The truth is unavoidable: Britain’s biggest union has suffered a reverse. No one seriously maintains that the workforce demanded worse terms and conditions from a reluctant management. We have had to bite the bullet: shift allowances have been cut, an excellent pension plan has evaporated, along with a range of other concessions, and union organisation has been hobbled by a three year no-strike agreement and by the resignation of its convenor.
But Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe had a larger plan. That was to completely destroy Unite. In this he failed. Much against his will, Ratcliffe has had to negotiate these with the workers’ elected representatives. His dream of an atomized workforce, with no collective representation, has failed to materialize, and we should not under-estimate this.
Some of the other aspects of the agreement are more cosmetic than real: there is no longer a convenor with 100% facility time on the site – but there are still 60 union reps, a plethora of joint management/union committees (health and safety, committees to examine changes to production processes etc) and anyone who imagines the convenor will not be spending an awful lot of time on union work is living in cloud cuckoo land. And the notion of a no-strike agreement lasting one day longer than the members are prepared to tolerate it is nonsense.
Nevertheless, we got a bloody nose at Grangemouth, and it is important to learn the lessons.
Firstly, if there is blame to be apportioned let’s start with the main culprit: Ed Miliband, the man mainly responsible for hanging Unite convenor Stevie Deans out to dry during the argument about recruitment in Falkirk Labour Party. Those accounts of the Grangemouth defeat that simply look at the story in the plant are missing this essential political dimension.
Three months ago Deans was fighting for his political life as the right wing in the Labour Party colluded with a smear campaign in the press, and Ed Miliband poured fuel on the fire. ‘Unacceptable practices’ had been revealed in the local Labour Party – whose constituency chair was Stevie Deans – ‘ a return to the worst excesses of machine politics and trade union corruption’. With Miliband’s blessing, a file was prepared and amidst a fanfare of publicity, handed to the police.
Not one shred of evidence was found to substantiate the allegations; the police professed their indifference; two key witnesses withdrew their evidence saying it had been manipulated; yet Miliband refused to clear Deans’ name, he remained suspended from office in the Labour Party, and the general Labour Party line from the top was ‘there’s no smoke without fire’.
Enter Jim Ratcliffe, majority stakeholder in Ineos, a money-grubbing tax-dodging apology for a human being, an industrial baron of the old school motivated solely by avarice and greed. Always with an eye to the main chance, he employs an army of legal beagles and IT specialists to trawl through Deans’ electronic communication to dredge up anything to justify the sack.
It seems to me that, when Ratcliffe first started his vindictive campaign against the Unite convenor, Deans would have been entitled to expect some degree of support from the Labour. If not for him personally, then for the workforce in general as it became clear that Ratcliffe was out of control.
From the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, and the shadow energy spokesperson, the shadow industry spokesperson, the shadow chancellor, the same deafening silence.
Unite led the rejection of the Ratcliffe attack in the first place but Unite officials couldn’t get support for their explicit offer of backing for any tactics the workers chose to adopt – and that included strikes, work-ins, demonstrations, flash mobs – to keep the plant open when Ratcliffe threatened closure. After the attack by the Labour Leadership the overwhelming mood of the membership was that they would be fighting a lonely battle without allies, and they couldn’t take the risk.
And who can blame them, considering the torrent of propaganda they endured.
As for those pundits on the left who maintain that there was that support, that given the nod from McCluskey or Rafferty, there existed a thirst for solidarity action which was squandered or ignored by the union bureaucrats – they need to answer a simple question: given that they proudly proclaim in their publications their emphasis on ‘rank and file’ organisation, why did they not issue that call, and their members prove the truth of the argument by leading walk-outs in support of Grangemouth?
If that mood existed, and they were aware of it, it was a shocking abdication of responsibility to sit idly by and watch a group of workers go down to what they claim is an unnecessary defeat. More likely however, is that their members on the ground can separate out what they read in their weekly paper from reality.
What did exist (and still does) is a very widespread feeling that Ratcliffe epitomizes all that is worst in neoliberalism, that we are subject to the random acts of vicious profit seekers motivated purely by selfish motives, and that this is wrong and should be curtailed. But as yet, there is little confidence that we possess organs that are up to this task.
Purely from the opportunist point of electoral politics, Miliband would have gained vast support for arguing that national resources such as Grangemouth should not be subject to the unhinged ambitions of one individual, that some degree of public control is essential for the sake of the common good, that nationalisation might be the solution. It would have touched a chord with many outside the Labour camp, it would have forced stark divisions in the SNP, and it would have capitalized on the gains he had made with his vague talk of capping energy price rises. It says a great deal about how deeply he is tied to free market Blairism that he refused to even touch on it. So at least we know he has principles. There are some things he is not prepared to concede, and the rights of profit-mongers to monger profits is one of them.
We can respond to the Grangemouth defeat with a ritualistic denunciation of the trade union leaders in the name of a, sadly, non-existent rank and file organisation. Or we can try and answer the question; what is to be done with the real forces that we have at our disposal?
Strengthening the movement against austerity and, within that, the capabilities of rank and file organisation is the key here. Which is why initiatives like the People’s Assembly against Austerity are so vital, for workers as trades unionists as well as users of public services. If there had been demonstrations and protests at Grangemouth, but also in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, arguing for solidarity with all those fighting the cuts, the workers at Grangemouth might not have felt so isolated; they might have developed the confidence to give Jim Ratcliffe the bloody nose he so richly deserves, and in the process have raised the argument for the public ownership of essential resources.