Lessons of Grangemouth: Scotland held to ransom by a capitalist dictator

by Richie Venton

The sight of Grangemouth workers cheering as they accepted brutal cutbacks should not be dressed up as anything other than a serious setback for workers.

First published: 05 November, 2013 | Category: Activism, Corporate power, Economy, Labour movement, Privatisation

Scotland breathed a collective sigh of relief at the eleventh-hour reprieve for the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, Scotland's biggest industrial site. 800 workers had faced unemployment 48 hours earlier, when its owner INEOS had announced its closure and liquidation. Another 550 oil refinery workers and 2,000 contract workers faced the same fate – with all the devastation, poverty and social destitution such  shameless economic vandalism threatened.

Some kind of job is better than no job at all, and much-reduced wages and conditions are preferable to having no wages. But the sight of Grangemouth workers cheering as they accepted brutal cutbacks should not be dressed up as anything other than a serious setback for workers. Not a defeat on the scale of the heroic 1984-5 miners' strike (which unlike Grangemouth was defeated despite a full year of incredible struggle, solidarity and self-sacrifice, in full confrontation with the state) but a serious setback nonetheless. To reverse the closure announcement, the UNITE union leadership offered complete acceptance of the savage cuts INEOS had demanded. These included a three year pay freeze; an end to Final Salary Pensions; savage cuts to shift allowances and bonuses, 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'; and a three-year no strike agreement. Union convener Stevie Deans has subsequently lost his job of 24 years, with the tabloids and David Cameron baying for his and UNITE's blood. And workers who defied INEOS’s blackmail and bullying are to get lesser pensions than others who conceded.

Within hours of these vast concessions by workers – plus the ransom paid of £9m in Scottish government grants and £125m in loan guarantees from the UK government to a tax-dodging multinational with £43billion turnover – the media and commentariat launched a festival of lies and vitriol against trade unions. They buried the real sequence of events, to tell a fairytale of the union bringing the workforce and entire economy to the edge of the abyss, pronouncing the death of trade unionism. It doesn't occur to them to ask why £134m of taxpayers' money should be handed over to a gangster capitalist who could get that same sum if he sold his £130m super-yacht.

INEOS boss and chief shareholder Jim Ratcliffe played the cavalier industrial thug, and got away with it. Documents prove he prepared in March to stockpile supplies and then provoke and defeat a strike – which he marked into the calendar for November. His aim? To decapitate the union, decimate workers' wages and conditions by £50m, and blackmail £150million out of governments (i.e. taxpayers). This would be used to subsidise INEOS’s investment plans to import shale gas ethane from the USA where the destructive fracking industry is laying waste to whole communities and the environment.

Ratcliffe laid his plans; Ed Miliband gifted him the chance to implement them, when Labour witch-hunted UNITE convener Stevie Deans. INEOS then launched their own fusillade against the union convener. What choice did UNITE and its members have? Just lie down and let Ratcliffe sack their site convener as a prelude to a general assault on wages and conditions? Workers voted by 81 per cent to strike, with an initial 48-hour stoppage due on 20-21 October. On discovering documentary proof this was a long-planned provocation, the union cancelled the strike. Ratcliffe took this as a signal of weakness and increased his aggression, issuing 'sign or be sacked' forms to every worker at their home address, deliberately bypassing the recognised union.

To their eternal credit, over 680 of the 1,000 union members refused to sign up to this bullying and blackmail; a courageous display of union 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 to INEOS's profits – Ratcliffe shut down the petrochemical plant, liquidating it. The workers and entire community, indeed the whole of Scotland, reeled in shock and devastation at Ratcliffe’s unhesitating vandalism.

