After Grangemouth

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The threatened closure of the petrochemical plant at Grangemouth and the aftermath of the dispute have opened up a crucial debate inside the labour movement.

Is it no longer possible, even for a union as strong as Unite with 1.4 million members, to take on big capital and win in the face of neoliberalism? Are multinational companies like Ineos now just too powerful? Do the anti-union laws tie the hands of the unions and make resisting the threat of cuts and closures impossible?

More generally, as a series of public sector unions - the civil servants' PCS, the two big teaching unions, NUT and NASUWT, and the postal workers' CWU - all pull back from national action, has the balance of forces shifted fundamentally against our side? There is a real danger that the events at Grangemouth could be the signal for a more general retreat by the trade union leaderships.

Unite's leader Len McCluskey wrote in the Guardian that "seldom has one industrial dispute said so much about our society as the now concluded issue of the future of the Grangemouth refinery". Many would agree with that sentiment.

It's a truism that the bosses are to blame for blackmailing the workers at Grangemouth. It's was the Tories under Thatcher that allowed a "strategically vital asset" like Grangemouth to pass into private hands.

But are the unions really powerless in the face of these attacks? Owen Jones argued in the Independent that "more radical voices wanting the sort of occupation that the iconic Jimmy Reid led in the Upper Clyde in the early 1970s will have noted the cheers of the workers at the announcement that the site would be saved. They just wanted to keep their jobs."

Len McCluskey is at pains to make the same point, saying, "I am delighted that a mass meeting of Unite members on the Grangemouth site [gave] unanimous support for and understanding of the union's role."

Of course, despite the attacks on pay, pensions and union rights (including a no-strike agreement) workers would rather keep their jobs than face the dole queues. But once the union had agreed to accept the Ineos survival package, in the words of Len McCluskey "warts and all", what else were the workers supposed to do?

This argument certainly isn't about heaping scorn on the reps at Grangemouth. The survival of the plant and the strategy to defend jobs was a matter for the union as a whole. Stevie Deans and other union reps have paid the price for standing up for their members over years at Grangemouth and in Deans's case for arguing that working class people should have more of a role in the Labour Party.

In the wake of the unions retreat Stevie Deans isn't just out of the plant. He and Unite are now under attack from the Labour Party's right wing.

Former New Labour minister Jack Straw and others are arguing to reopen the inquiry into the Falkirk selection process. Straw said "Len McCluskey downwards put internal Unite politics before the interests of their members at Grangemouth."

These attacks have now encouraged the Tories to enter the fray with David Cameron blaming "a rogue trade unionist at Grangemouth, who nearly brought the Scottish petrochemical industry to its knees".

The outcome of Unite's strategy has been a huge setback. Something a lot more powerful than a leverage campaign aimed at Ineos directors was needed. And such a strategy could have been implemented.

It's clear from the size of the strike vote to the numbers of workers refusing to sign up to the company's survival package that workers were willing to fight. Unite could have gone ahead with the planned 48-hour strike. Pulling back from action only encouraged the employers.

As talk of the 1971 UCS work-in suggests, other strategies were possible. An occupation at Grangemouth could have caused a political crisis in Scotland and put the question of nationalisation centre stage. Calling for solidarity from other groups of workers like tanker drivers who had received support from Grangemouth workers in the past was a real option. The tanker drivers were prominent at the protest called by Unite at the Grangemouth site.

Ineos has other major sites across Britain. These could have been blockaded or picketed and the screw put on the company. Len McCluskey has called for civil disobedience to hit rogue employers and to take on the Tories. This would have been a very good time to turn words into action.

If McCluskey had given a clear lead it would have given every Unite member confidence. Just look at the effect McCluskey's support for the electricians' fight against BESNA and the blacklist had. But on that occasion McCluskey faced real pressure from the rank and file. Without that pressure he didn't give the necessary lead.

True, a fightback would not have guaranteed a victory. Those of us who argue the union could have taken a different course are now told that would have meant playing fast and loose with the plant's future and the communities that depend on it. But the outcome leaves the union weaker and opens the possibility of other employers "doing a Grangemouth". All the talk of the injustice of the employers' behaviour doesn't change that fact.

Owen Jones argues that Grangemouth means we have to "start asking fundamental questions about how society is structured in Britain". That's right. But where's the punch line? What are we going to do about these attacks?

If the answer is relying on a Labour government to change things then we have a real problem. Labour is already committed to Tory spending plans and as we've seen in the row over Falkirk, at the heart of the Grangemouth dispute, it wants to distance itself from the unions.

Labour cannot be relied on to tame employers like Ineos and fat cat bosses like Ratcliffe or to take "strategic" sectors of the economy back into public hands. Whatever way you look at it what happened at Grangemouth is nothing less than an American style "give back" by workers.

Of course, the workers celebrated keeping their jobs but if Unite had argued for a different strategy the evidence is that they would have stuck with the union. Whatever the difficulties are, whatever the power of the employers or the government, we are going to have to stand and fight or let workers pay the price for the crisis.

For more: Crisis management, dirty tactics. Frontline article by Roger Short