Saturday, 26 October 2013



"Relief" is the most widespread feeling after the eleventh-hour reversal of the closure of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant on Friday 25 October.

Relief for the 800 workers directly facing unemployment without even an enhanced redundancy package 48 hours earlier, when INEOS bosses declared its closure and handover to the liquidators.

Relief for the 550 workers at the neighbouring oil refinery, which had remained on cold shutdown, with the real threat of it not surviving the liquidation of the petrochemical operation, given their interdependence. 

At least some partial relief, mixed with continued uncertainty about their job prospects, for 2,000 contract workers at Scotland's biggest industrial site - some of whom were already laid off by the INEOS bosses' lockout. 

And relief across the working class of Scotland that such a pivotal employer and economic 'powerhouse' - to use the phrase of UNITE's Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty - is not closing down after all, with all the devastation, poverty and social destitution such an act of shameless economic vandalism threatened.


But whilst having some kind of job is better than having no job at all, and much-reduced wages and conditions is preferable to having no wages, the outcome of the Grangemouth showdown should not be dressed up as anything other than a serious setback, a defeat for trade unionists - and not only those in the eye of the storm at Grangemouth alone. Not a defeat on the scale, for instance, of the heroic miners' strike of 1984-5, but a serious setback nevertheless.

In order to reverse the closure announcement on Wednesday, by Thursday night the UNITE union leadership offered complete acceptance of the savage cuts to conditions which INEOS had demanded - with a rocket-launcher held to the heads of the workers - over the previous week. 

This includes a three year pay freeze; an end to Final Salary Pensions (euphemistically called 'a move to modern pensions'); savage cuts to shift allowances and bonuses amounting to losses of £10-15,000 per worker; drastically reduced redundancy terms; removal of trade union facilities, including an end to full-time union conveners; unspecified 'head count reductions' (job losses to you and me); and a three-year no strike agreement.


In the 24 hours since this package of vast concessions by the workers - plus the concession of £9m in grants from the Scottish government and £125m in loan guarantees from the UK government to a tax-dodging multinational - big chunks of the media and commentariat have launched a festival of lies and vitriol against trade unions. 

They bury the facts and the real sequence of events to tell a fairytale of UNITE the union bringing the workforce and the entire economy to the edge of the abyss. These hired liars of the capitalist media either have short memories, or are blinded by their prejudices against any set of workers who dare to resist the slaughter of their livelihoods by multi-billionaires like Jim Ratcliffe, whose personal yacht alone is worth £130m. 

It doesn't occur to any of these overpaid hacks to ask why £134m of taxpayers' money should be handed over to a gangster capitalist who could get almost exactly that same sum if he sold his super-yacht!


The phrase "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea" doesn't even begin to hint at the heartbreaking choices imposed on Grangemouth workers, their families and communities in recent days. 

Choices imposed by the one-man dictatorship of tax-dodging Jim Ratcliffe, majority shareholder of INEOS, owner of Scotland's biggest industrial complex and the only oil refinery in oil-rich Scotland.

A choice between the death of entire communities through closure of the petrochemical plant - and in all probability the rapid knock-on closure of the oil refinery - with the loss of thousands of jobs, or slow agonizing crucifixion through the package of concessions the workers were bullied and blackmailed into giving.

Ratcliffe played the cavalier industrial thug, and ultimately got away with it. As explained in an earlier blog, he planned consciously with his cohorts back in March to provoke and defeat a strike - which he marked into the calendar for November! - as a means of decapitating the workers' union, decimating the workers' wages and conditions, and to blackmail £150million out of governments to shore up INEOS investment plans.


This investment plan is largely focussed on the import of shale gas ethane from the USA, where the destructive fracking industry is laying waste to whole communities and the environment. Fracking is something which the Westminster Coalition is likewise devoted to, with recent announcements of tax breaks for fracking fortune-hunting corporations, and the crude, outrageous suggestion by Tory Lord Howell (George Osborne's father-in-law) about the scope for fracking in "desolate areas like the North East of England"! 

And all that in the wake of the recent G8 summit held in my native County Fermanagh, where plans to frack in pursuit of profit threatens to not only wreck the natural beauty of Fermanagh's Lakelands, but infest the local environment with a range of poisonous byproducts - decimating local jobs in tourism and agriculture in the process. 

So the accusation by Grangemouth's local MP Michael Connarty of collusion between the Westminster government and Ratcliffe's INEOS is not wide of the mark.


In the past week, Grangemouth workers went through a stomach-churning series of twists and turns. They were provoked into voting to defend union convener Stevie Deans from victimization, with an initial 48 our strike, due to have happened on 20-21 October.

On discovering proof this was a long-planned provocation, the union canceled the strike. Ratcliffe took this as a signal of weakness, which invited his increased aggression, issuing 'sign or be sacked' forms to every worker at their home address, deliberately bypassing the recognized union, UNITE.


