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After Grangemouth defeat – stop the rout

 

By Jeremy Dewar

Unite – the biggest union in Britain with 1.3 million members – has accepted the most humiliating terms of surrender to Ineos, owners of the Grangemouth refinery and petrochemicals plant. Ineos workers’ pay will be frozen until 2017 – in effect this means three years of falling real wages. There will be a three-year no-strike deal. The final salary pension scheme will be scrapped. And union conveners will lose facility time.

This defeat is the very worst sort of defeat – a defeat without a fight, giving a green light to every aggressive boss in Britain. If an exceptionally skilled workforce like that at Grangemouth, a union like Unite with 1.3 million members and a left-talking general secretary, Len McCluskey, can brought to their knees so easily, then managers everywhere will be tempted to do the same.

 

How Ineos blackmailed its workers

Ineos’ offensive began in July when it suspended one of Unite’s two conveners at the plant, Stevie Deans, on a charge of using company facilities for union and Labour Party business. The union balloted for an overtime ban, work-to-rule and two-day strike. They got a Yes vote.

The strike was due to commence on 20 October. Ineos’ response was to close the plant on the 14th, laying off over the next two weeks 2,000 contractors and threatening the livelihood of 1,370 employees, plus the 10,000 people in the locality who depend on the plant for their living.

Encouraged by the Unite leadership’s unpreparedness and lack of guts, Ineos issued an ultimatum: accept a three-year pay freeze, the closing of their final salary pensions scheme (which had survived only due to a successful strike back in 2008) and agree to a three-month no-strike clause. Until Unite and the workforce signed away their pay, terms and rights, the plant would remain closed.

Meanwhile Ineos claimed to be losing £10 million a month at the plant, though a Unite accountant showed that this was deceitful and that, discounting costs of investment (as is the usual accounting practice), it in fact made £6 million and £7 million profit in the last two years.

On top of that, Ineos 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 now wants the workers to pay for. Hardly the actions of a company contemplating closure. The union should simply have said: “We don’t believe you – open the books to the workers’ inspection.”

Despite all this, plus the chorus from the media and politicians, from nationalist Alex Salmond to Tory David Cameron, demanding a climbdown, the workers and their shop stewards bravely campaigned for a No vote. Indeed over half the workforce and nearly two-thirds of those affected – 665 workers – rejected the plan on Monday 21 October.

Ineos retaliated by announcing the permanent closure of the plant two days later.

What followed was an utter disgrace to trade unionism and a betrayal of the workforce. “Socialist” general secretary and darling of most of the left, Len McCluskey, accepted all of Ineos’ demands and “embraced” a deal that extended the strike ban from three months to three years.

 

Rank and file alternative

Jerry Hicks, who gained 36 per cent of the vote against Len McCluskey in the Unite general secretary election earlier this year, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying, this was “botched from the very beginning” and “ended in surrender”. He is absolutely right.

Unite should have called for the immediate occupation of the plant as soon as the lock out was threatened in mid-October. When its members were called on to close down the refinery, with the union’s backing they could have refused and the workforce could have seized control of the equipment and the plant.

Flying pickets and solidarity action around Britain’s other refineries would soon have had an effect in the petrol stations across the country. From this position of strength – reinforced by the coming referendum on independence – Unite should have demanded that the British and Scottish governments nationalise Grangemouth, and that the Labour Party and the TUC support the workers.

Workers could have demanded that no compensation be paid to a parasite like Ratcliffe, one of the 10 richest people in the UK, whose company HQ moved to Switzerland to avoid tax.

In return for all the millions that Unite donates to Labour, this was the opportunity to call on Ed Miliband to back the nationalisation of Grangemouth.

 

Stopping the rout

A number of people on the left – particularly from the Morning Star and Counterfire stables – have argued that noting else could be done; the workforce was not “straining at the leash for action”. Bankrupt leaders and their journalistic and academic apologists always resort to blaming the membership.

Others, like Richard Seymour in The Guardian, provide another alibi – the power of neoliberal ideological hegemony. Such clever-clever stuff can be debated by those who have nothing better to do. Militants in the workplaces faced with a confident boss class on the offensive will have to look for practical solutions not defeatist consolation.

The only way we can stop the rout in Unite (and other unions whose leaders are presently panicking) is to build a rank and file movement capable of wresting control of the union from its present leaders.

Starting in every workplace, including Grangemouth, this means a campaign to rebuild shopfloor organisation and militancy, with the goal taking unofficial action whenever the officials prevaricate or sell out, as well as defying the anti-union laws whenever they block effective and democratically agreed action.

It also means fighting for democracy in the union: replacing the union’s army of unelected and unaccountable full-timers with elected lay officers and officials, the latter paid the average wage of the members they represent.

This is the urgent task of Unite Grassroots Rank & File, the militant organisation set up in the wake of Hicks’ campaign.

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