So Grangemouth is safe, after Unite changed its mind and urged the company to implement the very ‘survival plan’ that it so fiercely rejected to begin with. Scotland’s commentariat have almost universally seen the episode a matter of how a wealthy owner of a private company is able to throw his weight around. The Labour Party, too, has unequivocally supported Unite, the union whose strike threat led to the plant’s closure in the first place. The party has proclaimed as evil the billionaire with a yacht and the lack of accountability of private companies. The thrust of discourse in Scotland has been that Unite may not have handled the issue very well until now, but that’s in the past – what matters now is the 800 jobs at threat. The truth, however, is that the significance of Unite for Grangemouth’s, and the Labour Party’s future is greater than ever.
Unite called a two-day strike because Ineos was investigating the conduct of a shop steward who had allegedly spent much company time recruiting workers to the Labour Party in order to dominate the selection of my Labour successor as parliamentary candidate in Falkirk. The union now says it was worried about jobs all the time, but this hardly squares with its placing of the shop steward at the top of their priority by calling a strike. When the company took the opportunity of the shut-down which followed to present its much-flagged ‘survival plan’, Unite rejected it out of hand. Unite figured the company was bluffing. It wasn’t. 800 jobs were lost and another 600 at the refinery next door threatened. That refinery next door is, of course, also owned by Ineos and however this situation pans out, Unite will still represent the workers at the whole site. Unite’s wholesale failure to prioritise, work out the threats to jobs and put a plan together is what led to the jobs loss. Unless the union recognises this and changes its approach, and makes a public statement to this effect, then Ineos will declare the site non-viable.
The Labour Party, too, has mishandled the situation and invited the public to draw unflattering inferences about its present collective state of mind. The Party has supported Unite simply because it is a trade union in a dispute, regardless of the fact that it’s the wrong dispute at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Wealth has been criticised per se, as if a rich man can’t make a coherent decision. The profit motive has been derided in spite of the fact that most workers of course work in the private sector. The fact that shop floor workers earn up to £55k at Grangemouth and that they voted for the loss of several thousand much less well-paid jobs in the local supply chain has never been raised by the party. The party has criticised the ’70s-style language’ of the employer, while ignoring the 70′s style action of the union. The style, by the way, which led to Labour’s catastrophic defeat in 1979.
Perhaps most seriously, though, Ineos seems very likely to follow though on something Labour did not have moral courage to do, which is to act on evidence of wrongdoing by the shop-steward at the centre of the whole battle. Following an extensive inquiry, Labour announced that it was in no doubt that the Unite official had broken party rules while trying to fix the local Labour selection process. It was so confident that it handed its evidence to the police. Later, under pressure from Unite, it withdrew and decided that nothing wrong had been done after all. That shop steward has now been re-instated as the chair of the Labour Party in Falkirk (where the largest group of Ineos workers live). If Ineos acts where Labour did not, which seems very likely, it will expose a terrible failure the the party to act with moral authority.
So far, Grangemouth has exposed Labour’s distaste for the private sector, where most people earn a living. It’s about to expose the terrible extent to which Unite is dominating the party’s decisions. A rubicon may have been crossed. But in the wrong direction.Tags: Grangemouth, Labour Party, Unite