On 25 October, the owners of Grangemouth oil refinery, petrochemical multi-national Ineos, defeated Unite in a deal that forced its workforce to agree to a three-year pay freeze, closure of their final salary pension scheme, and a three-year no-strike clause. Following threats to close the plant, Unite caved in without a fight.
Grangemouth represents eight per cent of manufacturing industry in Scotland. Ineos supplies 70 per cent of fuel used in Scottish petrol stations, as well as supplies to northern Ireland and the north of England.
Ineos have recently negotiated a £9 million grant from the Scottish government and a £125 million loan guarantee from the UK government (plus a subsidy from BP) to help pay for the £300 million gas plant it plans to build.
Workers were ready to fight back…
In 2008, Ineos attempted to break the final salary scheme but were pushed back by a short strike that closed off the steam supplies to the pipeline that delivers oil from the North Sea, and the Forties oil field. All of which pushed oil prices to a record high.
In 2013, Ineos attacked again, suspending one of Unite’s two convenors at the plant, Stephen Deans, for allegedly using company facilities for union and Labour Party business.
“A ballot for an overtime ban, work-to-rule and two-day strike produced a Yes vote. The strike was due to commence on 20 October. Ineos’ response was to pre-empt the strike and closed the plant on 14 October, laying off over the next two weeks 2,000 contractors and threatening the livelihood of 1,370 employees”. Jerry Hicks, Unite Fight Back.
… But not the leadership
Encouraged by the Unite leadership’s lack of fight, Ineos issued an ultimatum that the plant would remain closed, locking the workforce out until they agreed to cuts in pay and rights.
Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty immediately conceded on the workers’ right to strike, “Unite [is] committed to conducting no industrial action ballots or industrial action before 31 December 2013.”
Unite also promised to maintain steam supplies to the North Sea oil terminal and retain the plant at “hot standby” mode to ensure a quick resumption of production. Their only demand was that Ineos engage in talks through ACAS! However, Ineos responded with a threat to sack 800 workers and re-employ them on worse terms unless a Unite ballot of its Grangemouth membership ratified their deal.
Of course the media and politicians, from nationalist Alex Salmond to David Cameron, urged workers to climb down. But workers and their shop stewards, who campaigned for a No vote, refused to be blackmailed. On 21 October, the plan was rejected by 665 workers, representing half the workforce and nearly two-thirds of those effected.
After a shareholders’ meeting the next day, Ineos retaliated threatening the permanent closure of the plant from 23 October.
Unite immediately caved in. McCluskey, a central union leader in Britain and considered a “spokesperson” of trade unionists in the Labour Party, had done nothing to create a national movement to fight the attacks. Knowing that Grangemouth workers had been fighting for four months, he could have called on the working class to unite and fight for Grangemouth at the TUC congress, at the Labour Conference, at the People’s Assembly or the many other platforms he has addressed. But he never have.
He did not call for solidarity for the workers of Grangemouth. He visited the site “to give his solidarity and support”, without mobilising a single sector of workers. He kept the struggle isolated and then opted to retreat without fighting, when he could have called for an occupation or a national day of strike. He let the workers down.
Don’t blame the workers!
The Grangemouth workers fought as best they could but their leaders failed them. The workers did not retreat but faced a dead end because their leadership told them that they would lose their jobs.
Now in Unite, as in other unions, rank and file combative and democratic organisations have to be built. It is essential to build an opposition and fight these leaders who refuse to fight the bosses and concede workers’ rights.
A political campaign is needed, to demand the nationalisation of Grangemouth, and, to seek the support of the millions of workers who agree with renationalising the energy companies, the Post Office and the rail services. The current cost of fuel bills is hurting the majority of the working class. Given Grangemouth’s importance in the energy industry this campaign can undermine Ineos and its obedient government, and can win.