In 1919, British industrialists found a quirky solution to the problems of all leftist "brawlers" that threatened the owners' unbridled pursuit of profits: They started an organization that maintained a secret "blacklist" with the names of union members and activists protesting for better working conditions. Notes on troublesome workers were also stored in their own files.
The organization The Economic League gave the managers a phone number they could call if they wanted to check the background of a possible employee and if he or she seemed obedient to the state. If you ended up on such blacklists, you were denied work. The organization was disbanded in 1993 following pressure from digging journalists, but the lists covering the construction industry were passed on to the newly started The Consulting Association, led by former The Economic League staff member Ian Kerr, who continued with the control procedures.
In 2009, a data and privacy organization acquired more than two thousand files, and the disclosures form the basis for the documentary Solidarity. Director Lucy Parker shows through interviews with a number of workers how their personal lives were affected by years of secret surveillance and social control.
Blacklisted Support Group
Ten years ago, The Blacklist Support Group started a campaign for justice for workers and wanted the truth about the charts to come. They demanded a public inquiry. They found shocking stories about how little it took before being labeled as an opponent by those who had the power to hire and sell.
Any comment about health and safety in the workplace, no matter how insignificant it might seem, could have a worker listed. A worker who complained about asbestos risk was fired the next day and information was carefully noted for later use.
Exploitation and cruelty can flourish through reckless bureaucrats who
performs its tasks and instructions without asking questions.
A former official wrote a letter to the municipality praising them for giving Nelson Mandela a medal. He was promptly listed on the list, too institutionalized racism was a major driver of what was considered suspicious.
A female worker read in her own file that she was described as a "nasty piece of work", claiming that the mention of her behavior was exaggerated or fabricated. Another worker remembers a colleague who built the London Underground lines – he was pushed so hard that he took his own life.
Got fired without warning
Blacklisted workers had the extra tough financial and often had to deal with work that no one else would do. It was very difficult for them to support the family with work in an industry that was already hard pressed, where they also risked being fired without warning. Stress and difficulties in marriage followed in the wake of the work pressure, because without transparency around the lists, workers were accused of being paranoid if they talked about their problems.
Solidarity presents evidence of the damage inflicted on the workers while involuntarily contributing to a biased and unjust capitalist system. The film is a frightening portrait of how unethical exploitation and ruthlessness can gain a foothold when thoughtless bureaucrats carry out their tasks and instructions without asking questions.
Large parts of the film show a parliamentary hearing where Kerr is in charge. He appears to be inarticulate and seemingly overwhelmed when pressed for the moral implications of his activities, claiming he did not understand the consequences of the information he recorded.
"I did it automatically, like a clock," he says in his defense, comparing himself to a yes man without a social conscience who passively does what the authorities ask him.
Cooperation with the police
Another daunting dimension to the monitoring and listing was the close cooperation and exchange of information that took place between the organization, the police and the security services. The organization made notes on "political uprisings" as well as actions, not only about workers participating in demonstrations, but also about any ties they might have to activists.
A worker who complained about asbestos was fired the next day and information was carefully noted for later use.
Spying, surveillance and police participation were extensive and could destroy the lives of the affected. A union representative with friends involved in the fight against racism tells how she was lured into a years-long relationship with a cop who pretended to be an activist. He talked to her by mouth and seemed sympathetic, but when he suddenly disappeared from the relationship, she returned with the feeling of being "together with a ghost," with confidence shattered. She's not alone. An investigation into the role of the police (Undercover Policing Inquiry) is underway and a report will be completed by 2023.
Lose the job at any time
Although many of the stories we get to hear about Solidarity, lies decades back in time, the film brings us into the present through meetings with dissatisfied workers today, including from the food delivery service Deliveroo, where workers are without union representative and may lose their jobs at any time. Others that stand out are employees of the cinema chain picture House, who do not receive a salary from the employer.
Such hostile environments are aggravated by the fact that more and more jobs are based on part-time, calling or varying needs, and show that the fight for justice in the workplace takes place in an ever-changing terrain that requires constant vigilance.
What happens when American workers work in a factory where the owners are Chinese? Read the review of the movie American Factory.