Review: The Battle of Grangemouth: A Worker’s Story

In late October 2013, workers at the Ineos twin plant at Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, suffered an epic defeat, which in terms of the sacking of site stewards, the scrapping of the pension scheme and the imposition of a three year pay freeze and strike ban, represented one of the worst assaults on one of the best organised industrial sectors in the UK. The impact of this defeat was felt across the trade union movement and was regarded by many as the inevitable culmination of corporate power’s control over organised labour. Considering the magnitude of these events, an accurate account from the point of view of the workforce was long overdue.

However, the eventual offering The Battle of Grangemouth, written by former site convenor Mark Lyon and published by Unite the Union, is little more than an apology for the failed industrial partnership model so favoured by union bureaucrats as a substitute for fighting. Here, Brian Parkin, a member of the National Construction Rank and File executive, reviews (in a personal capacity) the book, arguing that it not only fails to explain what went wrong, but also ducks the question of how a site shop stewards organisation with an overwhelming mandate for industrial action was so immobilised by compromise and confusion that it delivered such a huge defeat.

Grangemouth contractors strike 2012. Image: Stewart Hume, Scottish Construction R&F

History and bunk

Histories of workers’ struggles should be written to serve two purposes. Firstly, to inspire those who follow in the lessons of organisation and resistance, and secondly, to lay bare the errors and miscalculations that all too often result in defeat. Although some licence regarding the more climactic events is to be expected, the real value of an account should always be measured by its honesty.

This is even more true when the events described are of such epic or seminal proportion as to serve as important lessons for future battles. And when an historical account is actually written from the viewpoint of an activist engaged in struggle, we can usually expect a clear and candid version of events. In recent times this has been the case, with strikes such as those of the British miners in 1984-85 or the Chicago teachers of 2013 revealing no shortage of writers from the ranks of the strikers and their communities.

Yet even recent struggles can fall victim to creative accountancy, as is now sadly demonstrated in The Battle of Grangemouth: A Worker’s Story. Written by Unite Grangemouth union convenor, Mark Lyon, this book purports to explain the events leading up to the catastrophic defeat of the union at the Ineos petrochemical and refinery site near Falkirk on the Firth of Forth in December 2013.

First learn to crawl

The Battle of Grangemouth is a disappointing book. By deploying every conceivable superlative, hyperbole and florid adjective, a folksy tale of decent working folk against corporate tyranny is told in an anecdotal style, more likely to confuse and mislead than enlighten. And in order to convince the reader, the villain – Ineos – is preceded by ‘devious’, ‘greedy’, ‘dishonourable’, ‘disgraceful’, ‘appalling’ and for good measure, ‘brilliant’, ‘magnificent’, ‘heroic’, ‘courageous’ and ‘honourable’ are used to herald in the good guys.

This pantomime casting, although amusing, is used to stress the exceptionally devious and profit-driven Ineos and the sociopathic nature of its CEO, Jim Ratcliffe, who, Svengali-like, casts a spell over an otherwise decent site management in order to get them to do the company’s bidding.

The exceptionalism applied to Ineos in general and Ratcliffe in particular is naively framed in such a way as to make all other employers appear as paragons of honesty and best practice. For instance, at the very beginning, the former Grangemouth owner, British Petroleum (BP), is cast in the role of a paternalistic and ‘responsible’ employer who presided over a golden age of a “worker’s paradise” (the title of chapter one) in which a “Socialist Republic of Grangemouth” (p. 11) enjoyed the corporate comforts of company-provided houses with tended gardens and a bowling green.

Trouble in paradise, however, apparently came in 1987 with the final stage of the privatisation of BP, by which time, most of the original heavenly benefits had all but ceased. With privatisation came the de-recognition of the unions (then the TGWU and GM&BU) obtained by the company conducting its own postal ballot in which workers by 61% accepted a lump sum offer in exchange for their collective bargaining rights. A device denounced as “underhand” by Lyons, who in the same breath fails to explain why the site unions failed to counter the bosses’ ballot. But at least Lyons is frank about the uphill task of winning back recognition, which he in part was responsible for by fighting to retain the plant safety committee (p. 27).

Lyon seems not to understand that, by 1987, the Tories had used state-owned industrial corporations, most notably British Steel in 1981 and British Coal in 1984-85, as blunt instruments to smash union resistance as well as down-scale and privatise the primary sectors of UK industry. That BP were acting in exactly the same way seems to surprise and exasperate Lyon, who  mourns the passing of corporate paternalism.

