Unite has secured a victory for hundreds of construction workers embroiled in the biggest blacklisting scandal in UK history, after the union has helped its members win more than £10m in compensation.
The settlement ended the protracted legal battle against some of the country’s largest construction firms, including household names such as Balfour Betty Engineering Services and Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd among others, with 256 workers likely receiving between £20,000 and up to £200,000 each, depending on factors such as loss of income and the seriousness of defamation.
Unite last week refused to settle after deeming compensation packages for 97 of the 256 claimants to be too low, which helped secure an additional £4m.
The latest settlement brings the total compensation bill, including legal fees, to an estimated £75m for nearly 800 blacklisted construction workers, some of whom were also represented by trade unions Ucatt and GMB, as well as the law firm CGR.
The blacklist, evidence of which was first discovered in 2009, is thought to have been operating for the last 30 years and contained the names of more than 3,000 workers, who had been monitored by a firm called the Consulting Association.
The information the company gathered on individual workers, which mostly related to their trade union activity or being vocal over health and safety, was then sold to dozens of construction companies.
After being identified in the blacklist as ‘troublemakers’ – files in the case showed individuals being labelled with phrases such as “will cause trouble, strong TU [trade union]” and “ex-shop steward, definite problems” – many were unable to find work in construction for decades. Some blacklisted workers were even forced to move abroad.
‘Gravity of the misdeeds’
“The massive scale of the agreed damages – more than £10m – shows the gravity of the misdeeds of these major construction companies which created and used the Consulting Group as a vehicle to enable them to blacklist trade unionists on behalf of more than 30 construction companies,” Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said today (May 9).
“The sums to be paid out go a considerable way to acknowledge the hurt, suffering and loss of income our members and their families have been through over many years.
“Under the agreement they can once more apply for jobs in the construction industry without fear of discrimination,” he added.
“This settlement is a clear statement on behalf of the trade union movement that never again can such nefarious activities be allowed to happen against decent working people trying to earn an honest living in a tough industry.
“The message is clear that there can never be any hiding place for bosses in the construction and any other industry thinking of reverting to shameful blacklisting practices against committed trade unionists.”
Unite director of legal services Howard Beckett noted that Unite was proud to have fought until the end “to get the maximum we believed was possible against companies that had to be dragged kicking and screaming to make unprecedented admissions of guilt last October.
“In addition to financial compensation, admissions of guilt and formal apologies, the companies have agreed, as a result of this litigation, to issue guidance to site managers to ensure blacklisting is not occurring on a local level and to ensure that Unite members receive no less favourable treatment for job applications, as a result of this litigation,” he added.
But Beckett argued that what still remains outstanding from the agreement is the legislative definition of blacklisting as outlined in the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklisting) Regulations 2010.
“We view the secret vetting operation carried out by the Consulting Association as a blacklist, and hence in contravention of the Act,” he said.
“This is the core reason as to why these companies should be answerable to a public inquiry and why the Westminster and the devolved governments should continue to ask serious questions of these companies before they are engaged for public contracts.”
Speaking on BBC News this afternoon, Beckett highlighted that while compensation for the affected families was an important first step, justice would not be served until there was accountability from the construction companies implicated.
“Financial compensation is only part of the picture,” he said. “You can’t turn the clock back. These individuals’ lives were destroyed, and their families’ lives were destroyed. These were our health and safety reps on sites where the fatality rate is enormous – how many lives were affected by this?
“We want a public inquiry and we want those construction companies to be held to account,” Beckett added. “They have to give evidence on an open forum as to why they thought they were morally justified in creating a blacklist for no other reason but their workers’ trade union membership.”
Unite would like to thank its legal team – Anthony Hudson QC at Matrix; Ben Cooper, counsel at Old Square and Richard Arthur and his team at Thompsons Solicitors – who, Beckett said, “stood shoulder to shoulder with the trade union movement during this lengthy, and ultimately victorious, landmark case”.