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Blacklisting in Bristol: “Keep your mouth shut and keep your head down”

Black listing title - By Sam Knock
Edition 1

From the 1966 Bristol Dockers Strike, building the M32, Cabot Circus and sweeping Bristol’s streets today, workers who campaigned for better workplaces were ‘blacklisted’. Drew Rose explores the historical and current practises of marking out ‘troublesome workers’ for mistreatment.

Illustrated by Sam Knock –

It is 7am on a Monday. Your mobile rings. It is the agency telling you, after only three weeks on site, you no longer have a job. This is after months of refused job applications, despite full qualifications and years of experience. Maybe, you think, you shouldn’t have complained about the toilets overflowing last week, or perhaps your Facebook post about lack of safety equipment had something to do with it. But you don’t know – and there is no way of finding out. Welcome to the world of blacklisting.

In an interview with The Bristol Cable, Phil Chamberlain, senior journalism lecturer at UWE and co-author of the forthcoming book Blacklisted: The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists, says blacklisting is “primarily a secret way that companies restrict who they wish to employ” due to their “beliefs or attitudes”. Workers are typically put on a blacklist for union activity such as trying to improve working conditions.

The modern origins of blacklisting and The Economic League

The systematic blacklisting of workers was most famously organised by the Economic League. The League was established in 1919 by Sir William Reginald Hall, head of naval intelligence during the First World War, at a meeting with a group of industrialists at Dean’s Yard behind Westminster Abbey. They sought, in their words, to “crusade for capitalism” by undermining the growing activity of unemployed workers after the war, fearing a repeat of the recent Russian Revolution.

The league went on to play a central role in breaking the General Strike of 1926. Working with the Federation of British Industries (forerunner to the Confederation for British Industry) it produced mass propaganda, recruited volunteer labour and gathered intelligence on strikers which it passed to the government.

Making use of the League’s extensive records several firms that subscribed to the League operated in Bristol during the Twentieth Century and took a direct role in hampering Bristol workers’ efforts to improve their working conditions.

Bristol blacklisted in the 1966 Seamen’s Strike

Seamen in the UK had achieved, through local militancy and unofficial disputes, a 42 hour working week by 1965. But in February that year Bill Hogarth, General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen (NUS), signed a backdoor agreement with the owners putting seamen on a 56-hour week.

In turn, on New Year’s Day 1966 the Bristol Channel Seamen’s Committee produced it’s third edition of the Bristol Channel Seafarer newspaper which was distributed to British ports. It called for union member unity and a national conference to oppose the 56-hour week, forcing the NUS into calling a national strike. On January 31st, the union’s Chairman of the Bristol Channel Committee was ordered off his ship at a minute’s notice by the Merchant Navy Pool. He was subsequently blacklisted and “barred from Merchant Navy Hotels, Sailors’ Homes and pressure was used to get him out of private lodgings” while other committee members were shipped off for several months, according to an article at the time.

It is perhaps no coincidence that shortly after, Helen Bailey of The Economic League prevented the docker’s leader Jack Dash from holding a meeting. Turning up before hand, she lectured 300 dockers claiming: “there is evidence in the Seamen’s Union that there have been extremists who have tried to take the union over”. The Economic League also provided “factual background” to the media on the strike leaders, including the later Deputy PM, John Prescott. Indicating the high level of influence, Prime Minister Harold Wilson also condemned the communist “tightly-knit group of politically motivated men” influencing the seamen’s strike. Indeed such activities were widespread, with Tony Bunyan in The History and Practise of the Political Police in Britain noting the Industrial Research and Information Service, another right-wing blacklisting organisation, was “very active” in the strike.

Black listed worker

The Economic League Exposed and Challenged.

One of the first exposés of the Economic League was published in 1968 by the Labour Research Department, an independent trade union research organisation, in which it identified 154 firms contributing to the League. Mike Hughes, in his detailed history of the League Spies at Work, mentions a 1969 Observer article which quotes a “very large company which makes a very large donation” to the League saying that it “does a hell of a lot of vetting for us on political grounds, this is their sole use to us and for x pounds a year, it’s good value for money”. The following May, the magazine Building Design wrote that employers could contact the League “and be told whether a prospective employee is a troublemaker”.

