17 Oct 2013
October 17, 2013

United in Calamity

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The stand-off at Grangemouth between employer Ineos and union Unite has led to the chemical plant’s temporary shut-down.  Unite says the shutdown is ‘economic vandalism’ – Ineos says it’s because Unite’s continuing threat of industrial action means shut-down is the safest option.  Both statements reflect the standard public posturing which happens around industrial negotiations.  But what’s actually going on?

Well, Ineos has been saying for some time now that the site is unproductive and payroll/pension costs will have to be reduced to make it work into the future. Unite disputes Ineos’ figures, of course. Whichever way you slice it, though, at the top level it’s not really that complex a situation – the company wants to return the site to profit (or increase its profits, depending on your theological choice), the union ostensibly wants to protect the pay and conditions of the workers as best it can.

So, who has the strongest hand?

Unfortunately for the union, it had announced a two-day strike before negotiations began in earnest at ACAS the night before last.  It’s hard to accuse an employer of economic vandalism when you’ve already said you’re pulling everyone out.  Hard, too, to convince the public that a shut-down doesn’t make sense when you’ve been making a big play of the health and safety dimension yourself.

From Ineos’s perspective, on the other hand, Unite seems to have presented them with a gift by claiming that the dispute is not about important things like jobs or viability, but simply about the future of lay-official Stephen Deans.

Deans is the site’s (and also Unite Scotland’s) Unite convener, currently under investigation by Ineos for allegedly abusing his position as site Unite convener to recruit scores of new Labour Party members. It’s undisputed that Deans did recruit many Grangemouth workers into the Labour Party over a very short time period, and the Union’s leadership has made clear that his purpose was indeed to dominate the local Labour selection process. Ineos is therefore clearly concerned that Deans may have used a great deal of company time and equipment for an overtly political purpose, while Unite says Deans broke no rules and is completely innocent. In the meantime, it’s very likely that Ineos’s managers and lawyers will have sought to ensure that the company has not fallen foul of the relevant employment law, and the company had already announced that it would make its findings re: Deans public on 25 October.

Unite’s official position is therefore that in order to protect a member under investigation by an employer, it announced strike action a few days before the employer’s certain (in the union’s view) declaration of that member’s innocence.  That position manifestly doesn’t make any sense at all and the public can see right through it.  Even worse, though, during the ACAS talks Unite withdrew the strike threat but the company continued the shutdown AND the investigation into Deans.  Perhaps there’s an unspoken quid-pro-quo – Deans will be found innocent in return for no strike action – but that’s academic because the upshot of it all is that Unite’s bargaining power over workers’ terms and conditions at the site is now badly depleted.

Through its strike threat over Deans, Unite gave Ineos the perfect public platform to put its case for cuts – and also to bypass the union and go straight to workers more concerned about their jobs than about the arcane details of a Labour Party selection contest. Unite has blown its negotiating capital down the toilet.  By backing down for nothing in return, and by whingeing about the (superior) tactics of the employer, Unite Scotland looks weak, ineffectual and actually rather pathetic; certainly not a union new workers looking for representation will want to turn to.

Unite’s over-riding problem is that its leadership has chosen to put politics, pseudo-ideology and career self-interest above the interests of Unite members. Unite has completely lost it focus; it’s raison d’etre even.  Unite’s general secretary has made it clear that his over-riding priority is to either move the Labour Party to the left, or establish a new party of the left.  His (disastrous) strategy has been to use workplace recruitment to dominate Labour Party selection processes then put his own place-men and women into Labour seats.  This has taken priority over his bread-and-butter role of looking after workers’ interests. The shutdown at Grangemouth, and the risk to the future of Scotland’s largest industrial site, is the consequence.

Whatever the true merits or demerits of Ineos’s arguments, Unite has handed them game, set and match. Unite is now powerless over workers pay and conditions in Grangemouth and unable to shift the dominant public perception that at the top it is a corrupted organisation whose highly-paid senior officials come first and whose members come last.

[I await the usual Unite ad hominem attacks]