Class war in Grangemouth

THE SWISS-based Ineos Chemicals Company in Grangemouth, on the River Forth upstream from Edinburgh is part of a large complex that includes a chemicals factory and an oil refinery that processes vital fuel supplies for Scotland and the north of England.

Jim Ratcliffe, known to some by his initials as JR, is the major shareholder and he decided a little while ago that, although he was making a lot of money from this company, he could make more if he could coerce the workforce to swallow a big cut in their wages and pensions.

But there was an obstacle — the giant union Unite, which has been playing a leading role in the fight against austerity cuts, putting money through trades councils into local community campaigns to save hospitals, schools and other social essentials and encouraging workers to get involved in their local constituency Labour Parties.

So JR set out to win a victory for his class, to show Unite who really rules Britain and to rub his employees’ noses in the dirt.

First he attacked the senior Unite convenor at the plant, Stevie Deans, for his involvement in encouraging workers to join the Falkirk Labour Party and accused him of engaging in politics in work time.

As expected, this personal attack on Deans provoked a threat of strike action. Then JR shifted the goalposts. He claimed that the troubled chemicals factory was making an annual loss and threatened to close it with the loss of 800 jobs — and the possibility of also closing the refinery — unless the workforce accepted the cut in wages and pensions and the union climbed down and promised a no-strike agreement for three years.

The workers and the union were furious but the threat to jobs and to the economy of Scotland was very serious. The union and the workers were forced to climb down.

JR had just demonstrated why, ultimately, the economic power of trade unions is not enough to protect workers against the insatiably greedy monstrosities of modern capitalists. Workers also need political power.

It is the same lesson that was learned at Taff Vale over a century ago and which led to the unions creating the Labour Party to speak up for workers in Parliament. But the Party has always been dominated by those who sought change by reform of the system rather than throwing it over completely and building a workers’ state.

If JR had tried the same trick 40 or so years ago, a Labour government under Harold Wilson would have told JR that if his factory was losing money, they would take it off his hands and nationalise it — as they did with the British Motor Corporation and British Steel.

But those nationalisations did not dent the capitalist state and gave no protection against what was to come under Thatcher and now under Cameron.

The Scottish government was powerless to act to protect itself from JR’s threat; it did not have the resources to take over Grangemouth and send JR packing and if it had tried it would have had to call in some other private company to run the place.

But Unite’s work within the workplaces and local communities may yet help to undermine the system; to educate agitate and organise and mobilise the workers for a real change — so long as they recognise that history has shown reformism to be a dead end.