Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sparks off the Rock

THE row over some of Rupert Murdoch's minions routinely tapping telephones for their stories has brought diverse reactions. A journalist friend, inclined perhaps to defend his colleagues rather than consider how his skills (not to mention scruples) were being rendered redundant, has remarked on the hypocrisy of those in government who authorise telephone tapping and surveillance of mere working folk and political dissidents, yet show outrage on hearing it is done to them,as well as showbiz celebs.

On the other hand, many people point to what seems like police reluctance to go into this, compared to the alacrity with which others are prosecuted. "I wonder what the News of the World has on the Yard?", asked one cheeky letter writer. Whatever it is, those of us who remember the charging police horses outside Fort Wapping tend to assume that, broken laws or not, the Met and Murdoch's merry men and women understand they are on the same side.

Britain is said to have more surveillance than any other country. For my generation "Big Brother" held menace, for the young it's just a naff television programme offering instant "celebrity" to anyone desperate for attention. The way some people use their mobiles you can listen into them from a distance whether you like it or not, without needing any bugging equipment, though what with the over-acting performance I sometimes suspect if you could hear the other end it would just be a clear voice saying "the time now is...exactly".

But those of us who do worry about surveillance and eavesdropping are aware that they are often linked with the other, less entertaining aspects of Big Brother, such as police repression and blacklisting. Now and then the kind of thing we all suspect, or know, goes on comes into the public gaze, and people who have previously sneered that we were paranoid turn to shrugging and saying "of course, so what?", even "don't you think it is justified?"

Back in December I wrote about a new little book that was out, telling how the British government insisted on a Gibraltarian trade unionist, Albert Fava, being removed from his home and exiled , perhaps because he was too good at organising.

That happened in 1948, and yes we had a Labour government then. As we did when Brian Bamford had his experience, as he tells in the Summer issue of Northern Voices magazine.

"One Saturday morning in the Summer of 1967, I met Alberto Risso, then boss of the Gibraltar branch of the Transport and General Workers' Union and Gibraltar's Minister of Labour, outside the Town Hall on Main Street, Gibraltar . We were there to get the aid of Sir Joshua Hassan, who became Gibraltar's Chief Minister, to help me to continue to work as an electrician and let my young family stay in Gibraltar. Our residence permit had been cancelled by the British authorities".

Albert Fava's expulsion was ordered on the basis of intercepted correspondence with British trades unionists and the Communist Party. In Brian's case, as he was told by Alberto Risso, the authorities knew he was "not a communist", but they saw him as a "dangerous anarchist". As Brian recalls, this was at a time when General Franco was stepping up pressure on Gibraltar and about to close the frontier. Faced with a hostile fascist dictator, the British Foreign Office and security services naturally had to clamp down on Franco's enemies, the communists and anarchists!

Harold Wilson's Labour government was in office. Back in Manchester, Brian, the "dangerous anarchist" had been involved in the 1960 engineering apprentices' strike, and had served four days in Strangeways for taling part in a Ban-the-Bomb sit-down in 1962. So now he was blackballed to prevent him working in Her Majesty's Dockyard, or for any of the contractors engaged in government work. A memo was sent out to local firms warning them not to employ this man.

He managed to get a job as an electrician with Gibraltar City Council, but that was when the British government stepped in with its powers to take away Brian and his family's residence permit.

What prompted Brian to recall this episode was the raid on the Droitwich premises of a Mr.Ian Kerr and the Consulting Association which led to Kerr's appearance in court in May and his case being sent to Crown Court for prosecution. Kerr had begun with the right-wing Economic League, which gathered and circulated information on thousands of people it considered left-wing "subversives", and had its activities funded by some of the leading names in British business. .After the League was officially wound up in 1993, Kerr set up his own operation, with building firms like Costain, Laing, Balfour Beatty and McAlpine as clients, pooling informaton and paying for dirt on job applicants.

For their £3,000 a year plus £2.20 per inquiry they could receive information such as that so-and-so was "Irish, ex-army, bad egg", or someone else an "ex-shop steward". There were files on more than 3,200 people. Some workers were listed for going to employment tribunals or even raising health and safety issues.

Blacklisting is not illegal - the Labour government resisted calls from trade unionists to outlaw the banning of workers from jobs in its 1999 Employment Act, claiming it did not have enough evidence of the practice. Kerr was raided and faces prosecution under the Data Protection Act, for keeping information on computer about individuals, without their knowledge, and denying the existence of these files.

One group of workers for whom the news of the blacklist was not news were some of Brian Bamford's fellow electricians in Manchester area, who have been in dispute at the Royal Infirmary site since 2006. Sure enough their names appeared in the files. Steve Acheson, secretary of the Manchester contracting branch of my own union Unite is described as a master militant. The workers' suspicion that they were blacklisted had already been confirmed when former Haden Young manager Alan Wainwright accused his company -Balfour Beatty's electrical subsidiary - of fraud and blacklisting. Wainwright said they employed a firm to gather information, and he released names of 1,000 electricians on the blacklist. He lost an unfair dismissal claim against Hayden Young, and now it is understood his own name is on the blacklist.

One entry quoted by Brian Bamford says that "EPIU site activity in Manchester is in the hands of **** *****, and other role apart from becoming an anarchist, is to travel around the country addressing meeetings."
Clearly, a dangerous type!

The Electrical and Plumbing Industries Union(EPIU), formed when the EETPU electrical union was expelled from the TUC after Wapping, merged into the TGWU which is now part of Unite the Union. The EETPU meanwhile had merged with the engineers' union, and thus via Amicus is part of Unite's other wing. Brian notes that UCATT, the building union, is campaigning for blacklisting to be made unlawful. He wonders why Unite isn't doing more.

For now, this is a free country. You're free, more or less, to say what you like, to object to unsafe working conditions, for instance, and to join a trade union. If you gather some mates to picket, say, or go to another place to persuade others to come out, you may be accused of "conspiracy", as the Shrewsbury building workers were, and if you stop work in solidarity with others you may be in breach of the laws on secondary action, as we saw when airport workers were forbidden to come out in support of fellow workers - some of them family members -sacked by catering firm Gate Gourmet. The employers on the other hand can band together to exchange information and deny employment to someone, preventing that person earning their livelihood and providing for their family. But that is not considered "violence", or "conspiracy", and the threat that persuades you to keep your mouth shut and "nose clean" if you want to work, is not considered intimidation. Of course it is not illegal.

See also:
Haden Youngs whistleblower:

Kerr in court:

UCATT leader on blacklist:

To contact Northern Voices, e-mail

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