Trade Unions and the fight for civil liberties


Last Saturday, the White Horse TUC hosted a fantastic day of talks around the broad topic of civil liberties. Around 30 people came to the event in Chippenham, most of them staying all day, and several participating in the discussion.

I think that it is no disrespect to the other speakers to acknowledge that the stand out highlight was the session addressed by Phil Chamberlain about the scandal of blacklisting. Phil lives locally in Colerne, and has stood as the Green Party candidate for the last two general elections, but he is better known for being the co-author, alongside Dave Smith, of the book about blacklisting, published by New Internationalist: Blacklisted : The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists

I first came across Dave Smith when involved in the industrial action at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital in 2012, of cleaners who worked for Carillion. In February of that year, there was a meeting between the union and, amongst others, Carillion’s HR director, Liz Keates, which failed to resolve the issues and suggested that Carillion were adopting a hard nosed approach. It transpired that Liz Keates was the main contact for Carillion with the Consulting Association, the shadowy but rather ramshackle organisation which operated a blacklist on behalf of major construction companies. Keates had been involved in the blacklisting of Dave Smith, for no more than carrying out normal trade union activities, thus denying him the opportunity to earn a living for several years, despite him being a skilled engineer.

Phil’s involvement with blacklisting was through a different route, having been commissioned by the Guardian back in 2008 to research and write an article about it. Although I have had some peripheral involvement myself with the campaign, I found learned a great deal from Phil’s talk, which was completely fascinating. He showed slides of the shoddy green door that led to the Consulting Association’s office in a small town high street; and of the file cards, and manila folders full of tittle tattle, which were used as the basis for blighting the lives of thousands of blameless victims.

As Phil talked through the content of the index cards, it became obvious that the “tradecraft” of the Consulting Association was modeled on Special Branch and security services protocols, partly due to the cross over between their work, but also because the rather sad individuals involved in this shabby snooping had sought to invest themselves with a crusading purpose, the vigilance against what they saw as communist subversion, but which was in truth nothing more remarkable than day to day exercise of trade unionism and diversity of opinion in a liberal democracy. Far from a Moscow led plot, all the Consulting Association documented was the everyday struggle of working people to ensure a safe workplace, and to be treated with decency and respect.

The extraordinary lengths that these powerful companies, household names like MacAlpines, Kier and Skanska, were prepared to go to to protect and preserve their wealth and privilege was echoed by another speaker, Paul Dobson, who originally comes from Trowbridge, but currently resides in Caracas, where he works as a journalist. We were lucky to catch Paul on a visit to the UK. He described the process of destabilization and misinformation by which the rich in Venezuela seek to undermine the current socialist government. The opposition manage to dominate the foreign perceptions of Venezuela as they not only control most newspapers and TV channels, but are more likely to speak English, and more likely to be socially amenable to the expectations of commentators from Europe and North America. Among the poor and disadvantaged the government remains popular, but few foreign journalists listen to their voices.

Ray Packham gave a very informative talk about his experience living in Hebron, in the West Bank. Ray explained very well the culture shock for anyone who has visits Palestine, where whatever you have read, the oppression is worse than you were expecting, and the resilience and social solidarity of the Palestinians more inspiring.

Steve Gilbert, the author of the excellent book about Jeremy Corbyn – Accidental Hero, described the events of the last few months, where a sustained and malicious campaign of intimidation, misrepresentation and bureaucratic obstruction has been unleashed to seek to thwart the democratic expression of radical opinion through the Labour Party, which has included absurdly concocted allegations of violence at meetings, vandalism, and anti-Semitism.

The thread running through all these sessions was that the rich and powerful will stop at almost nothing to defend their position. Indeed, the day of talks was organized to commemorate the memory of Thomas Helliker, the Trowbridge Martyr, who was framed for a crime he did not commit, and executed in 1803 on his 19th birthday. His execution was aimed at thwarting the fight by shearmen to prevent the introduction of machinery. Helliker refused to save his own life by incriminating the real arsonist, believed to be his older brother.

However powerful and ruthless our enemies may be, the talks gave examples of how ordinary working people have proven that we have the power to overcome.

Finally, there was good interest and sales of both Phil Chamberlain’s book on Blacklisting, Steve Gilbert’s book on Corbyn, and the book by the White Horse TUC’s chair, Rosie MacGregor about Angela Gradwell Tuckett, Remembering Angela. There were also good sales of cards and candles from Scarlet Banner

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