The idea that you can’t take on multinational capitalism and win has been given a boost by the outcome at Grangemouth.
We’ll never know for sure whether the threat to close the petrochemical plant was real or not. But Grangemouth’s local boss, Calum MacLean, gave us an insight into owners Ineos’s game plan when he claimed that if Unite “had taken the position they took in the last two days [to accept the ‘survival plan’] a week ago we might never have come to this”.
In other words, the company might never have threatened closure if Unite had capitulated earlier and agreed to the changes.In fact, the company’s behaviour is entirely of a piece with a favourite piece of managerial strategy, the idea of a “burning platform”. This is when employers create a situation that appears to require immediate urgent action, in order to make changes that benefit the business and its shareholders.
In this instance, claims of “financial distress” were at the heart of Ineos’s strategy. But these claims are pretty hard to stomach. Since when has oil refining and its spinoffs not been profitable?
Indeed, accountancy and tax expert Richard Murphy, in research carried out for Unite, has shown that so-called “smart accounting” techniques were central to Ineos’s scam. Murphy showed that the site is likely to be highly profitable but that this is covered up by a combination of tax deferrals and a labyrinthine financial structure which makes accurate identification of local figures very difficult.
One of the main factors behind Ineos’s industrial relations strategy is its desire to make investment in a new terminal – one of the first of its kind for importing US shale gas as a replacement for dwindling North Sea gas supplies [more cost-effective. There was no way it was going to walk away from this chance to get ahead of its rivals.
But why should a private company, headed by a multi-millionaire like Jim Ratcliffe, get all the benefit from vital natural resources? Nationalisation looms large in the background whenever these sorts of issues are discussed, and rightly so.
So the stakes were high, and with the company upping the ante considerably, Unite needed an appropriate response. What could this have been? Occupation might have been considered.
There are, of course, no guarantees that it would have won, but an occupation would have prevented closure of the plant and put the workforce and their union in a stronger position from which to negotiate. It would also have given Unite more time to expose the company’s accounting tactics, and the millionaire lifestyle of Ineos’s owner.
An occupation could have won support from other refinery workers that Grangemouth employees supported in the past, and from key groups like tanker drivers. It would also have made nationalisation a stronger prospect.
For more: After Grangemouth. Frontline article by Michael Bradley