The book Blacklisted, the secret war between big business and union activists finally hit the shelves this week. Authored by Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, Blacklisted tells the controversial story of the illegal strategies that transnational construction companies used to keep union activists away from work. We have the honour to publish an extract, and we selected something from chapter 9, Under constant watch. Dealing with spying on activists it ties in with the work of the Undercover Research Group.
This particular piece shows how the authors found out that information gathered by undercover officers ended up in the files of the Consultancy Association, the secret blacklisting service set up by the large building companies. It was a matter of meticulously going through files, after campaigning to get access to the material seized by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who in turn had acted upon an article in the Guardian written by Phil Chamberlain. Interviews with those blacklisted, with whistle blowers and people professionally involved in blacklisting added a further layer of understanding.
The story published here adds some interesting detail to our profile of Mark Jenner spying on the Colin Roach Centre in Stoke Newington, London, in the mid 1990s, the same time as his former colleague and now whistleblower Peter Francis was also infiltrating left wing and anti-racism groups in London.
The files of Frank Smith, a brick layer by trade who was also active at the Colin Roach Centre, included elements that could only have come from people very close to him, and that had nothing to do with union work. This case study also shows how the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), the secret Special Branch spying unit, opened a file on his girlfriend who was American, just because she was an active member of Youth against Racism Europe. Her testimony on how Special Branch tried to deport her back to the United States, and the Home Office seizing her passport when she refused and appealed, making it impossible for her to visit her family and friends for seven years, chimes in with current testimonies of MI5 harassing targets – allegedly or not – involved in jihadist circles.
A first bit of evidence on collaboration between police and security services was revealed at Dave Smith’s Employment Tribunal against Carillon. David Clancy, an ex-police officer now working for ICO testified that in the files of the Consultancy Association, ‘There is some information that could only have come from the police or security services.’ Here the authors explain what happened next.
It took a stroke of luck and some careful digging to develop a much fuller picture. Dave Smith was granted a third-part disclosure order against ICO that obliged them to disclose all the files that related to him or to the companies in his Employment Tribunal.
It was only because the ICO had a lack of staff that they suggested his solicitor, Declan Owens, could look at the files to identify the relevant ones. As Owens was doing this work pro bono, he didn’t go up but suggested that Smith went instead. When Smith read the files of Dan Gilman, Frank Smith and Lisa Teuscher, he realized that they contained information that only the police could know. It was pure fluke that it was Smith who looked at the files, because anyone else would not have realized the significance.
Two files which raised particular suspicions are held on Frank Smith and his girlfriend Lisa Teuscher. Frank, a bricklayer by trade, was a long-time political activist who had been involved in a number of actions on building sites across London calling for better wages and conditions. It was the late 1990s and London was experiencing a building boom but the stocky Liverpudlian had started to find work hard to get. He said:
I was in poverty — the only jobs I could get were working on little crap jobs. As a bricklayer, you always wanted to get in with a subbie [subcontractor] or a big job that had continuity, that had a decent run of work. You never start a long job in November to January. So you were always aiming for a job that you could get the turkey out of. For me it just became harder and harder to get onto any job where there was any decent run of work — I could only get little tiny jobs. On one occasion, money was quite bad, Lisa couldn’t understand it and she took a day driving me around different sites looking for a start. It’d be try that one, that’s a big job — I’d go in one after another — nothing. After seeing this and seeing my name on the blacklist, I think my name must have been getting checked out.
Frank Smith’s name certainly was being checked out – and not just by the construction companies – but evidence for state surveillance is now emerging.
The authors continue with some more interesting details about cooperation between the police and the Consultancy Association, and point out how the Special Branch remained outside democratic control, escaping any effective form of oversight. The expansion of who might be considered a subversive and therefore a legitimate target continued to increase. The catch-all phrase was ‘domestic extremism’, which has no legal definition and was used as a vague catch-all term to justify monitoring of campaigners, as Undercover Research explained on the history of Domestic Extremism and the police units involved.
Domestic extremists, the police decided, were those who wanted to “prevent something happening or to change legislation or domestic policy”, often doing so “outside normal democratic process”. [this definition can still be found at the website of MI5.]
The groups at the Colin Roach Centre, which was as much a trade-union resource centre as anything else, clearly met this definition and so it was little wonder the SDS would try to insert someone into this nexus of dissent. Jenner’s cover story of working as a joiner proved ideal not just for making connections with other builders but also in that he could justify his peripatetic lifestyle. During his time there, he ferried construction union activists to demonstrations and attended picket lines over unpaid wages and victimization.
Jenner also spied on anti-racist campaigners and the efforts by anti-fascist activists to aggressively confront the British National Party and the paramilitary fascist group Combat 18. And some of this information appears to have made its way on to the blacklist files held by The Consulting Association. Three separate trade unionists who were in contact with Jenner had details on how they were ‘observed’ or ‘apprehended’ while protesting against fascists laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in commemoration of Britain’s war dead on Remembrance Sunday in 1999.
