Now the dust has begun to settle over the debacle at Grangemouth, it is important we draw the lessons. The climb down by Unite has serious implications for the future of the labour movement. After the initial relief of keeping their jobs, the painful reality of a massive fall in living standards is beginning to dawn the on workers in Grangemouth.
The workers were faced with the stark choice of fighting the closure announced by Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire owner of Ineos, or giving in to his blackmail by accepting his “survival plan”. In the end, the union leadership chose not to fight.
The ugly face of capitalism
Jim Ratcliffe has been portrayed as a ruthless employer who was prepared to lock out his workforce and close down his plant. There is no doubt about this. But there is little difference between him and the rest of these capitalist tycoons, who are in business for one thing: to make money. That is the reason for their existence. It has nothing to do with the “kindness of their heart”. Their “ruthless” pursuit of profit is driven by the greed and the laws of capitalism – the laws of the jungle: to squeeze the maximum profit out of the labour of the working class. This is the morality of the “market place”. To portray Ratcliffe as a particularly nasty and brutal employer is to miss the point, as he is no different from the rest of this gang of blood-suckers.
The working class and the boss class are engaged in a war. This class war has intensified because of the deep crisis of capitalism, which means there is little scope for compromise. There have been increasing attacks on terms and conditions for more than 30 years, but the slump of 2008-9 represented a qualitative turning point.
Times have changed, but the leaders of the trade unions are lagging woefully behind the situation. They are living in the past. “We were up against a phenomenon we have never come across before”, said one Unite official, clearly shocked at what had happened. Len McCluskey, the Unite General Secretary, denied that the union had been humiliated, saying it had been confronted with an “ultimatum” to cut pay and pensions by Ineos, which was “not the way 21st-century industrial relations should be conducted”, as if it was a game of cricket.
But “industrial relations” are not a game; they are the class struggle. In a war - and this is a class war - the opposing sides weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. Ever since Ratcliffe was defeated over proposed changes to pensions in 2008, the bosses have been preparing the ground for a new confrontation. One does not have to have a degree in military strategy to understand this.
A question of leadership
The bosses would have taken fully into consideration the big concessions given by the Unite leadership to employers elsewhere who threatened redundancies or closures. The deal at Vauxhall on Merseyside, where the workers were forced to accept big changes to their terms and conditions in return for keeping their jobs, was an obvious example. This involved Unite, who attempted to keep the concessions under wraps. Similarly with the defeat of Unite over the British Airways dispute, where again the workers were forced to grant significant changes to keep their jobs.
Today, there is an even bigger propaganda campaign for the working class to accept austerity, cuts, sacrifices, etc. But weakness invites aggression. The timidity of the trade unions encourages the likes of Ratcliffe to attack the living standards of workers further.
These failures by the trade union leaders, headed by Unite, simply give confidence to the bosses. It is clear that Ratcliffe prepared the ground for a conflict at Grangemouth, beginning with the victimisation of Stevie Deans, one of the two full-time convenors. The union secured a big majority for industrial action over this incident, instituting a work-to-rule and overtime ban, and announced a 48-hour strike. Ratcliffe closed the plant ahead of the strike, locking out the workers. The union reacted by calling off the strike, but the plant remained closed.
Ratcliffe was holding a gun to the heads of the workers and demanding that the workers agree to massive changes to pay and conditions (“a survival plan”) before the plant would reopen. This included an end to the final salary pension scheme, a three-year wage freeze, cuts in bonuses, cuts in overtime pay and shift allowances, a three-year no-strike agreement, and an end to full-time union convenors on site. This constituted a draconian attack.
The propaganda machine churned out the story that the company was in financial difficulties and losing £10 million every month. They made sure the figures were fiddled to put the plant in a poor financial light. Thus, it was the workers, who wanted to hold onto their hard-won gains, and not the bosses, who were portrayed as “greedy” and “unreasonable”.
Ratcliffe went over the head of the union and sent every worker an ultimatum: sign the new terms and conditions or else face the consequences. He attempted to split the workers, especially between those in the petrochemical plant and those in the refinery. The union correctly told workers not to sign the new contracts and over 70% of workers followed this advice. Within a few days management announced that the petrochemical plant would permanently close with the loss of 800 jobs. The oil refinery would also remain closed until further notice.
Capitulation without a fight
The Ineos bosses had thrown down the gauntlet. However, instead of calling a mass meeting and organise a mass campaign to resist the closure, starting with an occupation of the plant and sending pickets to other plants, the Unite union hoisted the white flag and accepted the Ratcliffe terms. Len McCluskey went to Grangemouth to sign the deal “warts and all” to keep the plant open and save the jobs.
“We’re not going to allow 800 jobs to go. We’re not going to allow the community of Grangemouth to become a ghost town and the security of Scotland be put in peril”, he said.
Despite the fighting words, it represents a capitulation without a fight, the worse kind of capitulation, which the bosses will use to drive home their advantage. You should not bluff without being prepared to carry it through. The “agreement” represents a defeat for the workers at Grangemouth and for workers elsewhere. It will mean a blow to the confidence and morale of workers, at least in the short term.
Things could have been completely different if the union had taken a real stand. This was an unnecessary defeat. While some workers in Britain have little bargaining power, this is not the case in Grangemouth. The workers there have enormous industrial muscle and leverage. The Grangemouth refinery supplies petrol and diesel to 70-80% of Scotland and also the north of England. Tanker drivers are organised in Unite and would not cross picket-lines. Let us recall that these drivers won their pay dispute within days due to the mere threat of industrial action. Pickets, as in the successful Lindsey oil refinery dispute a few years ago, could have been sent to halt production in the other six refineries. Within days, the economic impact would have been felt everywhere, bringing decisive sectors to a standstill. Again, as in Lindsey, it would have meant defying the law over secondary picketing to ensure the success of the struggle. But the Lindsey struggle - involving unofficial strikes across the country - showed that when workers move en masse and defy the law, the state can do little, for fear of only adding fuel to the fire.
