When the plant’s owner Ineos threatened to close it—with the sacking of 800 permanent staff and many more contractors—a shockwave reverberated across Scotland.
Held to ransom, the workers’ Unite union signed up to a “survival plan” of cuts. They included the end of a final salary pension scheme, a three-year pay freeze and a move to worse contracts. And Ineos made clear it still intends to cull “some” jobs.
The deal also undermined workers’ right to organise against the bosses. It committed Unite not to strike for at least three years and got rid of the site’s two full-time union officials.
But they didn’t get the option of voting on the new deal. The prospect of Grangemouth’s closure led to despair. Many workers will now be breathing a sigh of relief despite the deep and unnecessary sacrifices that have been forced upon them.
Twice they had been given the chance to fight back against Ineos—and both times they responded magnificently.
They voted overwhelmingly for a strike to defend union convenor Stephen Deans against victimisation (see below). When Unite called a 48-hour strike it forced Ineos bosses to talk.
But when Ineos pulled out of talks Unite responded by calling off the strike—a capitulation that opened the door to new attacks.
Ineos responded with a threat to close the plant unless workers signed up to its new contracts. Unite called on workers to say no—and most of them did.
But when boss Jim Ratcliffe called the union’s bluff, McCluskey quickly signed up to the new contracts anyway. Those workers who didn’t sign up to them will now be on even worse terms than their colleagues who signed up voluntarily by Monday of last week.
Labour MP Michael Connarty rightly calls this a “disaster”.
If the union leadership had built on the workers’ votes with calls to action things could have turned out very differently.
Now the rout at Grangemouth is a green light to bosses across Britain to go on the offensive. There is a danger that this deal could become a benchmark.
Brett Davis, a Unite branch secretary in the Ministry of Defence, told Socialist Worker, “When something like this happens we all have to live with it. You come back in work and everyone’s seen it all over the national press.
“When it comes across that Unite has had a kicking, members here feel like they’ve had a kicking. So it’s important to raise the argument that it could have been won. When bosses are determined to go for us, we have to be just as determined to fight back.
“What was needed was to occupy the plant instead of being held to ransom. It should be nationalised. People have seen bullying bastard bosses, and they would have backed the workers against them.”
Union leaders need to build a fight instead of accepting attacks if we are to avoid more Grangemouths. And it is essential that workers build up rank and file organisation so that workers have the confidence to fight when union leaders don’t.
Victimisation behind the dispute
In the background of the dispute lies the victimisation of union convenor Stephen Deans. He is also the chair of Unite Scotland and the Constituency Labour Party in nearby Falkirk.
Stephen has now resigned from Grangemouth.
Bosses say Stephen used his union position to support Unite’s bid to get its candidate selected to replace disgraced Falkirk Labour MP Eric Joyce.
Labour leader Ed Miliband’s criticisms of the union gave them political cover for this.
But workers have a right to expect their union to demand political representation—even if the strategy of reclaiming Labour won’t achieve it.
Now the deal Ineos has imposed removes full time convenors altogether.
This doesn’t now make it impossible to organise but it is a real setback.
Grangemouth workers had wider support
Unite could have done things very differently. There would have been massive public support for an occupation to save the plant—let alone for a campaign demanding nationalisation.
Throughout the dispute the Grangemouth oil refinery continued working. Spreading the action there could have forced Ratcliffe to back off.
There is a strong history of solidarity at Grangemouth. BP tanker drivers there won a strike to defend their pensions earlier this year, partly due to the solidarity of other workers.
A delegation of these powerful workers marched to the Ineos employees’ rally two weeks ago to show their solidarity. Some said that if picket lines went up, they wouldn’t cross them.
The contractors at Grangemouth played a vital role in the rank and file fight against wage cuts and deskilling by the big construction companies in 2011-12. But instead of being mobilised by the union, they have been left in the dark.
The Scottish government’s case for independence would be weakened if it had to export oil for processing and import it back at a higher price. First minister Alex Salmond argued against closure but in favour of attacks on workers.
He should have nationalised Grangemouth too—and he faced calls to do so that Unite should have thrown its weight behind.
Ratcliffe's phoney figures fail to hide firm's profits
The rotten deal at Grangemouth is founded on an assumption that workers had to take a cut to help bosses stay profitable.
Ineos spent months issuing dire warnings about the money it was losing at Grangemouth. But Ratcliffe’s figures never added up.
The claims of huge losses were an “accounting trick”, as shown by research commissioned by Unite. Elsewhere the firm projected £500 million profit ahead.
The workers’ pension fund that is supposedly too great a burden actually gained £7.2 million last year.
Ineos has also invested huge amounts into Grangemouth in recent years, and hopes to get even more out of the Scottish government.
“It’s all a smokescreen to get more money,” one contractor told Socialist Worker. “With all they are investing are they really just going to pull out?”
Bosses have big plans for Grangemouth. New equipment is set to allow shale gas obtained through fracking to be processed in Britain for the first time.
But to maximise the gains from the fracking boom they wanted to smash the union first, and to squeeze their subsidies for all their worth.