To engage in a battle with employers which then ends in defeat or a setback is no disgrace. To run up the white flag at the first whiff of grapeshot is shameful, however hard Unite leader Len McCluskey is trying to spin the Grangemouth debacle.
Stung by references to “capitulation” in the media, the Unite general secretary has used both the Guardian and the Financial Times this week to try and regain some credibility as a militant trade union leader. What happened, however, amounts to the most serious setback for trade unionism in recent times.
The facts are indisputable. Ineos demanded that the Grangemouth workforce accept substantially reduced conditions. A ballot showed a majority of the workforce against the terms and willing to fight. The employers then threatened to close the petrochemicals plant and review the future of the refinery. Both are at the heart of the Scottish economy.
Alarm bells rang at the Unite HQ in London. McCluskey flew up to Scotland and within hours had signed the surrender terms unconditionally. Pay is to be frozen for three years, pensions will be reduced, a no-strike pledge was given and the position of convenor was to be abolished. A few days later, the convenor Stevie Deans, Unite’s branch secretary, resigned before he was sacked over alleged political activities on company time.
In his Guardian article, McCluskey says that what happened at Grangemouth “shines a vivid light on the nature of power in our society today”. He adds: “The central message is clear – the rights of private ownership are unchallengeable, even in a vital economic sector like energy, and the ability of the capitalist to hold workforce and community to ransom is undiluted.”
But with all due respects to the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union, this could have been written at the beginning of the 19th century. That’s been the nature of the industrial class struggle since the early confrontations. Then, as today, effective strike action was illegal. Then, as today, the employers had the state and the political class on their side.
Of course, some employers are more ruthless than others in pursuit of profit. And at a time of global recession, the bosses are on the offensive to drive down costs, which is what happened at Grangemouth. Jim Ratcliffe, chairman and majority owner of the Ineos chemicals group doesn’t disguise his objectives in this regard.
In the Financial Times today, McCluskey warns others employers that Unite would not be “cowed” by its defeat at Grangemouth and would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with any workforces who were mistreated. But is this anything more than sheer bluster?
The Grangemouth workforce was prepared to fight. If the union leaders had prepared one, they would have taken part. An occupation against closure would have rallied workers throughout Britain. No such plans were contemplated, unfortunately.
McCluskey bemoans the existence of draconian anti-union laws. These were introduced by the Thatcher governments and retained by the subsequent Blair-Brown governments. But why not defy them? It’s been done before – successfully. In the early 1970s, the engineers’ union – now part of Unite – simply ignored the anti-union laws brought in by the Heath government. Discredited, they were repealed by a Labour government soon after.
Four decades later, McCluskey is pinning his hopes on a Miliband government coming to the rescue. But Miliband is pursuing another path. Firstly, he is using the Falkirk candidate selection shambles – which Deans and Unite were heavily involved in – to review the party’s links with the trade unions.
There’s absolutely no way that Miliband and his One Nation Labour populist party are going to curb the power of the employers like Ineos. Miliband, like the Westminster and Edinburgh governments, were on the side of the employers at Grangemouth and against strike action. The global corporations hold the whip hand and Miliband’s ambitions are limited to making capitalist markets work better!
The six million union members and their families are bearing the brunt of the ConDems’ austerity policies. For that to change, they’ll need leaders who will put their money where their mouth is.