Lessons from the Grangemouth defeat

Submitted by AWL on 6 November, 2013 - 11:30

It wasn’t just the Ineos workforce in Grangemouth or Unite the Union which suffered a major defeat last month. It was all of us in the trade union movement.

Ineos workers will see their basic pay frozen until the end of 2016. There will be no bonus payments until then either. The shift allowance is being cut from £10,000 to £7,500. Overtime rates and holiday entitlements are being cut, and staffing levels are likely to be cut as well.

Contractual redundancy pay is being replaced by the statutory minimum, and the final salary pension scheme is being replaced by a defined contributions one. Workers will pay higher contributions in exchange for a worse pension.

The scope of collective bargaining with the recognised union (Unite) is being cut back. Full-time convenors are to be replaced by part-time ones. And Unite has agreed not to engage in any industrial action for the next three years.

After months of a sustained witch-hunt Stevie Deans, one of the Unite convenors in the plant, has been hounded out of his position and out of the workforce.

Stevie was suspended and reinstated by the Labour Party. He was investigated by the police, who found no case to answer. He was suspended and re-instated by Ineos. And he was subjected to three different investigations by the company.

Stevie was subsequently scapegoated for Ineos’ decision to threaten closure of Grangemouth. He was denounced in Parliament by Cameron. His e-mails were handed over to the police and half of Fleet Street. And he was then targeted in yet another round of media abuse.

Unite itself is now the object of a sustained tirade of abuse in the mainstream media. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey is portrayed as a throwback to the 1970s, Unite’s Organising and Leverage Department is accused of “thuggish tactics”, and the Labour Party is denounced for failing to challenge the behaviour of its “paymasters” in Unite.

Trade union activists will instinctively see through this display of manufactured pretend-outrage. But others, including some union members, are likely to be — and have been — swept along in its slipstream.

Over the next few months employers up and down the country will be likely to seek to follow in the footsteps of Ineos’ Jim Ratcliffe, the venture capitalist they now revere as a hero. As an article in the Spectator describes him:

“Arise, Sir Jim, the hero of the Grangemouth affair. ... Jim Ratcliffe is not a capitalist monster but an industrial hero, and once he’s written that cheque (for £300 million) he should also be a Knight of the Thistle.”

Unite’s defeat is all the more bitter in the light of the fight put up by the workforce and their shop stewards over the summer and autumn.

When Stevie Deans was first suspended in July, a mass meeting of Unite members threatened to shut down Grangemouth if Ineos did not lift the suspension. Ineos backed down (albeit only temporarily).

When Ineos again attacked Stevie in the following months, Unite members voted for strike action (81%) and action short of strike action (91%) on an 86% turnout. A ban on overtime and a work-to-rule were implemented, and notice given of a 48-hour strike (subsequently called off).

When Ineos first announced the new terms and conditions which it wanted to impose of the workforce, the shop stewards successfully campaigned for members to reject them. A majority handed their forms back to the stewards, unsigned.

A hard-hitting stewards’ statement was published and circulated inside and outside of the plant. Shop stewards in the plant also organised a solidarity rally to coincide with campaigning against the Ineos “survival plan”.

MSPs were lobbied by Unite to put pressure on Ineos to fire up the plant and not shut it down, and Unite’s Organising and Leverage Department (OLD) staged a series of activities designed to put pressure on Ineos.

According to unconfirmed reports, there were also discussions within Unite about occupying the plant, but this would have faced major practical problems.

Once Ineos announced that they were going to shut the plant, however, a majority of the Unite membership, and a majority of the workforce as a whole, saw the new terms and conditions as a lesser evil, compared with the closure of the plant. And no-one can blame them for doing so.

Was Ratcliffe bluffing? Ineos had registered a new company, Grangemouth plc, which would have allowed them to walk away from Grangemouth without paying redundancy pay or environmental charges.

This does not mean that Grangemouth was not profitable unless the workforce agreed to the “survival plan”. What is does mean is that Ratcliffe probably calculated that, without the ‘survival plan’ in operation, he could make more money elsewhere.

Could it have ended differently? No-one can say for sure. And it is certainly easy to be wise after the event. But if re-runs of Grangemouth are to be avoided in future, there are certainly a number of questions that need to be raised and discussed.

Unite wanted to emphasise that it was the reasonable party in the rapidly escalating dispute. That was why, for example, it chose to call off the 48-hour hour strike in support of Stevie Deans.

