Understanding the Grangemouth defeat

October 29, 2013 at 1:25 pm (AWL, labour party, posted by JD, scotland, truth, unions, Unite the union, workers)

Employees at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant react to the news that it is to stay open

Above: workers react to news that the plant will remain open

By Dale Street, from the Workers Liberty website

The enormity of the defeat suffered by Unite at Ineos in Grangemouth is virtually impossible to exaggerate.

For the workforce the new terms and conditions mean a major cut in their terms and conditions of employment. Jobs will be axed (for sub-contractors as well as for Ineos staff). And Ineos workers have been left defenceless against further attacks in the future.

Ineos has got its way on everything. Basic pay will be 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 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.

According to some press reports, the new terms and conditions also include mandatory overtime which may be unpaid, a higher retirement age, and Ineos to have the right to alter terms and conditions as they see fit in the absence of consultation.

But the knock-on effects of the defeat go well beyond the Ineos workforce itself.

Unite, it should be remembered, balloted its members for strike action in defence of plant convenor Stevie Deans. It gave Ineos notice of a 48-hour strike (subsequently withdrawn). And it successfully campaigned for members to vote against the Ineos “survival plan”.

With only a few exceptions, Unite is now the object of a sustained tirade of abuse in the mainstream media, in articles by political commentators, in the comment section of online media, on websites, and in a host of other forums. Unite is targeted not for having eventually agreed to the Ineos ultimatum but for having stood up for Stevie Deans, for not having accepted Ineos’ demands at the outset, and for having exposed and denounced Ratcliffe’s economic and social thuggery.

Typical – and far from the most vituperative – examples:

“On Wednesday night workers across the UK who are Unite members would have been saying ‘what the hell is my union doing? Will they screw up my job too? ’ Common sense has prevailed at last. Unite has lost all credibility, and justly so.”

“Just goes to show the ‘all brothers out’ militant union attitude of the seventies is out of place in 21st century Britain. A small group of union enforcers got eviscerated by Ineos while the membership were given a lesson in reality. Job done!”

“What the hell was Unite thinking of? When did absolutely nowt become preferable to a regular paycheck? One of Unite’s top people for Labour Party selection rigging worked there, and he had to be protected over the interests of his 799 co-workers.”

In the context of it being “open season” on Unite, comments posted by local MP Eric Joyce – Labour, until thrown out of the party – merit special mention:

“The unions need to engage with the situation properly, not fanny around making stupid political gestures. Unite called a strike over a pathetic and petty issue related to Labour Party internal politics.

“By the time the union woke up to the reality workers faced, it was too late. Workers at Ineos need proper union representation – right now, they are getting the fumbling, dumbed-down, politicised opposite.

“Ed Miliband seems to have been bounced into an anti-employer position when it’s clear that Unite had handled the dispute appallingly. He needs to step in now and make it clear that Unite needs to start operating like a serious trade union.”

Last weekend’s Sunday Times also reported that a thousand Unite internal e-mails had been handed to the police, allegedly revealing “a concerted union plot involving threats, intimidation and dirty tricks” to “thwart” the Labour Party inquiry into claims that the Falkirk parliamentary selection process had been rigged by Unite.

Under the headline “Ineos to Sack Union Boss”, another article in the Sunday Times reported that it was “expected” that Ineos would sack Unite convenor Stevie Deans on the basis of allegations that he had spent time as union convenor on Labour Party work.

In recent months Stevie has been: suspended and reinstated by the Labour Party; investigated by the police, who found no case to answer; suspended and re-instated by Ineos; subjected to three different investigations by the company; witch-hunted in the press; and scapegoated for Ineos’ decision to threaten closure of Grangemouth.

Then, in the midst of disciplinary proceedings, his anti-union employer handed over to the anti-union police and the anti-union Sunday Times a dossier of Stevie’s e-mails, allowing anti-union Tory MPs from the other end of Britain to call for the Labour Party and the police to re-open their investigations into Stevie.

Britain’s biggest union is under concerted attack from every element in British society possessed of a visceral hostility to trade unionism and to the right of trade unions to demand political representation from the party which they founded.

The unholy alliance against Unite stretches from big business, Tory MPs and the mainstream media through to right-wing Labour (and ex-Labour) MPs and union officials.

In its slipstream it is dragging along the disorganised and the demoralised who buy into the line that Unite – rather than Ineos’ owners – nearly put 800 workers (and thousands of sub-contractors) on the dole.

Confronted with such a witch-hunt, socialists and union activists must first and foremost stand side-by-side with Unite. The witch-hunt is not just an attack on Unite but on any trade union which fails to roll over and die in the face of bosses’ ultimata.

Acceptance of the media narrative of what happened at Grangemouth (Ineos nearly walks away from Grangemouth because of Unite bloody-mindedness) needs to be challenged head on.

Trade unionists need to get across the basic facts of what happened last week: unaccountable billionaire threatens Scottish and British governments, the local community and the Ineos workforce with closure of Grangemouth unless he gets his way.

Ratcliffe behaved the way he did because that’s how capitalists behave, and because they have the economic power to behave like that. The idea that Unite was too powerful or too militant should be exposed for the fantasy it is.

Acceptance of the media narrative about Stevie Deans (Unite convenor only interested in rigging parliamentary section process instead of representing members) must also be confronted and reversed.

What could be more hypocritical than Ineos claiming to be concerned about the Grangemouth workforce being deprived of effective trade union representation when they have just torn up the collective bargaining agreement?

And if Ineos wants to hands documents over to the police for investigation, then, judging by an article in the Daily Record last week, the documents they should be handing over are their own accounts.

