Syd Scroggie was a war hero from Dundee who lost his sight and a leg after stepping on a landmine during the liberation of Italy in 1945. Remarkably, his injuries did not stop him continuing to climb mountains, a passion of his.
In 1988, he wrote a letter to a newspaper to defend a friend during a row over a local council’s decision to buy a portrait of Nelson Mandela.
For this simple act of democratic expression, Scroggie was placed on a secret blacklist of people who were supposedly subversives.
He was just one of many thousands who have been subjected to a practice that remained hidden for years.
Behind closed doors, large firms compiled a clandestine list of workers whom they believed were “trouble-makers” of some sort. Trade unionists were denied jobs if their names appeared on the list.
Of course, the workers knew nothing about this sub rosa vetting and were unable to challenge it. Many files were inaccurate.
On the blacklist: how did the UK’s top building firms get secret information on their workers?Read more
Scroggie was recorded on the blacklist maintained by a corporately-funded outfit known as the Economic League. It was forced to close down in the early 1990s after prolonged bad publicity.
Far from disappearing, another blacklisting agency - operating from a nondescript office in Droitwich under an innocuous name, the Consulting Association - was surreptitiously set up, financed by the construction industry.
In a searing account, this book - “Blacklisted : the secret war between big business and union activists” - tells the story of how the blacklisters kept files on individual workers. The minutiae of their trade union and political activities were noted down. Many of the trade unionists had raised concerns about hazards on construction sites.
The files were methodical, but unlawful. Following an article in the Guardian, a watchdog body, the Information Commissioner, raided the Consulting Association in 2009 and closed it down.
One of the authors is Phil Chamberlain, the journalist who wrote the original Guardian story and has followed the story ever since.
His co-author, Dave Smith, is one of the blacklisted workers, who found he could not get work as an engineer during a building boom.
They burn with rage at the injustice of workers denied jobs for long periods by the well-remunerated, powerful directors of multinational firms who have yet to be held fully to account.
In a trial due to start next year, 40 major construction firms are to be sued by more than 500 blacklisted workers who are seeking compensation and the truth. (A hearing in the case is due to be held in the high court next Tuesday).
Chamberlain and Smith give a voice to a sector of society who are usually overlooked, describing the devastating hardship suffered by those who were unable to earn a living.
Evidence of police complicity in blacklisting of trade unionists stretches back decadesRead more
They are clear that blacklisting is a feature of capitalism :”Industrial relations in the building industry do not constitute a cosy discussion around a table : this is a war. A war in which some people are bullied, assaulted and lose their lives, while others make a lot of money. A war between big business and a dedicated nucleus of union activists trying to build a safer workplace and better living standards for their families….Businesses hide their dirty secrets in order to protect their corporate brands”.
As well as construction workers, environmental campaigners, journalists, politicians and academics were put on the blacklist.
What makes this controversy even more combustible are the disturbing allegations that the secret services and police gathered information about the political activities of the workers and shared it with the blacklisters. One former undercover police officer, Peter Francis, has described how he personally collected information about campaigners that later appeared in the files of the Consulting Association.
Smith and Chamberlain detail what is known so far about this alleged collusion between the state and the blacklisters.
It is an absorbing read, and leaves you suspecting that this type of furtive collaboration has been going on for a long time.
Francis, for example, tells how he opened a police file - while he was undercover - on a builder who was kept under surveillance. Later, the same builder was recorded by the blacklisters in their files as being “under constant watch (officially) and seen as politically dangerous”. How could the company executives running the blacklist have known that?
Smith and Chamberlain tellingly describe the pain inflicted on the blacklisted workers, highlighting the reason why it is important to get to the truth about the allegations of state collusion.
Does blacklisting still go on ? Who knows; no-one can be certain that it has ended.
Blacklisted: The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists, by Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, is published by New Internationalist and is available from bookshop.theguardian.com