Around 1,200 workers at the Ineos-owned oil refinery in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, walked out on Sunday in a two-day strike to defend their pensions – sparking a crisis for their billionaire boss Jim Ratcliffe and the government.
The workers, dressed in boiler suits and carrying Unite union flags, marched out with a determined dignity just after dawn, beginning the first strike in the plant's 80-year history.
The strike follows attempts by Ineos to close the final salary pension scheme to new entrants, and to force existing workers to pay 6 percent of their salaries into the scheme – which was previously non-contributory. Ineos also plans to make workers wait until they are 65 to retire on full benefits, whereas they can now do so at 60.
The impact of the strike was huge. Some 65,000 tonnes of diesel and kerosene were shipped into Scotland over the last weekend alone in an attempt to stave off fuel shortages. It's estimated that the strike will cost £50 million a day – and that production will be stopped for at least a week.
But the political impact was felt way beyond Grangemouth. Coming just days after hundreds of thousands of public sector workers took united action over pay, the strike showed again the potential of workers to fight back. For Gordon Brown, it could not have come at a worse time.
Grangemouth strikers pointed out that they are not just fighting for themselves but for future workers as well.
Barry Jones, a full time safety rep at the plant, asked, 'What gives us the right to sell away somebody else's pension?' Kirsty McGrellis, another safety rep, added, 'It's not about our pensions. We are fighting for the future.'
Ineos talks of Grangemouth technicians earning up to £60,000 a year. Workers are portrayed as having a good deal at the plant. In fact, as Unite convenor Mark Lyon pointed out, the only way that even a high earner could take home £60,000 would be if they worked 500 hours overtime a year.
The average basic salary is closer to £30,000 for working 12-hour shifts, day and night. It is not the workers who are getting a good deal at Grangemouth, it is Ineos.
Unite's figures show that just five days' profits from the Grangemouth site would maintain the status quo in company contributions.
Strikers were described as 'holding the country to ransom'. But Grangemouth workers were clear that it was Ineos who was holding Britain to ransom to protect its profits.
Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe is the 25th richest person in Britain according to The Sunday Times Rich List.
The strike took place as the world's biggest oil companies announced record profits – BP's first quarter profits shot up 50 percent compared to last year.
Despite scare stories being released by Ineos, workers are providing free safety cover inside the plant and have said that 'not one pensioner, hospital, ambulance or emergency vehicle will go without fuel'.
The ruling Scottish National Party has so far refused to support the strikers, instead calling for 'an honourable settlement'.Gordon Brown has claimed, 'There is no need for an industrial dispute to flare up here.'
Yet even Scottish newspaper The Herald said, 'Unite's next step would logically be to ramp up the pressure. The obvious means is to call out its members who man the specialist jetties…withdraw the services of the river pilots…and to blockade landing points around Scotland.'
Grangemouth is the only refinery in Scotland and is the country's main fuel supplier. It is strategically important to the British economy because there is a deep sea terminal on the west coast of Scotland, and crude oil is also imported to the site from around the world.
Workers are in a powerful position to beat back management – and in doing so to show workers across the country that it is possible to fight and win.
The issues Grangemouth workers are fighting over are issues that affect all workers. Over the last decade thousands of employers have attacked workers' pension schemes, in both the public and private sector. A victory at Grangemouth could begin to turn the tide.