There was certainly a rational case for Unite to want to appear “reasonable”. But was it taken too far? Did Ratcliffe interpret the decision to call off the 48-hour strike as a sign of weakness and thereby feel encouraged to press on with his attacks? Did Unite’s emphasis on how “reasonable” it was cut across other tactics it was using against Ineos, such as those being used by the OLD?

And, more fundamentally, did Ratcliffe even care whether or not he was seen as reasonable? UK tax-exiles resident in Switzerland who also move their head offices to Switzerland in order to avoid paying corporation tax tend to be pretty indifferent about their image.

The same question is raised by some of the media statements issued by Unite at the crucial point during the dispute.

When Ineos announced closure Unite responded: “The ball is now in the court of Jim Ratcliffe and the respective governments in Edinburgh and Westminster and we await their responses." Another statement the next day concluded: “The decision as to whether or not the plant stays open remains with Ineos.”

This was certainly at odds with the tone of earlier statements from Unite. If it did not disorient the workforce, it certainly must have been encouraging for the Ineos bosses. And it also made Unite appear as if it were no more than a passive bystander.

Nor did Unite continue to emphasise in its media statements that labour costs represent only a minor proportion of operating costs at Grangemouth. This made it that much easier for Ineos to claim that its attacks on employees’ terms and conditions were crucial to the survival of the plant.

And whatever lobbying was going in behind the scenes, Unite did not wage a campaign in public for re-nationalisation of Grangemouth. (It had been a nationalised plant prior to Ineos buying it out from BP.)

This was despite that fact that neither the SNP government in Holyrood nor even the Con-Dem government in Westminster could afford to let the plant and refinery close.

Given the importance of Grangemouth to the Scottish economy as a whole and to its manufacturing sector in particular, it was imperative for both governments, with the independence referendum less than a year away, to take whatever action was needed to keep the plant open.

While Unite did not mount a campaign for privatisation, it did repeatedly state its support for another (private) owner to take over the plant: “If the Scottish government along with the UK government has to find another owner, they have the union’s support.”

But would not a new private owner simply have made the same cost-cutting demands on the workforce, and the same demands on the Scottish and UK governments for loans and loan guarantees?

Unite’s OLD could also usefully assess its own role in the events of recent weeks. It is true that whatever a trade union does will be misrepresented and attacked in the media.

Even so, it is important to try to minimise the opportunities for the media to do so. Did the OLD’s tactics and ‘hits’ do so, or did some of them provide the media with an open goal?

Unions abroad with members in Ineos were contacted by Unite and backed a statement condemning the company’s behaviour. But could they have been called on to take industrial action in support of the Grangemouth workforce, especially as they were not hampered by Tory anti-union laws?

The Scottish TUC produced a stream of statements rightly condemning Ineos, But nothing suggests that Unite called on the STUC to convene an emergency conference of union representatives from throughout Scotland (or at least the Central Belt) to begin to mobilise support for the Ineos workforce on a broader front.

Such questions need to be addressed. At the same time, trade union activists need to organise to confront the immediate and longer-term issues arising out of the Grangemouth defeat.

Unite needs to produce a pamphlet explaining what happened at Grangemouth as a matter of urgency and send it out to all its members in Scotland. It should also produce a leaflet covering the same issues, using its Area Activist Committees to organise distribution of the leaflets in public campaigning.

The recent launch of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, backed by all the major affiliates of the TUC, should be a signal for serious campaigning against the anti-union laws which held back the Grangemouth workforce from mounting immediate responses to Ineos’ manoeuvring.

Renewed attacks on Unite, McCluskey, and the Labour link are already underway. We need to organise to oppose those attacks and step up making the case for working-class political representation.

This includes demanding that the “special measures” imposed on Falkirk Labour Party be lifted, that all Unite members recruited to the party under the UnionJoin scheme be allowed to take part in the pending selection process, and that Unite finds another candidate to replace Karie Murphy

Ratcliffe’s behaviour highlights the scandal of an asset such as Grangemouth being left in the hands of a venture-capitalist millionaire. His behaviour underlines the need to take vital economic assets — refineries, petrochemicals, ports, banks, utilities companies, etc. — into public ownership.

In the Scottish Labour Party and the national Labour Party, Unite — and not just Unite — should also be advocating that in any future re-run of the events of recent weeks the party will refuse to allow workforces to be taken hostage and will instead campaign for nationalisation.

Finally, and most fundamentally of all, the Grangemouth defeat confirms the epochal task of the transformation of the trade union movement — to rebuild unions not just in terms of levels of membership but also in terms of their becoming combat organisations capable of taking on and defeating the Ratcliffes of this world.

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