To their eternal credit, over 680 of the 1,000 union members at the site returned the forms unsigned to their trade union; a powerful display of courage, union loyalty and solidarity, a mandate for resistance to the butchers' assault on terms and conditions. 

The ball was back in Ratcliffe's court. In a high risk countermove - given the phenomenal importance of the site to the economy and as a source of profit for INEOS - Ratcliffe shut down the petrochemical plant, liquidating it. The workers and entire community, indeed the whole of Scotland, were thrown into a state of shock and devastation.

Now what to do? Nobody with any experience as a trade union activist or shop steward would envy the horrendous situation facing the 60-strong shop stewards organisation at Grangemouth. They must have agonized over how best to fulfil their responsibility towards the men and women who elected them, whose entire lives were thrown into meltdown by Ratcliffe's brutal, unhesitating vandalism.


In past days, the pivotal economic position of the site would have given trade unionists an almost invincible weapon in the form of solidarity action by workers at both ends of the production process - ranging from the pipeline into Grangemouth from the Forties oilfield, to the supplies of the overwhelming majority of fuel to Scotland, N Ireland and northern England, and the production of about 30% of Britain's needs of ethylene and similar materials.

But 30 years since Thatcher constructed the most repressive battery of anti-union laws in Europe, which 13 years of Labour governments retained in full, workers and their union leaderships were immediately confronted by a harsh choice: convince members to defy the anti-union laws and take decisive, appropriate forms of industrial action in defense of a vital enterprise and the communities dependent on it - or be hamstrung and paralyzed, beating a hasty retreat in the face of Ratcliffe's onslaught.


In the situation where a venture capitalist with absolutely no pretense of social responsibility to society - or to the skilled workforce that helped produce INEOS's £2billion in profit last year alone - had declared closure, permanent closure, a strike was not an appropriate tactical option. 

A more timely option would have been occupation of the site, to halt asset-stripping, and to use workers' control of the vast assets to mount a mass campaign for public ownership to save the jobs, conditions and enormous contribution to the national economy. 

It is an unfortunate irony that just a few days before UNITE general secretary Len McLuskey led the union delegation to offer wholesale acceptance of INEOS's brutal package, he had addressed the annual Jimmy Reid Foundation event with eloquent tribute to the inspiration to workers far and wide when Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was occupied by the workers to halt closures in 1971 - successfully. The spirit and lessons of UCS could have been an invaluable guide to the national UNITE leadership in the Grangemouth struggle for survival.


It would be irresponsible sectarianism to criticise the Grangemoth shop stewards or UNITE members who faced such horrendous dilemmas, especially in the context of the anti-union laws designed to neuter collective action. They showed great courage in a horrendous situation.

But the trade union movement as a whole needs to ponder the questions raised. How are we ever going to resist butchery by billionaire multinationals if the unions simply obey these laws? 

When are major unions going to take action in defiance of the anti-union laws, after thorough explanation and preparation of the members, and then build and demand solidarity from the wider trade union movement and working class communities?


As they announced their gracious decision to accept £134m off the taxpayer, and appalling reductions in the incomes and workplace rights of Grangemouth workers, INEOS bosses and their media sycophants made much noise about 'modern pension schemes', 'modern industrial relations', and 'accepting change in the modern world'. 

In the words of the mighty Paul Weller, "This is the modern world":

Capitalism in the modern world involves systematic lies about the 'financial distress' of the Grangemouth wing of INEOS's 51 manufacturing plants. Ratcliffe told us it makes a loss of £10m a month - although the annual figure pumped out by INEOS varied vastly with each new press release.

In fact the financial experts hired by UNITE proved that Grangemouth petrochemicals made them £7m profit last year, and £6m the year before. They found INEOS's own accounts forecast profits of £500m from Grangemouth by 2017.


And just to underline the lies used to stampede workers into thinking the place was 'worthless' (their word) and in need of a bounty from the government and the workforce to survive, Ratcliffe has declared to the world that Grangemouth now has a bright future for "the next 20 to 25 years".

Capitalism 'in the modern world' means it is in the gift of one man - a Swiss-based tax exile - to close down the only oil refinery in oil-rich Scotland; the power to obliterate an industrial site that produces at least £1billion a year towards the Scottish economy.

This is the modern world - one man lies, blackmails and bullies not only thousands of workers whose jobs depend on the place he owns, but holds the elected government of Scotland to ransom, demanding public subsidies for his private profiteering.


But there is something positive stirring in the minds of many ordinary people 'in this modern world', for the first time in years: the attraction to the idea of public ownership of vital national assets and public services.
The dictatorship of capital - in the form of one capitalist in this instance - has been revealed to millions in the past week, and reviled by most of them.

Added to Grangemouth, people are furious at the wider energy cartel, where the 'Big Six' suppliers of household energy carefully coordinate their crucifying 8-11% price increases just as the clocks go back for the winter months. The idea and demand for public ownership of energy is growing exponentially.