With the League’s income from company subscriptions at least £1,000,000 in 1986, they exerted huge influence. Speaking to the effects of such actions, Richard Brett, the former North West Regional Director of the League, told the BBC in 1988: “I feel that the League as it is presently constituted is a danger to the democratic way of life in this country. You have got the case of the job prospects of thousands of people in the hands of one man. It is a situation unparalleled in this country in peacetime”.

In June 1990, the Economic League finally admitted to a House of Commons Select Committee on Employment that it’s “labour vetting service” responded to 100,000 – 200,000 name checks a year to over 600 known companies in the last 15 years, with the Guardian reporting that it could actually be nearer to 2000. In this case, subscribers would have employed, and monitored, approximately 4 million workers or 15% – 20% of all UK workers in private industries.

Bristol and Engineering Unemployment – “a good worker but was a security risk”

Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor recount, in Blacklist: The inside Story of Political Vetting, the case of Ken Richardson. In January 1981 he “began applying for jobs as a stress and design engineer, mainly with defence companies in Bristol and the South West. After five months and applications to several aerospace firms he was still unemployed, despite being interviewed for every vacancy for which he had applied. For the first time in his life Richardson could not get a job.” [Ref. Blacklisting p.70 ] Becoming suspicious, he contacted his previous employer, pretending to be from a company looking to employ Ken Richardson and asked for their views on him. They replied that he was “a good worker but was a security risk.” Ken recalls that while at the company the Security Officer had questioned him after seeing notes he was using to learn Russian, asserting In Blacklist that “I am not a security risk. I’m not a communist and never have been”.

Jerry Hicks of Montpelier, Bristol also worked in Bristol’s aerospace industry. Following in his father’s footsteps he worked for Rolls-Royce for 30 years until he was sacked on 20th July 2005. As an elected union official, he was charged with organising unofficial strike action in defence of two of his members from dismissal. Speaking to The Bristol Cable he said blacklisting was a “deliberate act by employers against those they see as trouble makers who are simply going about making a workplace a fairer, safer, more equitable place where collectively you are better off. It is that collectivity that they want to break, it’s any individual protest they want to squash and so they get a very subservient workforce”. Jerry later discovered that he had a blacklisting file held on him by the Consulting Association.

The building of Cabot Circus, the M32, McAlpine and the Consulting Association

As a former employee of the Economic League, Ian Kerr used the blacklisting files to establish the Consulting Association in 1993. Set up in the offices of construction company Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, a former Economic League subscriber. McAlpine also invested £20,000 to launch the Consulting Association, even paying Kerr’s £5,000 fine for breaching the Data Protection Act when the offices were raided and shut down by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2009.

In 1970 McAlpine were responsible for ploughing the M32 through working class areas of the city. Cullum McAlpine, a company director and founding chairman of the Consulting Association, admitted to a Scottish Select Committee that names were checked with the Association’s lists when they built Cabot Circus and Cabot House. The company’s website also boasts a “successful relationship with Bristol Port Company [which] has led to a steady flow of work”. It is perhaps no coincidence that Cullum McAlpine is a member of the secretive Bristol Merchant Venturers along with David Ord and Terence Mordaunt from the Bristol Port Company. Today, Cullum McAlpine lives in a multi-million pound mansion in Cold Ashton on the outskirts of Bristol while blacklisted workers are battling McAlpine in the courts for loss of earnings.

Is Kier cleaning up in Bristol?

Kier Group, the UK’s fourth-largest construction firm also subscribed to both the Economic League and the Consulting Association. In November 2011 Bristol City Council awarded Kier a seven-year contract for waste collection and street cleaning. We asked several street cleaners employed by Kier about health and safety conditions, but most were too afraid to speak to us. One employee who agreed to speak to us, on condition of anonymity, said “if you keep your mouth shut and keep your head down then you’re OK … there’s a culture of fear in our work”.

Bristol City Council has resolved to not contract to such companies, however Ian Wright, Bristol Hazards Group, concludes that the modern practise continues. “Blacklisting goes on everywhere in Bristol every day as hundreds of people are on zero hour contracts or employed through agencies and paid by payroll companies. Anyone who complains gets no work and there is no way of checking what unofficial records are kept.”

While the maintenance of a central blacklist by industry seems to have ceased, blacklisting will continue unless these practises are thoroughly exposed and those who stand up for their rights at work are supported.

Further info:

Blacklist Support Group


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