November 2013        

A serious defeat for workers and their union

The outcome of an industrial dispute in Scotland at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, which resulted in a resounding defeat for the workers and their union, was one of the bigger setbacks for organised labour in the United Kingdom since the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s.
     The Ineos plant is one of Scotland’s largest industrial complexes, directly employing more than 1,370 full-time workers and about 2,000 contractors and supporting hundreds of local businesses.
     The dispute ostensibly began with an investigation into the conduct of the plant’s union convenor, Stephen Deans, with the firm alleging that he made “inappropriate use of company resources and systems”—using company time and equipment for union-backed political work. Deans is chairperson of Unite in Scotland and at the time was chairperson of the Falkirk West Labour Party. He came to national prominence earlier this year as a result of allegations that he had improperly used union influence in order to manipulate the selection of a parliamentary candidate.
     The leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband, ordered an inquiry, and, surprisingly (or maybe not?), so did Ineos, and hence the charge of unauthorised use of company time and resources.
     As Dean’s workmates rallied to his defence, the company raised the stakes and demanded an end to workers’ final salary pensions, job cuts, a wage freeze, and harsher redundancy terms. When the union sought conciliation talks at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service the company abruptly broke off the engagement. Finding itself boxed into a corner, Unite balloted for a strike and won approval for industrial action from its members.
     At that point Ineos’s billionaire owner and tax exile, Jim Ratcliffe, announced that he would close the plant. On hearing the news, the general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, spoke bluntly, saying, “This is a savage blow to the Grangemouth work force and the wider Scottish economy. This is irresponsible capitalism at its worst . . .”
     Faced with the prospect of such a catastrophic loss of employment, the workers prevailed upon their union to capitulate and accept the brutal ultimatum delivered by the company. Some of the more irresponsible among the ultra-left called for a workers’ occupation and invoked the memory of Jimmy Reid and the 1971 Clydeside occupation. In reality there was little or no prospect of such action, since neither the Scottish government nor the British Parliament in London had any intention of providing the only possible alternative: nationalisation.
     Moreover, with Scotland suffering widespread unemployment, the Grangemouth work force was not prepared for a prolonged sit-in offering little prospect of success. As Pat Rafferty, Unite organiser in Scotland, said, “decent men and women are being asked to make sacrifices to hold on to their jobs, but the clear wish of our members is that we work with the company to implement its proposals.”
     Not content with humiliating the union and his work force, Jim Ratcliffe added insult by publicly advising the British government to reform its labour relations, saying, “You’d never have a situation like this in Germany.” A few hours later he flew out of Britain and boarded his £130 million luxury yacht in the south of France, where he relaxed on the 255-foot vessel while a crew of twenty-three attended him and his associates.
     Needless to say, the usual reactionary mouthpieces gloated over the workers’ dismay, with the Economist, Telegraph and Sunday Times, among others, lauding Ratcliffe’s stance. Joining in this chorus, and not unexpectedly from a former banker, Alex Salmond, first minister in the Scottish Parliament, said of the union’s defeat and the company’s triumph: “This is a day of great satisfaction that not only has a key part of Scotland’s industrial infrastructure been saved but that people can look forward with confidence to a bright future.”
     Less understandable and even less acceptable was the response from elements within the British Labour Party. Whatever misdemeanour Stephen Deans may have committed (and still unproved), it pales into insignificance beside the threat to deprive hundreds of workers of their livelihood and to undermine the economic viability of an entire region.
     In the face of a feudal-like exercise of power employed by the owners of Ineos, the Labour Party’s one-time home secretary and foreign secretary, Jack Straw, attacked Unite and its general secretary. While being interviewed by Jo Coburn on BBC2’s “Daily Politics,” he said: “My analysis is that Len McCluskey put internal union Unite politics before the interests of their members at [the] Grangemouth plant.”
     Not allowing himself to be drawn into an ugly and distracting side argument, the Unite leader, writing in the Guardian (28 October 2013), pointed to the stark reality of the situation when he wrote: “. . . there are far larger issues raised even than the future of one plant. Because what has happened at Grangemouth shines a vivid light on the nature of power in our society today. The central message is clear—the rights of private ownership are unchallengeable, even in a vital economic sector like energy, and the ability of the capitalist to hold work force and community to ransom is undiluted . . .”
     Yet in all this there is a deeper lesson and one that applies to the Republic of Ireland and beyond as well as to Britain. In Len McCluskey’s conclusion to the article quoted above he wrote of the power inequality that was on brutal display by Ineos at Grangemouth and then cautioned that “Labour politicians above all need to pay attention.”
     The appeal for Labour’s politicians to pay attention is understandable. No other political party appears to have the potential to contain powerful transnational companies, and the aftermath of a defeat is no time to gratuitously alienate possible allies. Yet this long-held view that a trade union movement working closely with a centrist social-democratic party is adequately equipped to defend workers’ rights against contemporary capitalism is no longer tenable.
     Nor, on the other hand, is it realistic to believe that a countervailing force to neo-liberal vandalism can be developed without the input of mainstream organised labour organisations and the wider working class.
     Therein lies the great dilemma. Capitalism at its most rapacious is crushing down relentlessly on what was until recently the best-organised elements of the world’s workers; and an answer to the assault has yet to emerge. What can be said is that old structures are no longer working, as social democracy has been brushed aside by the Jim Ratcliffes of the world.
     There is surely an onus on leaders of organised labour to recognise this fact, stop pinning their hopes on helpless social-democratic parties, and initiate the widest possible debate on how we might organise new methods and models of struggle. No matter how reluctant they are to change, it’s time to look for a more effective strategy.

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