Police are alleged to have been covertly helping companies to blacklist trade unionists since before the Second World War
The blacklisting of trade unionists by major firms over the years has been an inherently secretive practice. Even more secretive, it seems, has been the state’s covert collusion in such a practice.
From time to time, the public get glimpses that reveal how the state has facilitated the blacklisting. These snapshots suggest that there has been regular collusion for many decades.
The police and blacklisters have not welcomed public scrutiny of their relationship. However the trade unionists who were blacklisted are now pressing for the upcoming public inquiry into the failures of undercover policing – to be headed by Lord Justice Pitchford – to scrutinise the allegations (see here for more details).
In all these years, there has never been an in-depth, independent, and public examination of these persistent allegations.
Some of the evidence of this collusion is detailed below – the most recent dates from 2008. According to a leaked document, a secretive police unit that was involved in monitoring political activists met a blacklisting agency that was funded by large companies.
The agency, operating under the bland name of the Consulting Association, unlawfully compiled confidential dossiers on thousands of workers who were considered by company directors to be politically active or potential trouble-makers. Many workers were denied employment for long periods.
A note of the meeting at an Oxfordshire hotel on November 6 2008 records that the purpose of the police unit, which was then expanding, was “to liaise with industry”.
Police ‘spied on activists for blacklisting agency’
More evidence dates from the 1990s. Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer who has now become a whistleblower, has disclosed that he believes that he personally collected some of the information that later appeared in the files of the Consulting Association. Francis infiltrated anti-racist groups between 1993 and 1997 as a member of the Metropolitan Police’s undercover unit, the Special Demonstration Squad.
The blacklisting files recorded one bricklayer as being “under constant watch (officially) and seen as politically dangerous”.
An official watchdog, the information commissioner, shut down the Consulting Association, after seizing many of its files in a raid. Dave Clancy, a former police officer who worked as an investigator for the watchdog, has testified that “there is information on the Consulting Association files that I believe could only be supplied by the police or the security services”. These details, he added, were specific and came from police records.
An earlier incarnation of the blacklist was run by another clandestine agency, called the Economic League. This organisation had been set up shortly after the First World War, at a time of widespread industrial unrest, and, again, was financed by large corporations.
The Economic League had began to compile secret dossiers on workers around the country.
It seems that from early on, the Economic League received help from the police. Documents chronicle how Economic League officials worked closely with police in Lancashire in the 1930s.
In 1937, they met detectives who were monitoring political “subversives”. The league’s Manchester organiser reported to his superiors that he had “Manchester police in here yesterday and found them extremely helpful and have now arranged to work in the closest co-operation with them. Among other things, they promised to give me as long as I like looking over their Communist industrial file in their office.”
Blacklisted workers seek to prise open secrets of covert police surveillance
Days later, the league’s Manchester organiser wrote to the chief constable of the local force and thanked him for his help. At one point, the league asked police to carry out surveillance on a meeting of trade unionists as the blacklisters considered it “of considerable importance”.
At another point, the league’s Manchester organiser told his boss that he was due to get a report of a Communist Party meeting from the police without having to send “one of our own men”.
In that same year, Special Branch passed onto the Economic League a confidential list of Manchester communists.
Fifty years on, and collaboration still seemed to exist. In the 1980s, an undercover television sting caught the candid thoughts of an Economic League official who said :”We give all our information to the police. In return, they’re not exactly unfriendly back.”
Michael Noar, then the Economic League’s director-general, said in 1987 said that “of course, the police and Special Branch are interested in some of the things we are interested in. They follow the activities of these groups in much the same way as we do and therefore they do get in touch with us from time to time and talk to us and say ‘were you at this demonstration or that’.” He added that “in the course of discussions, there is an exchange of information just in the ordinary course of talking.”
Phil Chamberlain, co-author of a book on blacklisting, being interviewed
Police and Economic League officials have acknowledged they had meetings together, but say information about individuals was not passed to the league.
One unnamed Special Branch officer recently told an internal police investigation into the undercover infiltration of political groups that the “flow of information was purely one way”. The Economic League was treated solely as a source of information, according to the officer, and it was Special Branch policy not to share any information with the league.
Jack Winder, who worked for the Economic League from 1963 until its closure in the early 1990s, told a parliamentary inquiry two years ago that he had meetings with the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch over a long time for what he called “general chit-chat”. He told MPs that the “exchange of detailed information” about individuals was “absolutely forbidden”.
Sources : Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, Blacklisted :the secret war between big business and union activists (New Internationalist, 2015); Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor, Blacklist – the inside story of political vetting (Hogarth Press, 1988). For a detailed and documented history of the Economic League, see the work of researcher Mike Hughes here.
Tuesday 16 June 2015 11.03 BST Last modified on Tuesday 16 June 2015 11.06 BST
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