Learning to fight (reluctantly)

Somewhat later and in an attempt to get pay rates re-jigged and new shift patterns established, BP reinstated union recognition and, by way of reward, Mark Lyon and his deputy Stevie Deans ‘found’ themselves in ‘full-time status’, about which Lyon says, “something was lost by not being on shift and on the factory floor every day, but the practicalities and volume of work made this pretty much impossible” (p. 36).

But whatever reservations Lyon and Deans may have had about their estranged full-time ‘status’, it is a situation which comes in handy when deals can be struck and heat taken out of situations where conflict might otherwise spoil relations with managers, or horror,  negatively impact on the company’s fortunes.

It is this refrain throughout the book of the profitability of the company being synonymous with the interests of workers jobs – at any price – that reveals to extent to which the union site leadership at Grangemouth became ensnared in a partnership trap.

In November 2004, BP announced its decision to end its operations at Grangemouth, and pending an alternative operator, the site management in conjunction with the unions and the Health and Safety Executive drew up plans by which all of the processes on the plants could be placed on ‘hot standby’ in order for production to be closed down without incurring irreparable damage.

Although the reputation of Grangemouth’s bidder in the form of Ineos was well known, what is less well known is the extent to which the company both incorporated and used the union organisation on the site to pursue its corporate aims. Indeed Lyon explains on page 46 how he who showed Ineos director Tom Crotty around the site on the day the sale was announced. And then (p. 47) how at a meeting with Ratcliffe himself, Lyon, “told him we welcomed the sale, and asked that we would have a seat at the table so we could work well together”.

Eventually even this obsequious style of negotiation soured, as Ineos, in seeking to enhance its corporate liquidity, decided to end the final salary pension scheme. This episode is covered in agonising and hand-wringing detail (pp. 52-60) where Lyons, having strangely titled the one chapter which covers the only union victory at Grangemouth as ‘Annus Horribilis’, describes his mounting horror that the union might have to take action on the near unanimous ballot to strike over the pension rip-off.

It is on page 58 that Lyon, in expressing his distaste for strike action, also reveals the capability of the workforce themselves in keeping the Grangemouth plant in a safe ‘hot standby’ condition in the event of a prolonged strike: “During the strike which regrettably, did eventually go ahead – the factory did reduce to the safe condition of hot standby over an appropriate period of time, and was maintained and monitored by the experts – our members – throughout” (p. 58). This is a point to which I will return in conclusion.

Blow back

The 2008 strike and the success in defending the pension scheme is put down by Mark Lyon as a humiliating grudge that drives Ratcliffe – and Ratcliffe alone – to prosecute the all-out offensive in the autumn of 2013. But in the meantime, there is one major event at Grangemouth that did have positive and lasting outcomes: the determined and militant strike action by Balfour Beatty contracting electricians in late 2011- January 2013 at Grangemouth that threatened the entire closure of both plants, and completely halted and reversed the BESNA pay cut offensive across the UK construction industry.

By the standards of over 35 years of retreat, this was a massive victory – particularly as the whole dispute was run throughout by a democratic rank and file organisation in full defiance of the Unite official leadership. Since such an action would have impacted on the corporate interests that Lyon was so keen to protect, this event doesn’t merit a mention. In fact, Lyon rarely if ever mentions the site contract workers despite the fact that by 2010 they constituted over 60% of the Grangemouth workforce and were by far the most industrially active members.

In his account of the 2008 pension dispute, Lyon reveals his dual character: on the one hand he is the innocent abroad, duped and confounded by corporate duplicity, whilst on the other he is a shrewd and well-read strategist who, in pondering the bitter fruits of victory, reflects on his longstanding acquaintance with the Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu: “It makes sense to leave the battlefield with the enemy rather than be triumphant and create negative energy for the future”. He writes: “This is why we wanted to compromise and let the company withdraw with dignity. Any other approach sets the course for future conflict.” (p. 60)

Hence his concluding comment on page 225 on the 2008 strike in which “some 97 per cent of Unite’s members voted for a strike, which lasted 48 hours… We won a decisive victory, but the episode was no cause for celebration”.

Embedded compromise

Referring to the full-time duties ‘required’ of them by BP, Lyon and Deans quickly took on the task of melding the interests of the company with those of the workforce. Lyon seems from the start to regard this arrangement as a ‘symbiosis’, a co-existence in nature in which a parasite, firmly embedded in the host’s metabolic system, enjoys a charmed existence, which seems to have been the set-up at Grangemouth, until the Ineos host, finally tired of the no-longer necessary co-existence deal.