Ineos’ targeting of Stevie is not a case of the company being concerned about the good name of Unite. It is part of its overall attack on the workforce as whole. That is why Unite was correct to ballot its members for strike action.

At a more basic level, there is also a need to emphasise the basic function of a trade union: to defend members’ interests through collective action – not to facilitate employers’ attacks through partnership agreements and by functioning like some kind of second eleven for HR departments.

The refrain that Unite is stuck in the 1970s and needs to catch up with the 21st century is another fantasy that needs to be kicked into touch. In the 1970s unions were big enough and powerful enough to resist attacks by employers and defend their members’ standards of living. Their membership was not only bigger but also better organised and more confident about taking on employers than is the case today.

Unions are weaker now not because they are stuck in a time warp but because of three decades of de-industrialisation, anti-union laws, attacks on employment rights, labour market casualisation and, consequently, a declining level of membership.

Within Unite itself there is also a need to analyse the events of the last week and confront some awkward questions.

Once Ineos announced last Wednesday that they were going to shut the plant, it seems pretty clear that a majority of the Unite membership in Grangemouth, 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.

The fact that Ineos began to lay off 2,000 sub-contractors added to the pressure on the workforce. By all accounts, sub-contractors saw the issue as one of employees on better terms and conditions than their own jeopardising their work as sub-contractors.

By last Wednesday it was probably too late to stave off defeat. But could steps have been taken at an earlier stage to prevent that defeat?

Although it is easy to be wise after the event, Ineos was clearly preparing for last week’s showdown since the early summer, if not even earlier. But Unite’s initial focus, at least in public, was on the attacks on Stevie Deans, without linking that to the broader offensive on the workforce being planned by Ineos.

Unite’s strategy relied heavily on exposing the “unreasonable” behaviour of Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe. This made some sense, but was never going to be sufficient. At the end of the day, the company really had no interest in whether or not it was seen as behaving reasonably.

Ineos was not concerned about its image. It was a company which would (and did) carry on regardless, unless forced to back down by a sufficiently powerful countervailing pressure. And that level of pressure was never brought to bear on them.

“Exposing” Ratcliffe as someone who was callous enough to close down Grangemouth also only made sense if there was a strategy for what to do if or when Ratcliffe made such an announcement. But there was no sign that Unite had such a strategy.

Unions abroad with members in Ineos were contacted by Unite and put their names to a statement condemning Ineos’ behaviour in Grangemouth. But was it feasible to call on them 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 there is nothing to suggest 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.

And although Scottish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont vaguely referred in a television interview to the possible need to nationalise Grangemouth, there was certainly no campaigning by Unite for nationalisation.

The Unite statement issued last Thursday in which it announced acceptance of Ineos’ demands made no reference to nationalisation (although it would have been late in the day to have raised such a demand anyway) but concluded with the words:

“The decision as to whether or not the plant stays open remains with Ineos. If the Scottish government along with the UK government has to find another owner, they have the union’s support.”

(This was not the first time that Unite portrayed the situation as one in which it was little more than a bystander. According to a statement issued after Ineos’ announcement of closure: “The ball is now in the court of Jim Ratcliffe and the respective governments in Edinburgh and Westminster and we await their responses.”)

Nationalisation would not have been a difficult argument to raise. In 2008 billions of pounds was spent bailing out the banks. In the case of Grangemouth, nationalisation could have been carried out for nothing: Ineos had written down the site’s value to zero.

And the SNP government simply could not afford to let Grangemouth close.

The SNP’s case for independence rests on the creation of an oil fund. To have an oil fund you need oil. But if Grangemouth had closed, the oil would need to be pumped ashore and refined in England, then re-exported to Scotland – hardly an assertion of Scottish national sovereignty.

Was occupation of the plant ever feasible? If it was, then only if the groundwork for it had been laid before Ineos announced closure of the plant, including coupling any strategy involving occupation with a campaign for nationalisation and with building support from the broader trade union movement in Scotland and internationally.

These are some of the questions which need to be discussed in the aftermath of last week’s events. They might not be pleasant questions to ask, and the answers might be even less pleasant than the questions.

Not discussing such issues, however, would open the door to more Grangemouths in the future.

But drawing lessons from Unite’s defeat in Grangemouth must go hand-in-hand with attempting to minimise the consequences of that defeat for Unite and the broader trade union movement.

Unite at a Scottish level should publish and send to every member in Scotland a brochure setting out what really happened in Grangemouth and countering the media narrative.

It should produce a leaflet along the same lines for mass distribution, using its network of Area Activist Committees to organise distribution at a local level, and it should offer a speaker to every Trades Council in Scotland to help spread the campaign.

It should denounce Ineos for passing on e-mails from the convenor’s e-mail account used by Stevie Deans to the police and the Sunday Times. Stevie has now resigned – hardly surprisingly when the verdict on his yet-to-be-heard disciplinary hearing had already been publicised in the Sunday papers.

Unite needs to produce and circulate a blow-by-blow rebuttal of the false allegations of vote-rigging which have now made a reappearance in the media.

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

There can be no pretending that last week’s defeat was anything other than a defeat. The task now is to learn the lessons from it and to minimise its impact.

1 Comment

  1. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    It’s pointless denouncing Ineos for treating 1,000 personal e-mails to Labour and union members left on what was evidently one of their computers and on their network as a treasure trove of dirt to be exploited – that’s just what capitalists and their running dog lackeys do in what is after all a class war.

    Shouldn’t the senior official of our biggest union at one of the few remaining large industrial plants left in the UK have been provided with a union e-mail account, a laptop, a dongle and a lecture on how computers work?

    I despair of our movement and its evident inability to understand the first thing about modern technology even when they spend half the fucking day using it….

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