Grangemouth petrochemical plant is to remain open. But, Phil Neal asks, at what cost?

grangemouth ineousThe recent announcement of Ineos to graciously reopen the plant at Grangemouth has been branded a “victory of common sense” by its billionaire chief robber, Jim Ratcliffe. It’s certainly a victory for him personally; well, those fuel bills on a £130 million yacht won’t pay themselves, you know.

The price of this “reopening” is surely far too high to comprehend this being anything but a victory for Ratcliffe.  £300 million of taxpayers’ money will now be poured into the plant, with us having no say on its running, in a small scale repeat of the bank bailout – and we all remember how popular that was. Funny how £300 million can be found for Ratcliffe but nary a penny can be squeezed out for victims of fuel poverty, the bedroom tax, the working poor or a million other blights on our society.

Secondary to this is the bonfire of working conditions, including – but not limited to – signing away the right to strike for three years, no full time union convenors, a three year pay freeze and an end to the final salary pension scheme. It has amounted to a vicious beating down of the workforce.

Of course, I can only comment from afar, but these conditions to reopen the plant will only give confidence to other billionaire tax dodgers to do the same and follow the Ratcliffe plan of Wild West ransom economics.  We have to ask serious questions as to why this has been allowed to happen just as a public debate was beginning to surface around nationalisation and why one man has so much control over our key industries.

It would be quite easy to blame Unite the Union for a wholesale sell out, and certainly criticism is due; but it is not the whole story.  Whilst it might be hard to stomach, it is generally easy to understand that people, when faced with a job or going on the dole, are going to go with the job, especially when the unemployment figures are so high.  However the union has signed away its own rights and this leaves a workforce with jobs but means to defend them significantly reduced. It is hard to imagine that Ratcliffe is going to repay the workforce for accepting his list of demands. Surely these rights were a point of negotiation?

We also have to look at how the situation moved from over half the workforce refusing new terms and being willing to strike, to now a wholesale acceptance of those terms and a limitation on striking.  Certainly the move to close the plant would have played a huge part, the proverbial cliff coming so close so quickly, but was there not space to widen the issue out and hit on a media and campaigning offensive?  The story of the big evil billionaire holding the country to ransom provided an excellent battleground, and given the debate around energy and overwhelming public support for nationalisation of the big six, it feels as if an opportunity was missed to push the dispute beyond a 48 hour window.

It is impossible to know what went on in union meetings with the workers affected, but it would certainly be good to see the opinions of the workers emerge now the spectre of job loss has been lifted.  Were people up for a fight and if so how far would/could they go?  Was Unite able to take on a fight?  And what were the soundings from the Labour party?  This was a perfect opportunity for Ed Miliband to put his rhetoric into action in tackling big unaccountable business but he was nowhere to be seen – a further example of degeneration. Surely if the industrial situation is sticky, then this is where political funds should come to the fore? And if it emerges that there was a case of Unite forcing a deal and abandoning a militant membership this needs to be dealt with as well.

It is important to have a sober analysis of where we are and where we are going within trade unions – if the capacity to fight is severely diminished and people are looking to trade unions for servicing as opposed to organising and politics, we then need to adopt different strategies to stop such blatant abuses of power occurring in our economy.  Equally, if outsourcing our politics to a political party doesn’t help, this also needs to change.

It is not enough to place the saving of jobs above all else.  The long term effects will be felt for some time.  Short term thinking like this, rushing to solve disputes, has led us to where we are today. Saving jobs at the expense of terms and conditions only ties the hands of future fights, leading to a near certain decline that dwarves any temporary relief brought about by the protection of these jobs.  It has bound young trade unionists and ingrained a mentality that negotiations by the few as opposed to action by the many, is a model for industrial relations. It is understandable that, inside the trade union movement, many of us feel that we are running around fire fighting and so quick solutions are needed. However, it does us no favours when fires can be deliberately started by managements to create a panic-buy situation where we grasp at the quickest and easiest solution possible. The irony is mobilising large numbers would help fight fires a lot easier, and whilst people’s consciousness is a wide debate for another article, we would not have survived this long (even if on a decline) without the ability to change people’s minds, often best achieved in industrial action.

What is clear is a shakeup is needed to enable trade unions to fight again. If this means separating casework from organising to ensure that they don’t burden each other then ideas like this need to gain traction.  Grangemouth has shown the confidence and ability of big business to neutralise strikes and tie up union hands, even leading to a Labour MP believing it was more a perfectly executed plan than anything else.  A change in strategy is desperately needed before Ratcliffe’s plan becomes a template for everyone else in the billionaire boat dock.

Phil Neal is a trade union activist and a member of the International Socialist Group in Glasgow.

From Communiqué