In the past, the pivotal economic position of the site would have given trade unionists an almost invincible weapon: solidarity industrial action at both ends of the production process – from the Forties oilfield pipeline into Grangemouth, to supplies of nearly all the fuel in Scotland, Northern Ireland and northern England, and production of 30% of Britain's needs of ethylene and similar materials. But 30 years after Thatcher constructed the most repressive anti-union laws in Europe – retained in full by 13 years of Labour government – workers and their union leaderships immediately confronted a stark choice. Either convince members with a clear plan to defy the anti-union laws and take decisive, appropriate forms of industrial action in defence of a vital enterprise and the communities dependent on it, or be hamstrung and paralysed, beating a hasty retreat from Ratcliffe's onslaught.

In a situation where a venture capitalist with absolutely no pretence of social responsibility had declared permanent closure, a strike was not an appropriate tactical option. More effective would have been occupation of the site to halt asset-stripping and take the fight to the heart of the beast. 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 a bitter irony that just days before UNITE general secretary Len McCluskey led the union delegation offering wholesale capitulation to INEOS's brutal package, he had given the annual Jimmy Reid Foundation lecture with an eloquent tribute to the inspirational and successful Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation to halt closures in 1971. The spirit and lessons of the Shipbuilders occupation could have been an invaluable guide to the national UNITE leadership in the Grangemouth struggle for survival.

The whole trade union movement needs to ponder key questions posed. 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?

Ratcliffe and INEOS have pulled off an enormous extortion racket, robbing workers and taxpayers, after spouting systematic lies about the 'financial distress' of Grangemouth, one of their 51 manufacturing plants worldwide with combined profits £2billion. Contrary to their blackmailing lies about it being 'worthless', experts discovered Grangemouth petrochemicals made £7m profit last year, and £6m the year before. They found INEOS's own accounts forecast profits of £500m from Grangemouth by 2017. Capitalism 'in the modern world' means that one man – who registered INEOS in Switzerland in 2010 to dodge at least £100m a year UK taxes – has the power to close down the only oil refinery in oil-rich Scotland; to obliterate an industrial site that contributes over £1billion a year to 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.

Nationalisation

When Ratcliffe and his cronies threatened the very existence of Grangemouth, the SNP government – in stark contrast to the Westminster Coalition - rightly sought alternative ownership. But why on earth did the SNP scour the globe in search of another profit-hungry owner? The answer was under their own noses: the Scottish Government should have nationalised the plant, taking the assets off an outfit hell-bent on rule or ruin. Neither the SNP nor Labour openly raised this blindingly obvious solution. And if the limited powers of 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 a potent alternative?

Most disappointing was  the failure of UNITE's central leadership to fight for nationalisation. Failure by either the unions or the major political parties to champion the case for nationalisation, or indeed to carry it out in government, has left Grangemouth under the dictatorship 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. Democratic public ownership is one of the central issues the Grangemouth crisis has thrown up; the trade union movement should seize the time and popularise what is an increasingly attractive idea within the working class. 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 attraction of public ownership of energy, other vital national assets and public services is growing exponentially.

To their great credit, the SNP has promised the renationalisation of Royal Mail under independence, but they are 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. INEOS has given us a brutal object lesson in the folly of reliance on multinational capitalists for our prosperity and security.

Another Labour betrayal

The Labour Party has long abandoned any commitment to public ownership. That's what Blair's infamous 'defining moment' was all about: the 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. Grangemouth highlights the absurdity of trade unions – including UNITE – devoting resources, members' money and members' activity to funding and shoring up the 'modern' Labour Party. Ratcliffe and INEOS are the real villains  in this whole episode. But they were gifted the opportunity to apply their murky plans by the UK Labour leadership's witch-hunt of the Grangemouth UNITE convener for doing what UNITE see as their best political strategy: recruiting workers to Labour to make it the voice of workers. Where was Johann Lamont – UNITE member, UNITE sponsored MSP, elected to Scottish Labour leader with UNITE’s help – during this drama? How many more examples of Labour betrayal will it take for the national union leaderships to abandon their utterly futile attempts to reclaim Labour for socialism, or even trade unionism?

The trade unions need to ponder much that 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. If we study the experience of Grangemouth we can help end the dictatorship of capital, and build a 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.

 

Richie Venton is a Scottish Socialist Party national workplace organiser.

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