But this was not before Lyon and Deans had firstly demonstrated their commitment to Ineos’s success by ensuring pay restraint from day one as well as the ‘necessary’ loss of 700 directly employed jobs, a challenge that required the Grangemouth union to realise “that we faced challenges never before faced with great flexibility, pragmatism and integrity” (p. 40). These qualities were to hold them in good stead when they “were up to our necks (in political lobbying on behalf of Ineos) and to some extent in cahoots with the company. This is because our role as union leaders was to do everything to ensure their wellbeing and preserve their jobs, which often meant supporting management… to promote the company whether or not we privately agreed with what they were doing” (p. 70).

This distasteful work included lobbying MPs and SMPs for cash grants and tax breaks intended to save Ineos from making capital investments, included in one case, even lobbying Holyrood and Westminster for dispensations from EU environmental legislation on SO2 and NOx emissions from the burning of cheaper low grade fuel in un-modified combustion plant (p. 72). “To cut a long story short, political activity (lobbying) for Stevie Deans and me was not some tolerated add-on to our site work, and nor was it an incidental by-product of our duties. No. It was a 100% integral part of our role, and was not only known about and approved by the company: it was actively encouraged” (p. 73).

“Time off would not be a problem. This was a good thing for the company and management would support us… We worked hand in hand with all levels of Ineos management on many political issues, with the blessing and encouragement of the company” (p. 73).

Another otherwise ‘distasteful’ role the stewards rose to was selling unannounced and arbitrary shift and shut-down news to the workforce: “The thing that Gordon (plant manager) and the management team most feared was meeting with the angry workers, and so they asked us to do that for them. It is quite incredible they were incapable of dealing with this, but we were more than willing to meet with the honourable people working on the overhaul. Predictably, progress was then made and the necessary improvements implemented.” (p. 82)

This subordinate partnership role is a constant refrain of Lyon’s account, with numerous examples of how he and Deans saved Ineos from its own corporate managerial ineptitude, and an account in which he almost implausibly comes round to discovering that the Grangemouth management are really on the side of the company!

Hell and good intentions

It is the dispute of 2013, of course, which is centre stage in this Battle of Grangemouth story. But the story itself is clouded with the entangled relations between the Falkirk Labour Party, Unite, the Grangemouth Unite branch, and the Labour Party leadership. It is a set of relations in which Jim Ratcliffe, finally tiring of his site union partnership, finds ample opportunities in ensnaring Ed Miliband with the local police for the purpose of a bogus criminal investigation. Although it is undeniable that the Falkirk LP candidate selection dispute did play a role in setting the scene of confusion and the opportunity for the press to hound the Grangemouth Unite branch, it was hardly the stuff that so fatally tests strong workplace organisation.

That Ineos used the confusion around the dispute to attack Unite at the plant is in no doubt. But what is in doubt is the fighting capacity of the leading site stewards to rise to the challenge. In brief, Ineos used the accusations of the ‘abuse’ of hitherto unlimited steward’s facility time as a pretext of redressing the final salary pension issue whilst also forcing through other changes it claimed to be essential in keeping the Grangemouth plants open. And in his account of this episode, Lyon seems more affronted at the loss of facility time and partnership status than the outright assault on working conditions.

Yet there is resistance: “Employees were asked to sign up to the plan prior to any consultation and the vast majority of our members refused to do so” (p. 227). This mandate coincides with the effective sacking of Stevie Deans, which also saw a turn to what is called ‘leverage’ actions – actions short of an actual strike, but intended to harass, name and shame employers involved in outrageous actions.

But on this, Lyon is at pains to stress the respectable nature of such actions against Ineos bosses: “Much was made of these orderly and silent protests, and a concerted effort by the company to portray them as a mob of baying maniacs threatening the homes and family of poor managers… Nothing could be further from the truth… The well natured and passive demonstrations were conducted in the broad vicinity of the homes… conducted in total silence… never took place in direct sight of the homes… Participants even refrained from smoking in a mark of respect of the residential nature of the sites” (p. 152).

So having failed with the powers of pleading and invisible protest, the stage was set for Lyon to play his ace card: despair.

Tragedy: final act

To be fair, the Ineos Unite organisation in keeping the original BP pension scheme intact for some nine years when radical changes in pension actuarial law had seen similar schemes degraded and looted is no mean feat. And credit therefore is due. But in renewing its attack on the pension scheme – as well as working conditions in general – Ineos and more particularly Jim Ratcliffe were doing no more than any other big company in the current climate of corporate free-for-all. They were expanding their assets portfolio and cutting their overheads. And for this they had no need of a partnership.

