Grangemouth: Bosses attack and Unite ties workers’ hands
Our sympathiser, Baboon, analyses the recent struggle at Grangemouth.
The price for keeping the Grangemouth petro-chemical section, indeed the whole refinery, from shutting down: a no-strike agreement, a 3-year pay freeze, cuts in shift-pay and bonuses, less favourable conditions for new workers, “limited redundancies” and an end to the Final Salary pension scheme (more contributions from the workers, less pay out), has been “embraced, warts and all” by Len McCluskey and his Unite trade union. When asked on the BBC if this wasn’t a humiliation, McClusey said no, “we sort out problems like this all the time”. And indeed the actions of the trade union Unite go hand in hand with the bosses’ attack. The workers at BA will attest to this where, a few years ago, the Unite union brought in a two-tier wage system, divided workers at Gatwick from Heathrow and cut wages and conditions to the extent that some workers and stewards tore up their union cards in angry meetings with the union representatives. Like BA, the events around Grangemouth demonstrate both the attacks raining down on the working class and, at the very least, the uselessness of the trade unions in representing the interests of the working class.
Much is made by papers like the Trotskyist Socialist Worker and the Stalinist Morning Star about the billionaire boss of Grangemouth “blackmailing” the workers and about the “greed” of the owner, but this is what capitalism does as a matter of fact and is increasingly forced to do as the crisis deepens and its profits are threatened. For those on the Left one answer is the nationalisation of the plant, as if that would in any way attenuate the exploitation of the workers. One of the first coordinated actions of the banks nationalised after the 2008 crisis was the sacking of tens of thousands of workers. One might think that the oil industry would be profitable, but this is far from the case as it constantly tries to lower costs through reducing wages and making inroads on working conditions and safety measures (look at BP in the US and the neglect that resulted in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010). The Swiss-based, half Chinese-owned Grangemouth oil refinery, like many in Europe and Latin America, is suffering from the intense cut-throat competition with the US and Middle Eastern refineries on the oil market-place, while local demand has declined because of the recession.
This free-for-all also makes a mockery of the Coalition’s recovery talk about new investments and bold energy policies. The writing was on the wall with the so-called ‘unthinkable’ closure of the Coryton oil refinery in Essex over a year ago despite a Unite spokesman saying at the time that “it was a going concern ready to make a profit” (BBC Business News, 24.1.12). 850 jobs went here when the plant shut down despite more generalised protests from workers that included those of Grangemouth and the Lindsey refinery in Lincolnshire – protests that Unite disowned. Quite a few Coryton workers went to Saudi Arabia but many upped and moved to refineries around the UK, including Grangemouth. The Coryton plant was run on such tight margins that the whole place was a disaster waiting to happen and it did on October 31, 2007, where a fire and massive explosion shook homes fourteen miles away. Luckily for the workers it happened out of working hours, though the cloud of poison given off was toxic for miles around. Since that incident the plant saw over 20 “serious” (Health and Safety Executive) incidents up until it closed last year.
The fragility of the oil industry is by no means confined to Britain as is shown by the strike by 40,000 Petrobas workers in Brazil against attacks on their wages - which the union turned into an argument about nationalisation - and strikes and protests by petro-chemical workers in Portugal against cuts in their wages and conditions. It’s the brutal logic of capitalism: if a firm doesn’t make the required profits then the business shuts down and the workers are thrown out of a job and possibly out of their homes. Not only are the trade unions unable to confront the laws of capital, they are complicit in their functioning as well as the policing of the workers under their joint agreements, procedures and ever-extending commitments to ‘flexibility’. The trade unions represent a completely false opposition to the bosses while being complicit in their attacks. What did the Unite union do at Grangemouth?
