Unite members at the Ineos oil refinery and petrochemical plant in Grangemouth will be staging a 48-hour strike on 20-21 October in defence of site convenor Stevie Deans.
A work-to-rule and a ban on overtime have already been underway since the beginning of October, following an 81% vote for strike action and a 91% vote for action short of strike action in a ballot with an 86% turnout.
The strike action is the latest stage in the workforce’s defence of Stevie, who has faced a sustained campaign of harassment by senior Ineos management since the summer of this year.
Stevie, who is also chair of the local Labour Party, was suspended by party officials in July on the basis of what are now known to be totally unfounded allegations of bogus membership recruitment in an attempt to rig the parliamentary selection ballot.
On 17th July Ineos management exploited the Labour Party suspension of Stevie by suspending him themselves. His personal laptop was confiscated and news of his suspension was broadcast to all employees.
A week later, after a mass meeting had backed a call for strike action, Stevie was re-instated. But since then the local management, apparently acting on orders from Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe, has launched another two investigations into misconduct allegations of their own invention.
The current investigation is scheduled to be completed on 18 October, with management due to make a decision on what action, if any, to take on 25 October.
But rather than wait until then, and thereby run the risk of allowing management to set the agenda, Unite members have taken the initiative to strike.
In a hard-hitting statement issued last Friday – “The Victimisation of Stevie Deans: What is it and What Does it Mean?” – the plant’s shop stewards committee denounced management’s attack on Stevie as part of a strategy of union-busting at Grangemouth:
“We believe that INEOS billionaire boss Jim Ratcliffe wants to break Unite, Britain and Ireland’s biggest union, in Grangemouth.
“He has decided to use a political sideshow, shaped by the Tory Party, to attack and target Unite senior shop steward Stevie Deans.
“He is intent on conflict with his own workforce and to this end is victimising Stevie Deans. Ordinary workers are being attacked by powerful people intent only on destroying their union.
“We believe Jim Ratcliffe is motivated by wanting to break the union and strike fear into the workforce. The victimising of Stevie Deans is, we believe, part of a plan to go to ‘war’ with the union - whatever the cost.”
It is no coincidence that the attacks on Stevie coincide with an offensive against the Grangemouth workforce’s terms and conditions of employment.
Earlier this month Ineos wrote down the value of its petrochemical assets at Grangemouth from £400 millions to nothing. It has said that unless it can secure increased investments and reduced running costs, it will shut down the plant by 2017 at the latest.
Ineos’ threat to close the plant is being used to put pressure on the Scottish and UK governments to cough up £150 millions in grants and loans. This demand by Ineos for a massive public subsidy is nothing short of shameless.
There is no available evidence to show that Ineos has paid any tax in the UK since 2008. Ineos moved its global headquarters from the UK to Switzerland in 2010 to save £100 millions in tax. And Ineos now operates in five tax havens: Switzerland, Luxemburg, Jersey, Bermuda and Singapore.
Although Ineos is claiming that Grangemouth lost £150 millions over the past four years, the company’s own accounts show that Ineos Grangemouth Chemicals made a profit of £31 millions in 2011, and £49 millions in 2012.
Perhaps this explains why Ineos has rejected a proposal from Unite for an independent financial survey of the site, paid for by Unite itself.
Ineos is also demanding cuts in labour costs in the form of: scrapping the final salary pension scheme, job cuts, worse pay and conditions for new employees, and a reduced scope for collective bargaining.
As last Friday’s shop stewards’ statement put it: “Jim Ratcliffe’s threat to workers’ terms and conditions is an act of aggression, not necessity.”
Unless the company backs down, the strike will have a major impact in terms of lost production at the plant and its broader knock-on economic effect.
A two-day strike at Grangemouth in 2008 shut down the North Sea Forties pipeline and cost the UK economy up to £600 million. In terms of ‘costs per hour’ it was the costliest dispute in UK history. Five days after the end of the strike, Grangemouth still was not back at full capacity.
And given the background to this strike, it will also have a major political significance.
Had it not been for the Labour Party’s witch-hunt of Stevie Deans, Ineos would not have had a pretext for launching its own witch-hunt. Scottish Labour Party MSPs and MPs should therefore be visible on the picket lines.
Unite in the West of Scotland is already staging various actions targeted at other companies which deal with Ineos, as part of a ‘leverage’ strategy. And at a recent local Area Activists meeting, Unite officials promised transport to take Unite members from Glasgow to support picket lines in the event of strike action.
To make sure the union wins in Grangemouth, Unite should be mobilising support for the dispute throughout Scotland.