A great deal of nonsense has been said about the dispute over the petrochemicals plant at Grangemouth in Scotland.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last Saturday ran an item comparing the Unite union leaders’ climb-down at Grangemouth to the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Both, presenter John Humphreys suggested, represented a historic weakening of union power.
This comparison ignored a crucial difference. Urged on by Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, the miners actually went on strike for a year.
By contrast, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey first led the Grangemouth workers up the hill, calling on them to reject an ultimatum from the plant owners, Ineos, only to march them down the hill again when Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe threatened to close the plant.
In one case, then, the miners fought and lost, while McCluskey threw in the towel without a fight, accepting a no-strike deal and cuts in pay and pensions. There was no test of strength at Grangemouth.
One might still claim that the two disputes are connected in the sense that the miners’ defeat weakened organised workers, making it easy for billionaire bosses such as Ratcliffe successfully to blackmail their employees.
The trouble with this kind of argument is that it tends to assume the inevitability of defeat—the miners were doomed to lose, and even more so are groups of workers today.
But it’s not so easy. The miners lost more than anything else because the leaders of the rest of the labour movement failed to provide them with the solidarity they needed. Similarly, the Grangemouth debacle places the spotlight firmly on McCluskey.
In the past few years, he has established himself as the most vocally left wing major union leader for a generation. McCluskey warned Ed Miliband that he will end up in the “dustbin of history” if he fails to break with neoliberalism, organised community branches of Unite for unemployed workers, and talked about the necessity of a general strike.
By his public stands, McCluskey has invited comparison with the “Terrible Twins”—Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, the left wingers who led the two unions dominating private manufacturing industry in the late 1960s and 1970s. These unions are now merged into Unite.
The problem is that McCluskey’s radicalism has been mainly at the level of words. For example, the confrontation with Miliband over union funding of Labour ended with McCluskey endorsing Miliband’s proposals.
He was able to walk away from the sellout of the pensions strikes in December 2011 because Unite isn’t a big force in the public sector.
It was Dave Prentis of Unison who took most of the flak for this decision.
But McCluskey can’t walk away from Grangemouth. Basically, he talked a good fight, till Ratcliffe called his bluff.
Ratcliffe is one of a new generation of bosses who have been buying up refineries from the oil majors and have little interest in developing long-term relationships with the unions. McCluskey is definitely no Scargill.
There’s nothing very new about his behaviour. In the mid-1970s Scanlon and Jones used their militant credentials to force shop stewards to accept the pay controls imposed by the Labour government of the day.
Trade union leaders, whatever their political stripe, make up a distinct social group whose role consists of seeking to reconcile the interests of capital and labour. This means that they don’t have the same interests as the rank and file workers who end up paying the price of their deals, like the workers at Grangemouth did.
The real difference between McCluskey and Scanlon and Jones is that the latter had to tame the powerful shop stewards’ organisation that threatened the future of British capitalism. More than anything else, the resulting decline of rank and file power made possible the defeat of the miners, and of many other groups of workers.
This decline has also allowed McCluskey to posture as a lion, only to turn into a mouse when the bosses cut up nasty. Rebuilding rank and file organisation is essential if we are not to remain dependent on trade union leaders who almost without fail disappoint us.