The threat to close the Grangemouth petro-chemical division would have cost over 800 jobs immediately and threatened another 2600 direct and contractor jobs if the closure extended to the refinery, i.e., 8% of Scotland’s manufacturing industry would have gone up in smoke. The company, Ineos, has been trying to change workers’ terms and conditions since it bought the plant from BP seven years ago, so it’s not like the unions were not warned of the impending attack. In April 2008, Grangemouth workers were involved in a strike over attacks on their pensions - the first strike at Grangemouth for 73 years. But here, this month, a clique of the Unite shop stewards organised a vote in one shop of a hundred workers, not against the attacks of the company, but against the actions of Ineos in enquiring into the time the union convenor was spending on Labour Party politics in Scotland. The attack on the workers was entirely secondary to the union which was more concerned with defending one of their own who was said to be involved in ballot rigging and other machinations around the corrupt politics of the Falkirk Labour Party. It’s often said that the union leadership is ‘out of touch’, ‘bureaucratic’ and the ‘rank-and-file’ is the real union. There’s something inescapably and intrinsically Stalinesque about the trade unions in that their structures and frameworks give rise to cliques and cabals of small minorities even with the best will in the world. They, and their practices, are the antithesis of the mass, open meetings of workers that can point the way forward.
The rank-and-file apparatus was indeed ‘the real union’ here at Grangemouth, reflecting the in-fighting and political machinations of the union leadership, which has nothing to do with the class struggle. Eighty-one of the workers balloted voted to strike for the steward and the other 1300 direct workers and more than a thousand contractors who were Unite members didn’t get a say. There’s no wonder there was a lot of residual anger amongst the workers against the union for its actions and its non-action. When the boss threatened closure the union called off its pathetic forty-eight hour strike, and the work-to-rule and overtime ban that the workers were carrying out “in the interests of maintaining production”. And when the closure threat was maintained the union capitulated, as evidenced by the words of Unite boss, McCluskey above and Unite’s Scottish secretary, Pat Rafferty, pleading for talks (Guardian, 21/10/13) and agreeing to the no-strike agreement the previous day.
The rejection of the company plan didn’t come through a Unite ballot but, as many reports said, from individual workers, about two-thirds of them, returning a ‘no’ to the company’s plans. This at least showed a combative potential of the Grangemouth workers who were involved in solidarity actions with Coryton (above) and also involved in solidarity actions with the 2008 Tanker Drivers’ strike. As the plant was ‘saved’ (for how long?) the TV concentrated on the justly relieved workers (though some criticism of the trade union came through), but there is a large core of workers here that have experience of solidarity actions and sometimes illegal struggle, who were clearly against the ‘survival plan’. In the summer of 2008, Grangemouth workers showed solidarity with Shell tanker drivers as picketing and ‘secondary actions’ took place from Plymouth, through Wales and Somerset up to Cheshire, Lincolnshire and Scotland. The victory trumpeted by Unite here was a deal stitched-up by them and the bosses which resulted in a pay offer just 0.7% more than the original offer to the Shell drivers. The real victory was in the often illegal solidarity actions of the workers across union divisions.
Attacks have been raining down on oil industry workers, just like all workers, since the 90s particularly and we will see more Grangemouths and Colytons in the years to come as capitalism’s crisis intensifies. It is very difficult for workers to struggle effectively in today’s conditions, particularly when the firm is about to close down and your job is on the line, or in the face of what seems overwhelming odds and isolation. But these questions won’t go away for the working class because the attacks of capital will become relentless. At Grangemouth the workers had the whole gamut of the state ranged against them: the ‘evil’ boss, Alex Salmond and his brand of Scottish nationalism, Westminster politics and Falkirk Labour Party plotting and scheming, the Trotskyists and Stalinists denouncing “fat cats” calling for nationalisation and ideas of ‘workers’ control’ - and the Unite trade union also singing the left’s tunes with its leader Len McCluskey saying on BBC News (24/10/13) that “the future of this plant is paramount to the shop stewards (pause) and the workers” and that he wouldn’t allow “the future of Scotland to be put in peril”. And so he puts himself and his union, and his compromised clique of shop stewards, at the service of the company in its ongoing attacks on the working class.
Baboon 29/10/1 (This article was contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC)