Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blacklists and Secret Files

TRADE unionists campaigning against victimisation and blacklisting have picketed the Olympic construction site in east London for the second time in a month, delaying workers and materials going on site. The high-profile site has been made a focus by alleged bullying, threats and sacking of a union member.

Electrician Frank Morris had worked for Daletech on the media centre at the Olympic site for seven months but was sacked after he blew the whistle on the use of an illegal blacklist by the company. Frank, an RMT member, also claimed that the site manager threatened to "punch him in the head" after the revelations.

The Enfield electrician's troubles seem to have begun when he expressed concern over the dismissal of a fellow worker from the Olympic Media Centre being built by Skanska and Carillion, after his name appeared on a blacklist of trade union members.

Morris found himself bullied and threatened with violence by senior management, to the point where he had to call the police for his own protection, before finally being dismissed.

Blacklisting of workers considered "troublemakers" - whether for organising fellow-workers into the unions, trying to improve conditions, or simply for raising safety issues on the sites, - has long been rife in British industry, and especially in construction and electrical contracting, where falling out with one firm can effect your chance of finding work again. Skanska and Carillion were two of the major building contractors exposed for using an illegal blacklist of trade union members following a raid on the premises of the Consulting Association by the government's Information Commissioners Office in 2009.

Before the Consulting Association there was the Economic League, a seemingly obscure but well-funded right-wing organisation going back to 1919. Though it could afford house-to-house distribution of its 'free enterprise' and red-baiting propaganda, few people knew much about it, yet it was funded by companies that were household names - Marks and Spencer, Taylor Woodrow, Balfour Beatty, Barclays Bank, Babcock and Wilcox and Augustus Barnet, to name but a few. Gathering names and bits of information was part of the service they paid for.

Although it had been able to work with the security services, the Economic League appeared to fall out of favour in the Wilson years. Another problem has been that modern electronic surveillance and data banks, though making the snoopers and blacklisters' work easier, have also brought some public concern, and the Data Protection Act. The Consulting Association continued some of the Economic League's work, collecting and selling information about trade unionists, and was funded and used by 44 big construction companies, but in 2009 its secret database was exposed,and declared illegal after a successful prosecution.

Still the companies can find a way, and the workers still find themselves victimised, and suspect their name may be on a list. It goes on at more than one level, so that as with 'phone tapping and hacking, the very organs of state that are meant to stop the secret data gathering and labelling of people may be practising it themselves. In this respect, those of us who have reason to suspect we may have been blacklisted can console ourselves that we are in distinguished company.

For instance files just released show that MI5 kept tabs on two of the celeb names of my childhood. The notice from the National Archives says:

"Harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler" (he'd probably have preferred mouth organ player) "was reported in 1951 to have been a member of the American Communist Party and involved with several organisations investigated by the California Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1950, Adler filed a libel suit against an individual who accused him of being a communist sympathiser, something 'no genuine communist would indulge in', notes the file. Under cross-examination during the trial, Adler defended the right of Communist Party members to hold, without interference, any job not connected to national security and said communists should not be deprived of their livelihoods".

Adler, a Baltimore plumber's son, had teamed up with dancer Paul Draper, performing an act at night clubs and concert halls in the USA, but they began losing bookings in the late 1940s because of their supposed "Communist fringe" activity. They supported Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace.In late 1948, a Connecticut woman, Mrs. Hester T. McCullough, wrote to The Greenwich Time, a local newspaper, to protest their appearance before the Greenwich Concert Association, claiming the men were "pro-Communist in sympathy." The association cancelled the show, and Adler and Draper sued for $200,000 in damages. The case was taken up by columnist Westbrook Pegler--on Mrs. McCullough's side--and Adler and Draper found themselves facing the consolidated defenses of far-right organizations. It ended in a hung jury, but the men had to drop the suit due to lack of funds in 1951.

Adler decided to come over to England, where he had worked before, and people were less bothered over his political reputation but admired his music. His example inspired many young people to try the harmonica, but classical composers - he had got on well with Gershwin -also sent him work, and taught him to read music. Perhaps imaginative secret service spooks had seen 'The Lady Vanishes' and feared the man with the mouth organ might be signalling secretly coded messages to the Russians in the form of tunes?

More mundanely, a note in the file expresses concern that if Adler were allowed to settle in the UK, 'the Communist Party would make every effort to exploit his name as an entertainer'. However, another paper notes that Adler has been a regular visitor to the country for the past 15 years and had not come to adverse notice, adding that it was 'exceedingly unlikely he will engage in political activities'.