The crisis at Grangemouth came to a head in October 2013 when Ineos announced their intention to close the plants. Representing the loss of over 2000 jobs and some 10% of Scotland’s GDP, this was a threat which Unite could not ignore. However, Lyon himself states emphatically that he never thought Ineos were serious about its threat to close Grangemouth, yet after the ultimatum following an overwhelming strike vote he concludes, “We simply had to give the company all it wanted at this stage, in order to be sure of keeping the plants open” (p. 166). And this, despite assurances that the plants emergency cover and hot standby procedures “were identical to that in 2008: we had volunteered to provide cover in the event of a strike and we had repeatedly stated that commitment”.

Yet this prospect as a tactic is rejected a few pages later when Lyon states, “There was also some suggestion at the meeting that we should occupy the factory and prepare for siege conditions as they did during the Upper Clyde Ship-builders in 1971-72. This was never seriously considered, friends. This is a site with chemical substances that are toxic, corrosive, explosive and highly flammable. The site operates under very strict conditions laid down in law – and rightly so.” (p. 167)

So the prospect of an occupation to save the plant and its jobs and dependent communities – and against a deeply unpopular employer – as well as the real prospect of generating a potentially explosive mood of solidarity, was lost. Instead, on 24th October Unite rejected the mandate for strike action and accepted in full Ineos’ terms of a diluted pension scheme, a three-year wage freeze and a three-year no-strike guarantee. In short, the company got everything, and more than it demanded, and without a single day of lost production and by deploying a plant closure threat that the site stewards knew to be a bluff. Some ‘battle’.

And in the end…

The publication of this book and its coincidence with the election campaign for the post of General Secretary of Unite has clearly been an attempt to give the union’s commitment to a partnership strategy a tint of militant industrial justification. It is an attempt to present an abject defeat not as a defeat of partnership itself, but rather an example of how partnership only fails when unreasonable and greedy companies fail to honour the deal.

In a quite remarkable attempt to commend this book as a handbook for activists, some highly creative comments have been added not least by Howard Beckett, Unite Director of Legal Services, who hails the Battle of Grangemouth as “a victory for our members at Grangemouth; a victory for Stevie (and) Mark; a victory for the true Labour Party; and a victory for our movement”. Notwithstanding that Deans and Lyon were forced out of the plant (albeit into the full-time trade union bureaucracy), that Ineos still runs Grangemouth very much as it likes and that the ‘true’ Labour Party in Scotland is now all but decimated.

An early sign of Ineos’s new grip on the workforce came in November 2013 when the refinery plant’s tanker drivers went on strike without even an attempt by Unite to raise solidarity action from the plant workers, and then more recently in September 2016 when Ineos management attempted to buy-off the tea-breaks agreement, with the union holding a ballot without comment or recommendation on the company’s terms.

Fortunately the Scottish Construction Rank and File intervened, urging the Grangemouth workers to reject an ‘offer’ that would have detrimental effects on a national agreement applying to other refinery and chemical sites in the UK. And for their pains, the Rank and File were condemned by the Unite leadership.

And finally…

The Battle of Grangemouth draws no real lessons from the events leading up to the abject defeat of October 2013. Instead we are offered a highly confused and often contradictory apologia for a partnership that in the end served nobody, with the workers offered up as an unnecessary sacrifice to a company emboldened by an ever compliant, flexible and ultimately servile site union leadership.

However, and despite anti-partnership motions from activists carried at the 2016 Unite policy conference, the industrial strategy of the union remains one of seeking partnerships with employers, despite a context in which both government de-regulatory policy and anti-trade union legislation combine to make employers ever more rapacious and less accountable.

The defeat of Grangemouth can teach workers some invaluable lessons, not least that an ideal position from which to be kicked in the teeth is when you are on your knees. Time to rise.

 

The Battle of Grangemouth: A Worker’s Story, published by Lawrence and Wishart in conjunction with Unite the union, March 2017.

There is one comment

  1. Mick Hawker

    I have been wrestling with who to vote for in the Unite leadership contest, Ian Allinson or Len McCluskey, after reading this article I find the choice much simplified. I can vote for the business as usual left talking bureaucrat McClusky, under whom I have had my wages and pension substatialy cut by the goverment with next to no resistance offered by Unite (I work for the NHS). Or I can vote for a solid rank & file activist who at least is prepared to fight, Ian Allinson it is then.

    Like

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