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Latest News - November 2013

November 9, 2013
How Ineos humiliated Unite in Grangemouth
Richard Seymour

It's easy to blame union leaders for not being more militant – but the oil refinery workers' fears for their short-term future were cleverly exploited


This was a rout. One of the best organised workplaces in the country, Grangemouth, suffered one of the worst defeats of the trade union movement in years.

Barely a shot was fired. The union was stunned; this wasn't the dispute they thought it was.

Lured into a limited battle over the witch-hunting of a union organiser, the real stakes were quickly revealed when the boss locked workers out of the plant and threatened to close it down.

The union's retreat was humiliating. They conceded everything: pay freezes, an end to final salary pensions, the end of full-time union convenors on site, and no strikes for three years. Employers across the country will look enviously on what Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire boss of Ineos, has achieved.

Why did they lose so badly? After all, this was not the first time that Ratcliffe had gone after the final-salary pensions scheme. He was comprehensively defeated in 2008. His battle with tanker drivers in March this year met with no greater success.

However, it seems that in March Ratcliffe began planning for a new confrontation, and stockpiling oil reserves to see out any strike.

The basis for an offensive was provided by the Falkirk controversy, in which Unite officials were supposedly involved in rigging Labour's selection procedures. It was a candyfloss controversy: mouthwatering, but fuzzy and insubstantial. However, the Labour leadership used it to launch a wide-ranging attack on the union link, forcing the Unite leadership onto the back foot.

Stephen Deans, a Unite representative at the plant and a Labour constituency chair, was initially accused. It was later conceded that he was responsible for no wrongdoing, but Ineos's lawyers used the scandal to justify looking into Deans's company emails to see if he had been using his working time to fight the scandal. They finally suspended Deans, provoking a vote for industrial action.

Thus was the trap laid. The union took their time, beginning with action short of a strike and negotiations. Even when Ineos walked out of Acas negotiations on 15 October, Unite again played cautiously, calling offplanned strike action. Ratcliffe responded by locking out the workers the next day and shutting down the plant, imperilling the Scottish economy. This was an employers' strike, not a workers' strike. Instead of workers withdrawing their labour, he withdrew his capital and threatened to withdraw it for good.

The Scottish government would find a buyer for the plant if necessary, but nationalisation was off the agenda. Any private sector buyer would be in a strong position to demand cuts to jobs, as well as pensions and pay. They could make a killing and still be welcomed as a knight in shining armour.

It's easy to blame union leaders for not being more militant, and usually this sort of criticism rings true. But workers at Grangemouth were not straining at the leash, and nor were any ringleaders ready to push the majority into militant action.

When Ratcliffe bypassed the union and offered workers a financial inducement to capitulate – 15 grand plus a top-up for their new pensions and relinquishing their right to strike – the union rightly urged workers to reject it, and it seems a majority did. But at least a third signed the new contracts, accepting utter defeat in exchange for a job and an immediate cash boost.

The tactic had played on workers' fear for their short-term future, encouraging them to individualise their calculations: if they lost their jobs, how would their families survive? In such an unpromising situation, who wouldn't look favourably on £15,000 upfront? It's the same desperate logic that leads us to go to payday lenders and loan sharks, knowing full well that immediate relief will be followed by a high cost.

This signalled the weakening of the union. What had been an overwhelming mandate for strike action was turning into a catastrophic retreat for a significant and growing minority of the workforce.

By the time the union had conceded the employers' demands and practically begged Ratcliffe to put the deal back on the table, most workers were simply glad to have kept their jobs.

Neoliberalism has always been, in part, about changing the calculations that people make by altering the balance of incentives and risks in their daily lives, making individual solutions to their problems easier, ruling collectivist solutions – such as nationalisation or secondary picketing – out of bounds. The wider context of stagnation, austerity and the rightward turn of politics has reinforced this. That is how Ineos won.

Not every workplace is Grangemouth. The same trick can't be pulled twice. But the terrain has just become much more favourable to employers.




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