After Grangemouth

SCOTTISH workers have suffered a terrible blow in Grangemouth. The Swiss-based Ineos Group that owns the chemicals plant and oil refinery on the River Forth has forced the union to accept draconian terms under threat of closure while extorting millions from the Scottish government and Westminster to guarantee continued production.

The Scottish Nationalist government in Edinburgh was undoubtedly just pleased to see work continue at the complex that processes vital fuel supplies for Scotland as it lacked the powers or the will to nationalise the plant. The Con-Dem national government was delighted to see Ineos upholding “management’s right to manage” by tearing up all its previous agreements and understandings with Unite, the union that represents the workforce at the plant. And all the Grangemouth workers can console themselves with is that, at least, they still have a job to go to.

The biggest union in the country has been humbled and the blame game has begun. The Unite leadership is now under fire from the armchair revolutionaries and those of the Trotskyist milieu for not taking on Ineos head-on and the United Left, the dominant faction in the union has responded in kind.

The United Left chair says that: “Predictably the ultra-left is pedalling its usual poison of destructive criticism of our Union. I’m asking you all to resist this nonsense talk of sell-out by Len McCluskey or anyone else, or that somehow our strategy was wrong and that ‘mistakes were made’. Let’s be clear, there was no sell-out and mistakes were not made.”

Yes, no, maybe. The truth is that the Grangemouth workers have paid a heavy price to keep their jobs. Their pay’s been frozen, bonuses have been slashed and their final salary pension scheme abolished. The workers have been forced to accept a three-year no-strike deal, an end to full-time union convenors on site and a senior shop steward has been victimised with impunity.

But the issue is not whether Unite should have done this or that — it lies deep in the heart of the union movement as a whole. The mainstream union culture of reliance on negotiations and the supposed skills of full-time officers to defend their members’ interests disarms the rank-and-file from the start. The belief that the bigger the union the stronger it becomes has lulled many into a false sense of security and the hope that organised workers can claw back some of their losses when Labour returns to power, or if and when Scotland gets full independence, puts off till tomorrow what must be done today.

Let’s be clear about this. The only thing that the employer fears is strikes and all negotiations are ultimately futile without the threat of industrial action and the ability to deliver it. That’s all that collective bargaining ultimately boils down to.

Some union leaderships, like those of the transport unions, have successfully used this lever to fight for higher wages and defend their members’ terms and conditions. Others, including those of the “awkward-squad”, rarely go beyond the fiery speeches at TUC and token protest strikes, which are easily brushed aside by hard-nosed employers like those who run Ineos.

The communist movement in Britain as a whole has a duty and responsibility to work to build fighting, class-conscious unions that can do what they were set up to do in the first place — defend their members rights and secure the highest possible price for their labour.

It’s not an easy task. As Lenin himself said in 1920: “It is far more difficult — and far more precious — to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies, and quite often in downright reactionary bodies, in a non-revolutionary situation, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action. To be able to seek, find and correctly determine the specific path or the particular turn of events that will lead the masses to the real, decisive and final revolutionary struggle — such is the main objective of communism in Western Europe and in America today.”