vetting workers who could be disruptive.


Alan Wainwright, a former manager who blew the whistle on the blacklist, has said he told officials at the Amicus trade union, which later merged with Unite, about the blacklist as early as 2005 but his evidence was ignored.


Unite’s lawyers have helped a large number of blacklisted workers to secure compensation in legal actions which concluded in May. McCluskey promised to launch the inquiry after the legal action had ended.


Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group which represents blacklisted workers, said his group had received “assurances from Unite that the entire process will be carried out by senior counsel and solicitors independently from the union. This is essential and we applaud the union for committing to such a transparent investigation – we intend to hold the union to that promise.”