Exactly one century ago, British industrialists came up with a dirty solution for the «troublemakers» that posed a threat to their unbridled pursuit of profit: they started a secret blacklist and added the names of activists and trade unionists agitating for better working conditions. The Economic League gave bosses a phone number to call if they wanted to check on a prospective employee for anything other than passive obedience to the state and to those overseeing the cogs of the money-making machines. It was disbanded in 1993 following pressure from press investigations, but its blacklist files on the construction industry were simply carried over to a new organisation, The Consulting Association, run by former League employee Ian Kerr, to continue the vetting procedures. More than two thousand of its files were seized by a data protection organisation in 2009, and their revelations form the basis of documentary Solidarity . In interviews with a number of workers whose job prospects and personal lives were seriously impacted by this clandestine targeting and surveillance, director Lucy Parker conveys the human toll of such sinister methods of societal control.
Members of the Blacklist Support Group started a decade ago to campaign for justice and truth through a public inquiry, give shocking accounts of how little it took to get on the wrong side of those hiring and firing. Any gesture of sympathy for non-moderate causes, no matter how minor, could get you a file, not to mention any legitimate plea for attention to health and safety. A worker who complained about asbestos was sacked the next day, and his information written up. A former serviceman who wrote a letter to his local council praising it for awarding Nelson Mandela a Freedom medal was also put on the list for his effort (institutionalised racism also drove which actions were deemed suspect). A female picketer reads herself described as a «nasty piece of work» in her file and asserts that the behaviour ascribed to her was exaggerated or fabricated. Another worker recalls a Jubilee Line Extension colleague in London whose morale was driven so low that he hung himself. Blacklisted workers would battle to stay afloat financially, having to take jobs for a few weeks at a time that nobody else wanted to do. Their ability to provide for their families obstructed in what was already a very precarious industry, in which one could be sacked without warning, had a knock-on effect of stress and marital relationships foundering. With no transparency, victimised union members were accused of simply being paranoid.
Espionage and police deception could be pervasive, and wreck lives.
Solidarity, then, gathers powerful testimony of the collateral damage inflicted on those whose labour props up class-biased capitalism. It also offers a rather chilling portrait of how unethical exploitation and cruelty can flourish through unthinking, unexceptional bureaucrats who carry out instructions with no question. A fair amount of the film takes us inside a parliamentary hearing in which file compiler Kerr is grilled. Unarticulate and seemingly overwhelmed when pressed on the moral implications of his activities, he asserts that he did not interpret the information he was given to record. «You could have dialed me up like the speaking clock, in a sense,» he says, in a comparison that unintentionally sums up the robotic, inhuman nature of labour untied from social conscience and responsibility — the kind of passive yes man that authorities prize.
Another sinister dimension of this surveillance was the close collaboration and exchange of information that occurred between the Consulting Association, the police, and the security services. The organisation kept notes on «political troublemaking» as well as that related to industrial action, with worker attendance at demonstrations and friendly ties to activists also monitored. Espionage and police deception could be pervasive, and wreck lives. A trade union representative with friends involved in anti-racism campaigning recounts how she was lured into a years-long sexual relationship with an undercover cop who posed as an activist and swept her up in a whirlwind romance, mimicking what she wanted to hear, before disappearing, leaving her with a shattered ability to trust, and the sense of having been in a relationship with a ghost. She is by no means the only one with such a story to tell — an Undercover Policing Inquiry is ongoing, its findings expected to be compiled in a report by 2023.
While many of the stories we hear in Solidarity date back decades, the film brings us into a current-day, cross-industry meeting of disgruntled employees (online food delivery firm Deliveroo, whose workers have no right to union reps and can be dismissed at any time, and Picturehouse Cinemas, who fail to pay all staff a living wage, are two of numerous companies whose practices are called out here). These hostile environments, exacerbated by increasingly casualised industries, show that the battle for workplace fairness is one of ever-changing terrain which requires ongoing vigilance, and is never fully won.