Grangemouth: chronicle of a defeat foretold

In the autumn of 2013 workers at the Ineos Grangemouth plants sustained a humiliating and unnecessary defeat. We recently published a review of a book which recounts the official union version of these events, The Battle of Grangemouth: A Workers Story, by former plant convenor Mark Lyon. Since the review was published Ineos, owners of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, have returned to the field of battle by de-recognising the union and scrapping all collective bargaining rights. In this article Brian Parkin, a member of the National Construction Rank and File executive (personal capacity), finds that Unite have learned little since October 2013. He concludes that the union machine has once more been reduced to crying foul and continues to pursue a fatally discredited partnership model of industrial peace and ‘responsible’ trade unionism.

Image: Pete Cannell

Proverbs

The Bible, whilst providing an unreliable explanation of creation, can be a rich source of words of wisdom and reflection. Unite the Union’s response to the resumption of ‘business as usual’ at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant in Stirlingshire, Scotland, provides us with an opportunity to mine the aphorisms of the ‘good book’.

Three and a half years on from an ignominious defeat for Unite – a defeat which saw site union reps sacked, the final year pension scheme scrapped, bonus payments cut by between 15-30%, the acceptance of a three year wage freeze and a three year ban on strike activity – the union has been effectively banned.

When the enforced three year moratorium on strike activity ended, the union sought to resume wage negotiations in preparation for the 2017-18 financial year. The 3.25% wage claim it lodged needs to be regarded in the light of the loss of at least 6.25% in real wages workers have suffered since 2013. The claim was rejected by Ineos, who replied with a highly conditional two-tier 2.8% offer. This offer was in turn rejected outright by the workforce. So on April 4th, Ineos unilaterally broke off negotiations and three days later withdrew all union negotiating and recognition rights at Grangemouth.

Unite’s official bluster machine immediately responded with an indignant outpouring of partner-speak, denouncing Ineos in the strongest terms of being ‘reckless’ and ‘irresponsible’ before the killer appeal for ‘a reasonable balance and fairness in the workplace’ (Pat Rafferty, Unite press release April 7th 2017). In other words, a return to a partnership arrangement that got the workers into this mess in the first place. Seeking solace in the Bible we might linger on Proverbs, 26:11:

“As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”

On a roll…

Prior to the tragic events of October 2013 the Grangemouth site union reps had prided themselves on their role as advocates for their employer in order to win the firm a wide range of loans, tax credits, subsidies and environmental dispensations. Yet on the surface, with a high union density of both direct labour and contractors, enhanced by the demonstrated ability of the site union to hang on to the British Petroleum (BP) final salary pension scheme that was carried over to Ineos, the reputation of Unite at Grangemouth was one of misplaced militancy.

This impression, however, seems to have rattled partnership advocate Mark Lyon, who states, “Once again our union had acted with moderation and good sense, and the deal was completed with a liberal measure of goodwill and cooperation from us” (The Battle of Grangemouth: A Workers Story, p. 88). He continues, “One of our senior Unite officers said to me as an intended compliment that ours was an old fashioned combative branch… that this was why the company took the discriminatory and outrageous actions they did – because they could not control us”. And further, “Ineos… worked hard to portray us as a militant, inflexible branch… but this was not the story at all… Our branch was the most democratic and pragmatic body you could imagine. I believe that when history judges us it will not be our union which will be found to be inflexible and aggressive”.

The whole reason – assuming there was one – for this ‘pragmatism’ seems to be as a means to inducing the employer to accept a set of civilised and house-trained industrial relations policies. This is complemented in the realm of politics by committing to a broad left strategy which seeks to persuade the leadership of the Labour Party to at least consider future economic policies and a legislative framework conducive to industrial partnership.

But as we know the partnership at Grangemouth simply whetted the appetite of an employer determined to exploit the union – or ‘social partner’ – for its ability to lobby, plead and cajole in the company’s interests. And what Mark Lyon and Stevie Deans were able to achieve on behalf on Ineos was no mean feat: thanks to their efforts Ineos’ standing, in terms of both credit-worthiness and good character, with the governments in Holyrood and Westminster continues to improve.

This employer-union partnership has resulted in a government credit loan for the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal and a ‘proven’ asset value of Ineos to the Scottish economy. Even after the 2013 debacle, when Mark Lyon and his services were no longer required, at the June 2014 Unite policy conference the former Grangemouth convenor moved an Executive pro-fracking motion – happily defeated by a clear vote of lay delegates – that sought to soften Unite’s position on the grounds that ‘it might prove good for jobs’. This was with the full knowledge that the biggest fracking bidder in Scotland was, and remains, Ineos.

… and still rolling

Unite sought to justify the surrender at Grangemouth in 2013 on the basis of the threat by Ineos to close and abandon the plant unless their demands were met. Despite later claims by Mark Lyon that the Unite organisation did not believe the company would carry through their threat the company, without a supine partner, has gone from strength to strength.

