By Marcus Halaby
It is an often-repeated truism that giving in to bullies only encourages them. Workers at the Grangemouth plant near Falkirk in Scotland are learning this the hard way. After a shameful climb-down by Unite the Union general secretary Len McCluskey, hailed as having been necessary to “save jobs”, employers INEOS are now planning more than 200 job cuts, out of a workforce of 1,400 permanent and 2,000 contract workers.
The deal that McCluskey signed with billionaire boss Jim Ratcliffe involved a three-year pay freeze and no-strike agreement, the loss of full-time union convenors on site and and the ending of final-salary pensions. Crucially, the loss of previous gains on redundancy terms, replacing them with the paltry statutory minimum, have made it that much cheaper and that much easier for INEOS to press home their advantage by sacking staff. It should be remembered that the £150m loan guarantee and the £9m financial grant promised by the UK and Scottish governments were based on INEOS’s claim that they were needed to keep the plant open.
It is easy, in the aftermath of major defeats like this, to blame them on union members’ low morale or lack of militancy. But this defeat, like so many others, actually demonstrates the real problem of the British labour movement as a whole: the treachery of its leadership.
It is true, for example, that around a third of employees signed a contract offering between £2,500 and £15,000 up front to sweeten the pill that undermined wages, pensions and collective bargaining. But a large number of electricians, faced with the same individual blackmail by a united front of employers, similarly signed the humiliating BESNA contracts before the strike action that saw the Sparks force Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey to withdraw them in February 2012.
Moreover, whenever Grangemouth’s workforce were given a collective voice in their own future, they have responded positively to calls for action, with 80 per cent voting for industrial action, and 90 per cent voting to strike. Two-thirds still voted to reject the deal offered by INEOS, only a week after Ratcliffe began his pre-emptive lockout on 14 October.
A previous strike to protect final-salary pensions in April 2008 prompted panic-buying of petrol and forced oil major BP to close down its Forties oil and gas pipeline system (which supplies a third of North Sea oil in Britain), in turn forcing oil platforms to halt or reduce production. If it can be said that Ratcliffe put a gun to the heads of the UK and Scottish governments, then this was a gun that union members could and should have turned right back at him.
In this context, “leadership” consists of mobilising the most militant layers, using their action to boost the confidence of the workforce as a whole, and to reduce the hesitancy of the least militant to a minimum. The argument that “the members weren’t up for it” might hold some water, if the Unite leadership had done everything necessary to do this without any success: calling mass meetings, appealing to allies for solidarity, demonstrating to all that strike could actually win. But this is not what happened. McCluskey simply caved in on 25 October and imposed on his members the very worst sort of defeat: one without a fight.
Break the agreement now
Even now, however, it could be possible to prevent this defeat from turning into a rout. The union must move decisively to break the chains of the “deal”. Occupation of the plant, seizing control of its equipment and shutting the refinery down with it, could still turn the tables on Ratcliffe and force him to negotiate. Solidarity action to bring Britain’s other refineries into the fray could demonstrate just how powerful this sector of the workforce actually is. The demand to nationalise Grangemouth under workers’ control and without compensation to its owners would put Labour on the spot, and would be popular with a public already disgusted by the scandal of soaring energy costs.
And given that it was the 25 October betrayal that paved the way for INEOS’s current offensive, this cannot just be a struggle to save 200 jobs, but to restore the conditions thrown away by McCluskey, starting with the previously favourable redundancy terms.
But this in turn demands a workplace-based rank and file movement to take control of the unions for the members and away from the officials. It must also be committed to a struggle to confront Britain’s anti-union laws and make them unworkable, taking unofficial action whenever the officials prevaricate or sell out. Constructing such a movement will be one of the most urgent tasks of the revolutionary left in Britain in the year ahead.