The story of the Grangemouth dispute of 2013 contains important lessons for trade unionism and the labour movement in general, argues Kevin Crane
Mark Lyon, The Battle of Grangemouth: A Worker’s Story (Lawrence and Wishart 2017), 234pp.
It is pretty unusual for a trade union to bring out a whole book about an industrial dispute in a single workplace that is still in the very recent past, something acknowledged in the book’s own foreword notes. In fairness, the dispute in question was turned into front page news by its strange link to a neo-McCarthyite Labour Party political crisis that involved a police investigation and the demonisation of union officials by the Tory government. Unite obviously see this book as setting the record straight, though they are trying to give it bit more public interest with this claim:
‘A unique feature of this book is that it is written from the perspective of the local workforce, something all too rare in the current mainstream media.’
I absolutely agree that there is probably a big audience out there for a working people’s account of an industrial dispute, but I think that this a bit of stretch. First of all, it is far from unique to get this sort of perspective, even if it is rare to do so rapidly. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this isn't precisely from the point of view of the workforce, it is very much the personal account of one man: victimised Grangemouth Unite convenor, Mark Lyon. That doesn’t make anything he uses the book to say any less legitimate by itself, but I think the distinction should be made.
Things are personal from the absolute get-go. Lyon begins the book with a touch of his own family history, and the history of petrochemical industry in Scotland. Knowing relatively little about Scotland and almost nothing about the oil industry myself, I have to say I found this interesting. The author goes into particular detail to describe the ‘high days’ of refinery under BP in the 1970s, with a view to showing how the privatisation, fragmentation and rampant profiteering since that time have had a negative impact on the industry and the wider economy and communities around it. To give him absolute credit, his use of the term ‘workers’ paradise’ (the title of chapter one) in relation to the old BP days is tongue-in-cheek, and he’s not saying that everything was perfect, only that things have generally been worse since then.
All this scene-setting is the build-up to the arrival of Ineos, a private company run by one James Radcliffe, a millionaire so arrogant and extravagant he would be a boring cliché if he were fictional character. Unfortunately, he is real, and on buying the refinery in 2006 embarked on a fully predictable set of restructures and contractual changes designed to increase profits. The fact that the credit crunch occurred a mere year later added to his urgency, since Ineos had borrowed heavily to buy the plant. Radcliffe’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach overreached itself in 2008, when an attack on the pension scheme forced the union (still the Transport & General Workers Union at that point) into the first serious strike at the plant in a generation.
The bulk of the story follows on from this strike. Lyon writes that Radcliffe learned from the pension strike that he would have to come up with a serious plan to break the union and punish the officials that got in his way, but that this is only obvious in hindsight. We can certainly tell that the Unite branch at Grangemouth was not anticipating a more serious confrontation with Ineos from their activities at that time.
Despite not regarding the private, profiteering management at Grangemouth to be a good thing, the union made massive efforts to collaborate with the employer in its efforts to improve, which was always entirely defined by acquiring Ineos more money. Keen to show that they were willing to help, Lyon and his colleague Stevie Deans soon found themselves extremely deep in helping to further Ineos’ corporate lobbying. The results were about as unappealing to socialists as you could imagine: Unite was involved in helping Ineos get tax breaks from the government, get tax-payer funded subsidy from the government and get around environmental legislation that might have cost it money. There is a huge sense of personal conflict from the writer at this part of the book, as the protagonists engage in political work that runs against all their instincts and better judgement. In the movie adaptation of this book in my mind, I’ve cast Sean Bean as this guy.
The ‘battle’ itself, despite having been the culmination of a management plot, was ultimately triggered by something completely unrelated that Ineos would merely use to its advantage. The Falkirk Labour Party controversy was, like most instances of a crisis born of an organisation's internal politics, really very obscure to outsiders. It was probably best understood as the symptom (though far, far away from being a conclusion) of major tensions that had existed inside the Labour Party after Gordon Brown lost the 2010 general election and stepped down to be replaced by a soft-left-winger, Ed Milliband.
The powerful right wing of Labour blamed the unions in general and Unite in particular for the defeat of their preferred leader (Ed’s brother David, a hardened Tony Blair loyalist) and were looking for ways to get their own back. Falkirk constituency is next door to Grangemouth, and the Unite branch is the largest group affiliated to Falkirk CLP. This would make Unite a natural and legitimate factor in a process like selecting a parliamentary candidate, but the Labour right decided to go to extreme lengths to claim that Unite involvement was unwelcome, undemocratic and even illegal. The barely precedented step was even taken of accusing Stevie Deans, an elected official for both Unite and the party, of criminal activity and a police investigation was launched.
There is a range of revealing ironies in this whole episode, and Lyon draws many of them out in the book. The first is that Labour, even in the most electorally successful days of ‘New Labour’ has always depended on the unions, particularly the big unions, for funding and resources. For the party to start treating them like a hostile influence is pretty astonishing. The second, more significant, irony is that the reforms to Labour Party internal democracy in direct response to Falkirk, which they thought would return more right-wing results (because, you know, unions don’t represent anyone), which were intended to prevent another soft leftist like Ed becoming leader, actually led directly to the socialist Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader.
The final irony is that this internal fight was ultimately for nought: by the actual general election in 2015, the Scottish Nationalists had replaced Labour as the most widely supported party throughout the country and comfortably took the seat! Perhaps the most important thing to observe from it though is the lengths that the right was willing to go to reject democratic results unfavourable to themselves: we’ve obviously seen a great deal more of that since.
Despite Falkirk becoming the basis for a media storm, exacerbated by both the press and the Tories in parliament, no evidence of wrong-doing was found. However, it got into the news that Deans had been in contact with political figures while at work (the fact that a large chunk of this had been lobbying for the employer was never mentioned). This provided Ineos with a key line of attack to start their union-busting operation early. The company launched an attack initially on Deans personally, and gradually broadened its scope to go after the pension fund and many other of its long-term objectives. In the half decade since the strike, plans had been put in place to lock-out union workers and to convince both the workforce and the public at large that Ineos could shut Grangemouth once and for all if it didn’t get its way. The union was utterly unprepared for this and was defeated heavily. Lyon and Deans ultimately lost their jobs and conditions at Grangemouth have been far worse since.
So, this book ends on a very low note and I really do not believe anyone will finish this book and see the outcome as a victory for anything other than the corporation. It is true that Unite continues to organise at the workplace - in fact membership density has barely changed, despite significant numbers of workers leaving the site, so the union cannot be considered ‘smashed’ as such. Unfortunately, the costs for even small graces have been very high, particularly for this author who lost his job and suffered very serious personal consequences. So, I really don't think anyone will be coming this looking for ‘how to’ guide. Given the serious mistakes the union made lobbying for a ruthless company to achieve its socially and environmentally unfriendly goals, only to be severely attacked for its trouble, this is probably just as well. That doesn’t mean the book is without interest. Actually, a lot of it is interesting, both in terms of understanding how things actually work in the fossil-fuels industry and the author’s own experiences. It needs to be said, though, that it is a history of things lost by our labour movement, not least because of a faulty strategy of colluding with an employer. For ideas about how to take struggle forward, you will have to look elsewhere.
More articles from this author
- Derailed: How to Fix Britain’s Broken Railways - book review
- Why does Sadiq Khan say that Transport for London has no money?
- Decarbonisation, jobs and justice
- The James Connolly Reader - book review
- A Redder Shade of Green - book review
- Alternative models and silent revolutions
- Union Power: The United Electrical Workers in Erie, Pennsylvania - book review