Likewise, the planned privatization of east coast railways, after its nationalisation led to over £200m being gifted to the government Treasury this year, infuriates people facing mounting fares and adds another strand to the attraction of public ownership.


When Ratcliffe and his cronies threatened the very existence of Grangemouth, the SNP government (in stark contrast to the Westmonster Coalition) quite rightly started to search for alternative ownership. How the hell could there be any justification in leaving the priceless assets, capital and workers' skills in the hands of JR and his capitalist vandals?

But why on earth did the SNP scour the globe - including China in particular - in search of a new owner? The answer was under their own nose: the Scottish government should have nationalized it, taking the assets off an outfit hellbent on rule or ruin. And they should have ushered in a new, democratic form of management, embracing the skills and expertise of workers' elected representatives, as well as the national government and appropriate scientists and experts.

Neither the SNP nor Labour openly or forcefully raised this blatantly obvious option - although individual MPs, MSPs and government ministers made some mild references to it.

And if the limited powers under devolution make that impossible (although Prestwick Airport's takeover by the Scottish government at least questions this), then surely combining support for nationalisation with the case for full-blown self-government under independence becomes all the more potent as an alternative?


The most disappointing aspect of the fight for nationalisation not being seriously pursued is that UNITE's central leadership did not vigorously expound it or campaign for it.

True, in a press release Len McLuskey called on Scottish and UK governments to give the site a new beginning "free of the tyranny of one man's whims. If this means securing financial assistance - or even nationalisation - then this must be done".

But referring to it in the passing in a press release is not campaigning for it!

Failure by either the trade unions or major political parties to champion the case for nationalisation, or indeed to carry it out in government, has left Grangemouth under the control and dictatorial fancies of Ratcliffe, a capitalist thug who has proven he shouldn't be let near the ownership of a burger van, let alone Scotland's biggest industrial complex.

The whole issue of democratic public ownership is one of the central issues that the Grangemouth crisis has thrown up; the trade union movement should seize the time, and popularize what is an increasingly attractive idea within the working class.


Although they have, to their great credit, promised renationalisation of Royal Mail under independence, the SNP Is not a party ideologically committed to public ownership. They are more inclined to rattle the begging bowl under the noses of multinationals, enticing them to invest in Scotland with promises of low business taxation.

But surely INEOS has given us a brutal object lesson in the folly of reliance on multinational capitalists for our prosperity and security?!


Labour has long since abandoned commitment to public ownership. That's what Blair's infamous 'defining moment' was all about: obliteration of Labour's commitment to public ownership of 'the means of production, distribution and exchange', as adopted in Clause Four, part 4 of Labour's constitution at the 1918 national conference. One hell of a series of betrayals have since happened under Labour, and they now reject the very concepts of public ownership or universalism.


So another profoundly important issue, thrown up in high relief by Grangemouth, is the outrageous absurdity of trade unions - including UNITE - devoting resources, members' money and members' activity to funding and shoring up the 'modern' Labour party.

JR and INEOS are the enemy of workers in this whole episode. They planned and stockpiled and provoked in a conscious effort to decimate the unions, in order to eradicate past gains in workers' terms and conditions.

But they were gifted the opening to apply their murky plans by Ed Miliband and the UK Labour leadership, when the latter witch-hunted Grangemouth UNITE convener Stevie Deans for doing what UNITE the union saw as their best political strategy: recruiting workers to Labour to make it the voice of workers. When Miliband & Co sent a report on Stevie Deans to the police - and treated Scottish Labour with imperial contempt by not even sending them a copy of their reports on the Falkirk Labour candidate selection row - that was the signal for INEOS to turn their guns on Stevie, to try and stitch him up and drag the whole workforce into a showdown that the union never planned for. The rest is recent history, with a detrimental outcome to UNITE's Grangemouth members, and indeed workers generally.


How many more examples of Labour in action does it take for the national union leaderships to abandon their utterly futile attempts to reclaim Labour for trade unionism, or even socialism? Even when Labour conference delegates voted unanimously to renationalise Royal Mail and the railways under a Labour government, by the time the union delegates who moved these proposals had returned to their seats in the Labour conference venue, Labour leaders and their spin doctors had reassured the media that there is not a snowball's chance in Hell of this happening.


The unions need to ponder much of what Grangemouth has taught us, not least the need to break from a party that has persistently acted as an opponent of trade union rights, public ownership and socialism - Labour - and to instead assist those of us striving to build a genuine, organised socialist voice of working people.

This really 'is the modern world'. If we study the experience of Grangemouth we can help to end the dictatorship of capital, and build a genuinely modern world, where the working class reaps the benefits of our collective efforts, with the most advanced workplace democracy and public ownership of major industries, services and banking. A democratic socialist one.

1 comment:

  1. superb blog - scots getting hammered from the right and centre (and from bad capitalist sticks) !


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