‘Defending the right to work is a human right’
John Flavin’s chance move to London was to play Gaelic football, but once he started working on London’s construction sites his life took a more political than sporting turn, he tells Fiona O’Brien
Flavin became one of the UK’s most prominent trade unionists, after he stood up to protect the rights of construction workers and prevent blacklisting. His new book To Fight Is To Win, is his autobiography and accounts for his life growing up in Kerry, right up until he held the position of president of UCATT (Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians) in the mid-nineties.
Flavin was born in Ballylongford in 1944 and was a member of the Kerry minor team that won the All-Ireland football final in 1962. The following year he moved to London and started working in the construction industry as a tunnel miner and scaffolder, working for most of the major contractors. It was actually his ability as a footballer that resulted in his stay in the capital.
Initially just over for a few days for his sister’s wedding, his short trip over with his father was extended once the Kingdom Gaels club got involved. He was asked to play a match, and despite questioning if he was legal or not he was played and subsequently asked to appear in the replay. Protesting that he needed to get back home to work he was quizzed by then secretary Martin O’Sullivan about how much his wages were.
Martin then told him that he would pay him the equivalent of his yearly wage at home if he would sign up to the team straight away. Flavin accepted, after he was assured that his father would be taken care of to assist him on his journey back alone.
But Flavin did not even start his working days in London on the building sites. With a considerable sum of money in his pocket he secured himself a job in Marks and Spencer, but he would not work in retail for too long. Noticing how much money his teammates were making Flavin decided to make the move to construction, and started out with Murphys.
Later, on-site strikes would take place and the big firms wanted to sack those who had refused to work for highlighting what they thought was unfair treatment. Flavin notes his own thoughts on blacklisting here: “In my old dictionary the word blacklisting means you blacken a person’s name with intent to prevent that person from being employed.
“Over the years in the UK, the blacklist was mainly applied to communists, active trade unionists and fellow travellers of the left movement.
“The right of working people to a job is paramount. The right of working people to stand up and defend the rights of other people to those jobs is fundamental and a basic human right. There is no doubt that blacklisting is reprehensible and can ruin people’s lives and the law of the land must be tightened to prevent such malpractice taking place.”
In his younger days he had had experience with Labour so it became natural for him to support workers rights when he was asked to sit in at meetings. He became a trade union member in 1967 when he joined the construction trade union. In 1971, UCATT was formed when four unions came together, including the construction trade union. He held every position in UCATT except that of general secretary, serving as president from 1993 to 1995.
He is also now an honourary member of the union, which is now part of UNITE, and will have achieved 50 years membership in 2017.
Following his term as union president, he set up Flavin Construction Training and Advisory Services in 1995. In 2001 he took up a position with Laing O’Rourke as group executive for industrial relations. He retired in 2014 and now lives in Derry.
“The trade unions have a role to play in ensuring that the employment rights of construction workers are enforced and that there should be a return to direct labour to achieve this aim,” Flavin continues as he points out the dangers of working in the construction industry.
“Over the years, people working in the construction industry have suffered more than in any other industry from blacklisting.”
The book does well to document, in words and photos, the changing face of London from the late sixties up until the building of the Olympic stadium for the Summer Games in 2012. The sporting aspect is also heavy, with John eventually finishing playing with the Kingdom Gaels, after a fallout on Kilburn High Road, in the Earl of Derby pub no less, with one of his team mates.
But John himself kept himself active, and even trained people to win the Dublin marathon, as well as keeping a keen interest in rowing and boxing.
He also lists what he feels are the biggest changes in employment matters, which he says are labour-only subcontractors, agency labour and new payroll companies.
“It is my view that some employers, the media, trade unions and the police are collating information and infiltrating activists’ organisations to blacklist individuals.
“When I was regional organiser for UCATT in north west London, I always insisted that the general operatives and scaffolders were directly employed by the main contractors, Laing’s, Costain’s, Kyle Stewarts’s and others, and shop stewards.”
One to read for anyone who is interested in even hearing about the social life of the Irish in London in the 1960s, or anyone who is interested in construction, sports and workers’ rights.