Occupation and nationalisation
Initially the call was correctly made amongst the workers for the nationalisation of Grangemouth. This should have been the central demand: nationalisation, without compensation, under workers’ control, to take such a vital industry out of the clutches of the likes of Ratcliffe. It would have put the pro-business SNP government in Scotland, who were alarmed at the situation and working hand-in-hand with the London government, on the spot.
The example of UCS in 1971, where the workers organised a “work-in”, became a cause celebre and an inspiration to all those workers fighting closures and attacks. The struggles of Visteon and Vestas in the past period give further examples of militant workers occupying factories in Britain faced with closure. Grangemouth could have been the same. The difference being that the situation would have come to a head within days. The union leaders have managed to steal humiliating defeat from the jaws of potential victory. They have frittered away the power they had.
This whole episode reflects the crisis of leadership within the trade union and labour movement. Where successes have been made recently, as in the Besna (“sparks”) dispute, the bosses were beaten back by the initiative and courage of the rank and file. If it had been left to the union leadership, whose appointed official in the construction industry was sceptical about taking action, and who initially attacked the rank and file committee as “cancerous”, the Besna dispute would have gone the way of Grangemouth.
The Unite leadership sees itself as ever-so “practical”. But it failed to prepare for an all-out struggle, believing it could be handled “the way 21st-century industrial relations should be conducted”. In fact, they had no plan or strategy, but hoped that Ratcliffe would cave in by mere threats. But this was a complete miscalculation and blunder. As a consequence, the union leaders have delivered the Grangemouth workforce bound and gagged by accepting a three-year no-strike deal, with their full-time union convenors now banned from the plant.
The defeat in Grangemouth certainly does not lie with the workers. They were prepared to fight. However, if there is no leadership, but only capitulation by their union leaders, then they will see no alternative but to accept the bosses’ terms.
Typically, Ed Miliband, the spineless Labour leader, described the “significant movement on the union side” as “encouraging”, which was also welcomed by David Cameron. “It is a day of great satisfaction… people can look forward with confidence to a bright future”, said Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister. Where is Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” now? The whole thing is a sham. Instead, we see capitalism in the raw.
Tell the truth
This will not, however, be the end of the matter. As Trotsky explained in the late 1930s, “above all, we must clearly tell the masses what’s what. It is unacceptable to play hide-and-seek.” This defeat will encourage the owners to come back for yet more concessions “to put the company on its feet”, while maintaining the threat of closure over the workers’ heads. At a certain point, with their backs against the wall, the workers in Grangemouth will say enough is enough.
“Unfortunately, no one in the upper tier of the trade unions has yet dared to deduce from the sharpening social struggle such bold conclusions as those made by the capitalist reaction,” stated Trotsky. “This is the key to the situation. The leaders of capital think and act immeasurably more firmly, more consistently, and more daringly than do the leaders of the workers – these sceptics, routinists, bureaucrats, who smother the fighting spirit of the masses.”
“The trade union leaders come out with platitudes at the very time when each worker senses a catastrophe overhead.” Our programme must be linked to the overthrow of capitalism, explained Trotsky.
“Of course, this programme involves struggle, not prostration. The trade unions have two possibilities: either to manoeuvre, tack back and forth, retreat, close their eyes and capitulate bit by bit in order not to ‘upset’ the owners and not ‘provoke’ reaction. Another route is to understand the inexorable nature of the present crisis and to lead the masses onto the offensive.”
Unfortunately, the present trade union leaders have no confidence in the working class. In reality, they have no confidence in themselves. They close their eyes to reality and act as a brake on the movement. There is no longer any middle ground: it is either fight or capitulate. The union leaders do not understand the nature of the crisis that we are in: a protracted crisis of capitalism, the deepest since the 1930s, which can last for decades if capitalism is not overthrown. For them, the crisis is simply “ideological”, brought about by the actions of wicked Tories. “It is sad that you have a government locked into a particular ideological philosophy that brings so much hurt and pain to ordinary working people”, stated Len McCluskey recently. (Daily Mirror, 10/9/13)
The Tories and their friends are acting according to the dictates of their system. It is not the government that decides, but the monopolies and the laws of capitalism.
No return to normality - fight for a socialist alternative!
The organic crisis of capitalism means that there will be no return to “normality”, as the so-called recovery shows. Capitalism can no longer afford the reforms of the past. It has reached its limits. The reforms are being systematically taken back. That is the real meaning of capitalist austerity. They want to drive us back to the 1930s or to the level of the “competitive” Chinese workers. This is going to shake the working class from top to bottom in the coming period, and with them the trade unions.
Those who are not prepared to reflect the new situation will be pushed aside. New, younger, fresher layers will come to the fore. They will realise, in this school of hard knocks, that we cannot tolerate these attacks. They will come to realise that only the overthrow of capitalism can resolve the problems that confront us. Nationalisation has already been raised concerning Grangemouth. With the utter bankruptcy of the market to solve society’s problems, we will see this call become universal.
In times of war, you have to act accordingly. The ground is being prepared for massive changes. Socialist Appeal will play its full role, alongside workers in struggle, in helping to rearm the working class with a fighting leadership and a socialist programme that can provide a way out of this morass.