By the end of his career, Larry Adler had played with some of the biggest names in show business and mixed in high society too, but his own name had still required handling with care in America. Perhaps his most famous and popular work was the score for the comedy film 'Genevieve', about the old crocks London to Brighton race, hardly a subversive theme, but the producer Hanry Cornelius having hired Adler, baulked at putting his name on the credits for the US release. When the film was nominated for an Oscar, it was conductor Muir Matheson who got the credit.

It was not until 1993 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts restored Larry Adler's name to its records. Adler said he had the last laugh, however, as he went on to earn almost $500, 000 in composers royalties, whereas other performers earned a flat £1,000 fee.


The security file on Larry Adler, File KV2/3496 is available to view on National Archives Documents Online.

Dr.Jacob Bronowski became a favourite in our house with his popular science talks on TV in the late 1950s, combining a breadth of knowledge with the common touch that made him like an entertaining teacher and a family friend. I remember once a comic impressionist took off Dr.Bronowski, with his accent and mannerisms and flashy tie and all. He was pretty good. Bronowski came on that night to do his lecture, but began with a grin and fingering his tie, said "As you can see I am one tie ahead of - " (alas I forget the comedian's name). When they start doing impressions of you, you know you've arrived. Jacob Bronowski had arrived in the country aged 12, gained admission to Central Foundation school then Cambridge, but attracted MI5's attention late in 1939, when he was teaching at the new University College at Hull, and playing in the local chess club. A schoolmaster whose son had met Bronowski wrote that the Maths lecturer was "reviling this country" and "extremely left". Local police were asked if they knew of him, and responded that Bronowski was not, as far as they knew, a member of any communist organisation, and was very pro-British.

Then, in 1940, MI5 received another tip, from a Professor WE Collinson, who knew personally one of the MI5 officers, a Mr Pilcher, and contacted him directly.He quoted anonymous colleagues of Dr Bronowski who considered him "an agitator of the Communist type" who was "disseminating seditious doctrines". Again, MI5 asked Hull police to help. They sent PC Alfred Foster to observe Dr Bronowski at public events. At a meeting of the Left Book Club in October 1940, the main speaker was a Commander Young, of the Royal Navy. He was very critical of the government, suggesting that they didn't really want to win the war.

Many present were very supportive of his view. Dr Bronowski was chairing the meeting: PC Foster heard him say that he was willing to "collaborate" with communists on points with which he had sympathy.

Three months later, PC Foster went to a meeting of the People's Theatre Guild. Comedy sketches critical of the ruling classes and of the British Empire were performed. Dr Bronowski read a poem he had written, apparently entitled "How I hate war".The police officer could not hear it clearly, but he thought it was about the Cote D'Azur, complaining that the rich and powerful did not visit any more. However, in his reports he described this as "an extremely pacifist poem" and concluded that "Bronowski is a communist in all but name".

This formed the basis of MI5's vetting reports for many years. Bronowski was not a member of the Communist Party, nor Young Communist League: he did not attend their meetings, and nothing else incriminating was found, aside from some rather flimsy evidence from a phonetap of a known Communist.

But MI5 continued to use Alfred Foster's quotes for a decade, and warned that Dr Bronowski was a security risk still in the 1950s. Bronowski worked as a scientific adviser to the government and went on to be director of research at the National Coal Board. He had been on the scientific mission visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki but the BBC cancelled a series of talks he had been due to give on nuclear power. He was kept away from any posts which might have "security" concerns, and though a renowned polymath who could brdge the gap between arts and science, never offered a top post at a British university.

It was Bronowski's writing and broadcasting, particularly the 1970s documentary series The Ascent of Man, that made him famous, and for anyone still seeking a 'left' connection I do remember one of the print unions carrying an interesting series by him in its magazine.

Friends and family used to think it was the very popularity of Jacob Bronowski's work that might have led to snobbish -or envious - academic establishments not wanting him on board. He was asked to set up or run univirsities abroad, never in the UK. But now his daughter Lisa Jardine, herself a professor (at Queen Mary's, University of London, wonders whether the security services played a part. Some quiet conversations might have been enough.

"Over High Table at All Souls [College, Oxford], one gent says to another: 'Oh, Bronowski. MI5 have a big file on him'. You don't need to say anything more than that."

Indeed, whether we're wearing a mortar board or mixing the mortar, we know how it goes.

File KV2/3523 is available to view on DocumentsOnline.




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