Courtesy of Unite the Union
Frank Morris, an electrician and shop steward, returned to work at the CrossRail project after a year in which he and Unite the Union sought his reinstatement.

At first the story that broke in 2009 seemed implausible: Dozens of U.K. contractors supported a craftworker blacklist since the late 1990s and used it to idle those deemed troublesome.

Then on Oct. 10, eight of the U.K.’s largest construction companies announced a settlement that could be valued in many millions of dollars. Under the settlement, the contractors will compensate as many as 3,200 workers who said they were damaged by being blacklisted.

But had all use of blacklisting stopped in 2009, when the practice came to public attention?

No, said unions, which claimed that instead of shutting down the blacklist, contractors continued to use its information to dismiss a worker on the massive CrossRail tunnel and rail project.

So when the joint venture managing work on CrossRail, Bam Ferrovial Kier (BFK), agreed Sept. 3 on peace terms with trade union Unite the Union, a major reality adjustment was needed. There was “no contravention of the blacklisting regulations” after all, according to the joint statement.

But the statement made no mention of what Unite announced separately, the return to work on CrossRail of electrician Frank Morris, a key public face of blacklisting victims supposedly dismissed a year ago after a co-worker raised a safety concern.

The reality gap raises the issue of whether employers continued to share complaints about workers illegally and use those complaints illegally to deprive those designated troublemakers of their livelihood. If true, what legal prerogatives do contractors have to decide which union craft workers they will employ?

In the U.K., where union membership and influence has declined dramatically, workers, not unions, must bring lawsuits against employers regarding illegal dismissal charges.

“It makes it easy for employers to do what they like,” says Keith Ewing, professor of law at King’s College, London, who is working with blacklisted craftworkers and unions.

He believes the blacklists violated workers’ rights to both privacy and to freedom of association, including the right to associate in trade unions.

Unite declared in an announcement that shop-steward electrician Morris “is returning to work on the CrossRail project,” an event the union declared a “major victory.”

In the more modestly phrased joint announcement bearing the logo of BFK, the contractor is said to believe that termination of the labor subcontractor employing Morris “could have been handled better.”

First Reports

The U.K. blacklisting first came to light in 2009 concerning other projects, when CrossRail was in an early phase of work.

A whistleblower named Alan Wainwright first revealed the existence of a blacklist in blog posts. The lists, he charged, had been used to exclude workers from major projects dating to the late 1990s, such as the reconstruction of the Royal Opera House and the extension of the Jubilee Line transit line. Wainright, according to published reports, had worked at Hayden Young (now part of Balfour Beatty), Carillion and Drake and Sculls (an Emcor Group unit).