Margaret Thatchers’ legacy was not just about defeating the trade unions, it was about creating a myth that working class people did not need trade unions. People came to believe that they could be like the bosses not just in terms of buying council houses and shares in British Gas but by the power of cheap credit they could be middle class. This turned out to be an illusion. Many people are now experiencing the reality as everything cheap has disappeared, whilst real wages have not increased for many years.
In this interview with Steve Acheson we see how a weakened trade union movement has failed to defend not just basic trade union rights but has allowed multinational companies to flaunt national and European laws on Health and Safety which has led to increased injuries and deaths on building sites. Steve, like many trade union representatives over the years, has carried on fighting, not just the bosses, but also the managerial union officers: he has stood up for the principles of trade unionism and the rights of his members to be safe at work.
Steve Acheson had a successful career as an electrician, supervising other workers and working on projects across the world. Then in 2000 his phone stopped ringing and he realised that there was a concerted effort being made to ensure that he would never work in the construction industry again.
Steve was born in Manchester and both his parents were trade unionists, his mother was a shop steward for thirty years. He joined a trade union, the EETPU, when he was 17 as an apprentice electrician.
The employers kept sacking anyone who was the shop steward but because I was indentured they couldn’t, so I became the shop steward at 19. I realised how crucial unions were to workers and I was educated by being in a union.
It was when he worked on the construction of the new Marks and Spencer building in Manchester in the late 1990s he noticed how health and safety conditions were deteriorating on construction sites;
It was more like Billy Smart’s Circus, the conditions were that bad. It was then that I started educating myself on health and safety legislation.
When Steve moved to the Pfizer site in Kent in 2000 he said that the conditions on the site were “like the Somme”. With the other 240 workers he made numerous complaints about a waterlogged site, no drying conditions for clothes and boots and a lack of interest by the company’s health and safety officers. It was only when the men refused to work under these conditions and Acheson informed the Health and Safety Executive of the situation that the management began to improve the site. Too late for Acheson and his comrades as they were sacked prior to HSE coming on site. They took their case to tribunal and won it on the grounds that they had been dismissed on the grounds of raising issues about healthy and safety.
From that time onwards Acheson noticed that no construction agency rang him offering him work. His next job was three years later in Manchester on two big sites in Piccadilly Gardens and the new Law Courts. Once again muliti-million pound public contracts where you would expect not only that the firms would following H&aS legislation but also abide by employment law. This turned out not to be so.
Acheson set up a TGWU branch on the site to challenge some of the draconian conditions.
The labourers were from Birmingham and had been told to bring a sleeping bag up with them. The director of the company had bought a house and had them all sleeping there. Breaking national agreements about providing a hotel accommodation.
He also noticed that the management had the labourers doing skilled electrical work and that they were not getting the rate for the job. Eventually the management got rid of Steve, although later he won his case at an Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal for trade union membership.
Acheson is scathing about the way the trade unions have failed to support each other over these issues:
Amicus was the other trade union on the site and they collaborated with the management to get rid of me.
Eventually he discovered that there was a blacklist for trade union activists on construction sites: I knew there was one but didn’t realise the extent of it. Over 40 companies, the police, the security services and union officers; what chance do you have against that!
In 2009 the Information Commissioner raided the offices of the Consulting Association, which held details on 3,213 construction workers and traded their personal details for profit. According to ICO, the database was used by over 40 construction companies and included information about construction workers’ personal relationships, trade union activity and employment history.
Acheson, through his determination to expose this conspiracy, has ensured that everyone knows what has gone on, particularly during the boom era of construction from 1995-2009, when large construction companies benefitted from mulit-million pound government contracts, and yet still tried to exploit workers and break employment and health and safety legislation to rake off even bigger profits.
Since 2000 he hasn’t had any work. In seven years he has received only 16 pay packets. He is still continuing his protest at Fiddlers Ferry power station where he was sacked in December 2008 as a result of being on a blacklist as a troublemaker.
He says; I would prefer to work but I realise that I will never step through the gates of a construction site again. Its gone on too long and in particular with the failure of the trade unions to respond. He doesn’t believe, despite all the revelations about the blacklisting issues, that this illegal practice has gone away. It’s not gone away because the unions in the construction industry have not led a campaign to stop it.
Acheson believes workers are in a worst situation today. Thousands of workers are in a cowed state. Over 3000 workers still face blacklisting and we still face a major fight to end discrimination against union activity.
Acheson pays tribute to his wife, Deborah, and his family;
She deserves compensation. Her support has never wavered, nor has my parents and supporters. But it’s not compensation that he wants; I want re-employment and a return to a normal life.
And what keeps him going? I stand here not just as a trade unionist but fighting for all the families who have been caught up in the blacklisting conspiracy. My enthusiasm for my trade union work hasn’t diminished and I am more involved in union work than ever before.
Acheson is nearly 60 and is facing the loss of his house. A recent benefit raised over a thousand pounds but he needs more contributions please send a donation to: “Fiddlers Ferry Hardship Fund” via Warrington Trades Union Council, 6 Red Gables, Pepper Street, Warrington, WA4 4SB.
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