A fight the trade union movement cannot afford to lose

The anger and determination of the worker’s at Grangemouth oil refinery and petrochemical plant was evident at a well-attended rally organised by the Unite union on 20 October. Hundreds of union members took part, underlining the determination of workers not to accept the bullying tactics of the company, Ineos, and its billionaire owner Jim Ratcliffe.

It was not just Ineos workers who were there, although they showed up in their hundreds. Tanker drivers marched to the rally, workers from a neighbouring BP site also showed their solidarity, as did construction workers who have been involved in the recent Besna battle. Glasgow City Unison shop stewards and officials, as well as representaatives from the PCS, EIS and RMT unions, and other unions also took part. Local families from Grangemouth town and surrounding areas also came, as did activists from the Scottish Anti-bedroom Tax Federation.

Workers have been told they have until Monday 21 October, 6pm, to agree to a draconian package of cuts to their terms and conditions, or the company will refuse to restart the plant. These include a wage freeze, no bonuses until the end of 2016 and the tearing up of the final salary pension scheme.

It is vital that while supporting the call for genuine negotiations, Unite stand firm and that there should be no concessions to the company’s slash and burn agenda on pay and conditions and to reject the idea of an open-ended no strike agreement.

Many workers were angry that Scottish National Party (SNP) First Minister Alex Salmond has called on the union to agree to a "no strike policy, without strings". This would simply allow the company to drive and coach and horses through the rights of the workers at Grangemouth

No victimisation!

The company also want to attack union rights at the site – getting rid of full time union representation. The threat to remove shop steward Stevie Deans is still not resolved. Workers voted by 81% in favour of strike action over the threatened victimisation of Stevie.

The issue of union rights at Grangemouth is an important element to this dispute.

Steven, a Unite member, who works as a Fitter at Grangemouth told the Socialist: "Ineos are trying to drive the union out. They are threatening to move union people to different part of the site, in an effort to split-up and isolate them.

Calum has just finished a four year apprenticeship at Grangemouth, "We don’t have any choice, we have to fight this blackmail or they’ll be nothing left."

"The union has been encouraging workers to hand back their blue forms (new contracts) unsigned, back to the union office, not the management and hundreds of us have done that" said Derek who has been working for nine years at Grangemouth. "Ratcliffe is a bully and we need to stand up to bullies"

Playground bully

The theme of the playground bully was taken up by union convenor Mark Lyon who addressed the rally, "We were warned by union conveners at other facilities taken over by Ineos that they were no paternal company. They told us of the parable of the apple and the dinner money. The school bully would take your apple, and then your dinner money and then it was your bus fare home and before you know it there’s nothing left and this won’t end until you stop them. This is what Ineos are doing."

Open the books

Ineos have been indulging in a black propaganda exercise that says the company is losing money, hand over fist. They are demanding huge cuts to terms and conditions and public money from the Scottish and UK governments. Yet as Unite’s Scottish regional secretary Pat Rafferty correctly pointed out at the rally "sales have increased by more than 50% in the last year, gross profits are up by 20% and their operating profit is up by a whopping 56%. Ineos made profits of £2 billion last year alone"

Ineos are registered in Switzerland, avoiding paying corporation tax in the UK and bury money in tax havens across the world. A Socialist Party Scotland leaflet demanding that the books of Ineos be opened up to trade union inspection was widely read.

Unite assistant general secretary, Tony Burke, brought support from Unite members across the UK and from trade unions internationally, including Norway, USA, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, France and Italy.

Ineos chairman, Jim Ratcliffe, has said that unless workers accept the draconian attacks on their terms and conditions by Monday night, the plant will not re-open. They have also threatened to terminate the employment of the 1,400 workers within 45 days and re-hire workers on worse contracts.

This is a fight that not only the Unite members at Grangemouth but the entire trade union movement cannot afford to lose. If after Tuesday the plant is not restarted then it will be clear that what is involved here is a lockout by the company of its workforce.

There will be an urgent need to discuss the occupation of part of the Grangemouth site, mass demonstrations and protests. The Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) should ensure the organisation of a national demonstration in the next week or two demanding the plant re-open, with no cuts to the pay and pensions of the workers. An urgent shop stewards conference of private and public sector trade unions should be convened to organise and plan a solidarity campaign.

Nationalise the plant

A key demand will be for the nationalisation of Grangemouth by the Scottish and UK governments, to take the plant out of the hands of the profiteering Ineos and ensure that Grangemouth and the jobs and terms and conditions of the workers are protected and invested in.

STUC general secretary, Grahame Smith, touched on the issue of nationalisation in his speech. Smith compared the actions taken to nationalise RBS and other banks and raised the need for similar action if Ineos management did not back down. His contribution, while not using the ‘N word’, did show that the issue of public ownership is being discussed.

This was a key demand of the Socialist Party Scotland leaflet distributed at the rally on Sunday. We would add that nationalisation should be carried out democratically. The plant should be run on the basis of workers’ control, made up of representatives of the workforce, the wider trade union movement and the Scottish government, but with a majority worker involvement.

Unless Ineos bosses back down on Tuesday from the threat to impose draconian cuts to workers conditions this dispute could explode into a struggle similar in its scale to the UCS struggle in the 1970’s. What is clear is that the organised strength of the entire labour and trade union movement needs to be mobilised to ensure the union-busting, profiteering tactics of Ineos and its billionaire majority owner are defeated.

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