The files on two trade unionists record a piece of information that they say was known to only a handful of members involved in anti-fascist activity during the 1990s. The three were part of a loose grouping of activists, known colloquially as the ‘Away Team’, who protected labour movement and anti-racist demonstrations from physical attacks by far-right activists. Only around 50 people in the entire country would have known what the ‘Away Team’ referred to, as it was a private joke relating to football rather than a term ever recorded in the press. The information on their membership was gathered by SDS officer Peter Francis, who served for years undercover. All three activists believe this information that ended up on their TCA files could only have originated from undercover police officers.
One of the members of the Away Team who came into contact with the police at the anti-BNP event in November 1999 was Frank Smith. He said:
‘I was stopped, searched and spoken to. I wasn’t arrested, so there would be nothing in my arrest file. Definitely no press reports about it.
Now what has that got to do with me being a builder? How would a building company know anything about that? It could only come from the police.’
Yet the incident is recorded in his Consulting Association file.
Also in his blacklist file is a line saying:
‘Under constant watch (officially) and seen as politically dangerous.’
His blacklist file starts in 1992 and records his involvement with the Vascroft dispute and the Joint Sites Committee. Special Branch also opened a file on him and the officer who opened that file was Peter Francis. The officer recalls:
‘The file was created some time around 1995. I knew Frank was involved in Militant but it was primarily his role within the Away Team that I was interested in. So I opened what we call an RF – a registry file.
Then, every time I saw him on a demo or I had a drink with him, that would go on the file. “Seen as politically dangerous” is the assessment I would have had of him. In order for me to create a file on him I need to say something like that because he was regarded as being a subversive.’
Francis, who subsequently blew the whistle on SDS activities, including spying on the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, was not tasked to monitor Smith because of his union activities but because of his involvement in the Away Team. Yet Smith’s blacklist file also describes him as a ‘leading light’ in the Away Team. Quite how a manager on a building site would know this is difficult to explain.
There was more to Smith’s blacklist file than just his union and political activities, though – and it extended to his girlfriend at the time, Lisa Teuscher. One part of his file talks about Teuscher, an American citizen, being involved in ‘several marriages of convenience’. This was untrue. It turned out that she also had her own blacklisting file and the only thing on it is that she is the ‘girlfriend of Frank Smith’. And, by coincidence, Francis had also opened the Special Branch file on Teuscher. At one stage Francis recalls being asked, via his superior, to supply information to the Home Office on her marital status. Teuscher was not involved in the construction industry but was actively involved in anti-racist campaigning. Francis told the authors that a file was opened on her because she was identified as an important member of the far-left group Militant and, in particular, Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE). Following the Special Branch intervention, Teuscher was refused leave to remain in the UK and the Home Office tried to deport her. When she appealed the decision, the British government seized her passport for seven years meaning that the young American could not visit her family. Teuscher has now returned to the US but remembers how her treatment by the British state affected her:
‘Traumatic because they held my passport for seven years. I loved my family. It was so hard not seeing them for so many years. They tried to deport me; I got a lawyer and fought it. I tried to do everything legally but the British government seized my passport. I couldn’t go anywhere. It was very stressful. They accused me of stuff that basically is untrue.’
Teuscher is particularly upset that her political campaigning was undoubtedly the reason for her battle against deportation.
‘I am outraged. I came to London and was proud to be a member of the YRE. Happy to be spending time usefully fighting racism, especially when we drove the BNP [British National Party] off of Brick Lane. I find it disturbing that throughout my genuine interest to improve society, there was an unknown force in the British government tracking me.’
The authors informed Teuscher that she was on The Consulting Association blacklist and she has now received a copy of her file from the ICO:
‘I was shocked when I first read my file, it made me feel physically sick. It’s absurd. I don’t see any reason why my name should be linked with the building industry. I had no professional involvement whatsoever. The only reason I am on the list is because of Frank. And that is not a legitimate reason for the police following me or anybody else making notes on me.’
Teuscher eventually won her appeal against deportation but after seven years of constant struggle says that she was worn down and she eventually returned to the US when her passport was returned to her, saying ‘they won in the end’.
It seems implausible that these very specific, virtually unknown pieces of private information about Smith and Teuscher could have appeared on their blacklist files without first having originated from a state source.
[all quotes are from interviews by the authors]
Blacklisted chronicles of yet another series of examples of how corporate and police spying destroys lives – an episode insufficiently highlighted in the undercover scandal until now. And it’s not over yet. It was not just the SDS: spying to undermine dissent was standard practice across the Special Branch units that dealt with Domestic Extremism since. Many of the police officers involved in undercover operations have subsequently moved on, now selling their services to corporate clients, while still making use of their former networks. The symptomatic abuse of people is still going on today, harassing suspected jihadists – as mentioned above, but also in modern vetting done in the name of resilience and counter-terrorism.
Blacklisted by Phil Chamberlain and Dave Smith is out now, available direct from New Internationalist Books for £7.99, printed or ebooked. Currently the authors are doing a tour talking about the book and experiences of being blacklisted.Twitter @BlacklistedBook
About the Authors
Dave Smith is a blacklisted union activist from the construction industry, and an award-winning campaigner on human rights, health and safety, anti-fascism and employment rights issues. He currently works as a trade union education tutor.
Phil Chamberlain is an experienced investigative journalist who has written for the Guardian, Observer and the Independent amongst others. He is also a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of the West of England, Bristol.