In December 2013 Ineos confirmed receipt of a £230m UK government loan guarantee for a LNG offloading jetty and storage facility. This was no doubt partly as thanks from a grateful government for services in smashing a union, yet ironically also on the back of the many attestations of good character that the union officials at Grangemouth provided. On September 27th 2016 Ineos landed its first shipment of LNG from the Marcellus shales of the rapidly-deteriorating Appalachian forests of Western Pennsylvania.

At the same time Ineos has kept hold of its shale gas exploration licences for over 1400 sq. km of Scotland’s Central Belt and Dumfries and Galloway and in March 2017 bought into a major shareholding of over 1.4m acres of shale gas options in England.

The tightening noose

Having dumped its union partner and done very nicely since, Ineos has not only enhanced its onshore LNG assets but has quickly moved into the offshore business. In December 2015, due to the pressure of EU sanctions on Ukraine, a Russian venture capital company was forced to relinquish its shareholding in the Deutsche Erdoel North Sea gas fields. Ineos instantly snapped up the claim. But this acquisition was to prove a mere starter: on the morning of Monday April 3rd, as Ineos was preparing to terminate union rights at Grangemouth, Oil Industry News broke the story that BP had divested itself of all of its offshore and related onshore Forties fields pipeline and storage assets. The real punchline was that Ineos had obtained the job lot at a snip of £125m with a further installment of £125m payable in seven years.

The fire-sale price is deceptive, however, since the deal hands to Ineos two production and terminal platforms, eight pipeline systems, two large capacity terminals, two high pressure pumping stations, one large volume tank farm and two deep water jetties. Onshore facilities at Aberdeen, Falkirk, Kinneal and Dalmeny along with 300 directly-employed staff also changed hands. ‘This’, Unite’s chief in Scotland said, mustering every ounce of outrage, ‘is worrying’.

Through this latest asset grab Ineos have been able to massively enhance their ownership and control over Scotland’s hydrocarbon economy, to the extent that a little local difficulty on the farm at Grangemouth is hardly likely to refocus their attention on partnerships as a means of pursuing their corporate goals. But for any realistic challenge to the abusive power of Ineos, the issues of workers’ rights at the Grangemouth plant have to be combined with a wider campaign against the private ownership of what are both natural resources and social assets.

Needed: a radical resistance

For the past seven years the broad left leadership of Unite have attempted to develop a high profile industrial strategy. By any standards, this has been a marked improvement on the fawning and often xenophobic inclinations of the previous leadership. But nevertheless it has been a strategy based on an ideological shift that posed as an appeal for partnerships that would be an offer too good for employers to refuse. And where a company was too dumb to see the benefits on offer from Unite, then leverage – high profile actions short of actual strike action – became the standard.

Grangemouth however, through the abject defeat of 2013 through to the latest de-recognition snub, has flown directly in the face of both partnerships and the leverage campaign tactic. Yet the Unite leadership simply parrot the old partnership tropes whilst feigning shock at the inevitable snubs their approaches elicit. So Howard Beckett, now Unite assistant General Secretary, who proclaimed Grangemouth 2013 ‘a victory for our members’, is really getting stuck in when he demands, ‘We would encourage Ineos to think again and row back from what is an unnecessary act of aggression towards their own workforce’.

Unfortunately the reality of 35 years of backsliding under an erosive neoliberal offensive is that left union leaders, whilst wishing to uphold worker’s rights and interests, have become part of the problem. Irrespective of a negative shift in the balance of forces, their role as the mediators between labour and the employer will prevail, and with it their assured ascribed and superannuated status. And amid this indulgent confusion the underlying reality of a worker’s ultimate power being in the withdrawal of labour power is conveniently lost.

The broad left within the UK labour movement as a whole, and the United Left in Unite, are by stressing their conflict-resolving partnership approach essentially trying to conjure the illusions of corporate paternalism and consensus from the vasty deep. Yet in their rejection of class conflict they intentionally ignore a rampage of markets that for the past three decades have fundamentally shifted the law, the political consensus and the economic forces decisively in favour of capital.

For activists in the Scottish labour movement in particular Grangemouth shows both the traps and limitations of partnership and thereby reinforces the reality of wage labour being based on mutually antagonistic class interests. The outright assault on worker’s rights at Grangemouth demands a response of total solidarity that could go on to be an underpinning of a class-based radical Scottish economic strategy.

Pending such a development, a good start would be for the Unite leadership to defy Ineos and give those at Grangemouth who want to fight their heads. Having delivered such an unnecessary disaster to the Scottish labour movement, the very least the officials can do is now generate a climate of solidarity. Whilst we urge this upon them we recognise that only a strong rank and file organisation can be the basis of real resistance in the future. However, in the meantime there can be no going back to 2013, and if it takes a full-blooded show-down with Ineos we can only be the better for it.

 

Leave a Reply