Macdara Doyle is a senior officer with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, with responsibility for Media & Communications.
What is Blacklisting?
Blacklisting has been with us in one form or another for as long as humanity has worked to earn its keep. It can be outrageously flagrant or it can be entirely secretive and insidious. In its simplest terms, it is a vehicle for expressing prejudice and acting in a discriminatory manner. But our laws have failed to keep pace with how it has changed and developed over the years.
People are discriminated against (then “blacklisted”) because of political beliefs, trade union membership, for voicing concern at health and safety standards in a workplace, for their colour or creed, for standing up to bullies, or whistleblowing about illegal and dangerous practices at work … the list is effectively endless.
Perhaps the most well-known example of blacklisting took place in the aftermath of World War II and in the midst of the Cold War, when studios in Hollywood took it upon themselves to ensure “unpatriotic” and left-leaning types were hounded out of work, lest their propaganda seep onto the silver screen and infect innocent viewers. Note that Hollywood moguls started their purge some two years before the supreme opportunist Senator Joe McCarthy entered the fray and made the issue his alone.
His creature – the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) – destroyed lives, and tore families apart. One infamous “witness” was film director Elia Kazan, who cooperated with the HUAC and effectively ended the careers of many others, by way of officially-sanctioned blacklisting.
Kazan had been a close friend of playwright Arthur Miller, having directed some of his work, but Miller ended the friendship following Kazan’s appearance at the HUAC. Miller went on to write The Crucible, ostensibly about the Salem witch trials, but actually about McCarthy’s witch-hunt and Red Scare. Two years after his appearance, Kazan released On the Waterfront, in which trade unions were no more than mobsters and a worker becomes a hero for informing on his colleagues.
It was a strange way to attempt retrospective justification of Kazan’s cowardly actions, especially given the dreadful working conditions that pertained for US dockers at the time and the widespread blacklisting of union organisers by dock owners.
The only argument to be made in favour of the HUAC and the McCarthy era is they at least had the decency to carry on their work in full public view. The majority of blacklisting and discriminatory activity takes place well out the public eye and is eminently deniable. But it can also be lucrative.
Perhaps the first organisation to “monetise” blacklisting was the UK’s Economic League, a very shady Cold War body dedicated to combating subversion and anything which ran counter to free enterprise. It was founded in 1919 (just after the Soviet Revolution) and played a major role opposing the 1926 General Strike in the UK, maintaining its database of “subversives” and union activists until 1993. Members paid a fee to access the data.
However, media inquiries in the late 1980s revealed much of the data to be outdated and hopelessly inaccurate.
When the League shut down in 1993, some members went on to secretly found the innocuously-titled Consulting Association.
Their primary blacklisting work took place in the UK’s construction industry – but their shadowy role was uncovered in 2009 and several major UK construction companies were found to have utilised their services to “vet” workers. Thousands of workers had been affected by their illicit activity, unable to find employment over many years. A significant proportion of those were Irish, having emigrated to find work, or because they experienced similar difficulties here.
And this is the most insidious aspect of blacklisting: that an ill-informed opinion or prejudice can deny others their right and ability to earn a living, doubtless pushing countless numbers into penury over the years.
Organisations such as the Economic League and the Consulting Association were viable in the UK – and other countries – because of the size of the economy and the relatively fluid nature of the workforce.
In Ireland, industries such as construction were comparatively small, with just a few large firms dominating. Thus there were no formal structures required, rather it was nod and wink and word of mouth. Very informal and impossible to prove. And both here and across the developed world, where the law has made some attempt to eliminate the worst practices, employers who wish to engage in this practice have become far more sophisticated.
With the growth in third-party agency workers and the all-encompassing “background checks” that workers cannot but consent to, it has become cloaked in respectability. This is particularly worrying given that consent overrides data protection considerations. Such workers are highly vulnerable and currently have no right to know what is said to prospective employers arising from such background checks.
It is to be hoped that that this issue is high on the agenda of the next Dáil and gains widespread support.
Our law has some catching up to do.
Editor’s note: In December 2015, the Industrial Relations (Blacklists) Bill 2015 was introduced into the Dáil, sponsored by Deputy Peadar Tóibín. The Bill, as initiated, reads:
“Bill entitled an Act to make it unlawful to compile, use, sell or supply blacklists containing details of people who are, or have been, trade union members or who are taking part, or have taken part, in trade union activities or an industrial action where such blacklists may be used by employers to discriminate in relation to recruitment or the treatment of existing workers and provide for sanctions where such unlawful actions as detailed occur.”
You can view it here.