On the morning of 23 October, Ineos bosses at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland announced that the petrochemical plant within the complex is to close, threatening over 1,000 jobs.
The workers' existing dispute, over the victimisation of shop steward Stevie Deans and attacks on terms and conditions, must now escalate to consider sit-down strikes (occupations) and the demand for public ownership. So far, the SNP government has ruled out nationalisation, saying it wants to find a new buyer for the plant.
Even if a new buyer could be found, it is likely that it would insist that Ineos' union-busting contract be imposed on workers. The new contract included a freeze on basic pay, the scrapping of bonus payments at least until the end of 2016, a cut the shift allowance from £10,000 to £7,500, a cut overtime and holiday entitlements, and the replacement of the existing redundancy terms by the statutory minimum. Overall, workers stood to lose out by up to £10,000 a year.
The company also planned to replace its final salary pension scheme by a defined contributions one. Workers would pay higher contributions than they do at present, in order to eventually receive a worse pension. Ineos was also demanding that the scope of collective bargaining with the recognised union (Unite) be reduced, that full-time convenors be replaced by part-time ones, and that Unite give a commitment not to engage in any industrial action for the rest of the year.
Ineos had previously said it was prepared to invest more money into the site, but only if workers agreed to the new contracts.
The bosses’ plan is “a blueprint for attacking … all workers”, according to union activists. A speaker at a recent 1,000-strong rally said that, if Ineos gets its way, “it will open the door to casualisation, zero-hours contracts, and a race to the bottom. It will be open house for union-busting employers across Scotland.”
The proposed new contracts were sent to employees’ homes at the end of last week, with a covering letter demanding that they be signed and returned by six o’clock on Monday 28 October.
The issue of Ineos’s’ victimisation of Unite convenor Stevie Deans remains unresolved.
Unite has run a high-profile public campaign against Ineos bosses, both in support of Stevie and against their proposed attacks. But although Unite says its “leverage” strategy, of putting public pressure on companies through leafleting, demonstrations, press coverage, and so on, is not a replacement for industrial action, the 48-hour strike due to take place on 20-21 October, in opposition to the victimisation of Stevie Deans, was called off by Unite.
Unite’s calculation was that, by calling off the strike, they would “expose” the fact that the plant was being shutdown by management’s intransigence rather than their members’ action. But they have gone even further, giving a commitment not to call any more industrial action as long as negotiations about a “survival plan” for the plant continue, provided that the threat to sack employees is also withdrawn. This attempt to outsmart Ineos risks severely weakening Unite’s bargaining power.
And the justified focus on the “big picture” of the plant’s future should not be at the expense of sidelining the defence of Stevie Deans against Ineos’ victimisation.
On Monday 22 October, Unite announced it had received forms from 665 members rejecting the new terms and conditions. (Unite has over 1,000 members in the Grangemouth workforce of 1,350). Ineos, on the other hand, claimed that it had received “about [read: a lot less than] 300 positive returns”.
Although Ineos is conducting its own war to win over the public, in reality it can afford to ignore public opinion. Ineos sells nothing directly to the public. As one journalist has put it, “Ineos is the largest company you’ve never heard of”.
Smart thinking and appeals to public opinion should be complementary to, not a substitute for, collective power and industrial strength.
With closure now imminent, tactics like an occupation must be considered. If Ineos cannot, or will not, invest the funds to keep the workplace operational, workers should demand that the government steps in and takes the plant into public ownership. Sit-down strikes and an ongoing occupation of the plant could force the issue.