Grangemouth: Another provocation

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A chorus of condemnation has greeted David Cameron's launch of an inquiry into trade union tactics in the wake of the Grangemouth affair.

Unite the Union has described it as a Tory election stunt and rightly called for a refusal to cooperate with it.

Frances O'Grady of the TUC said that it is "simply part of the Conservative Party's general election campaign" and even SNP leader Alex Salmond has suggested that it "was entirely about seeking electoral advantage". These responses are fine as far as they go.

The review has the fingerprints of the Tory election strategist, Lynton Crosby, all over it and is consistent with his shameless evocation of dog whistle politics over immigration and welfare in the run up to the next election.

The Tories want to tar Labour with the brush of dependence on the unions and resurrect the somewhat unconvincing vision of "Red Ed".

Will Hutton (Observer 23 November) argues that this is a sign of Tory desperation as a combination of the threat of UKIP, voter disaffection and pressure on living standards makes it "almost certain" that there will be fewer than 300 Tory MPs in the next parliament.

It is also clear that the review will hardly be impartial, chaired as it is by Bruce Carr QC who acted for British Airways in 2010 to prevent a strike by cabin crew members after they voted by 92 percent in favour of industrial action.

It will undoubtedly portray union tactics in an unfavourable light and play into the "bully boy"narrative.

But there is another more important dimension to this development. The Independent newspaper describes it as "the politics of provocation" and Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil service workers union calls it "a political witch-hunt".

They point to its real objective of keeping the unions on the back foot and preventing an effective fightback on attacks on jobs, wages and pensions. Not content with the raft of anti-union legislation from the 1980s, kept intact by Tony Blair's Labour government in the intervening years, the Tories are looking for more ammunition to hamstring resistance to austerity.

The focus on the "leverage" tactics of Unite is revealing. Interestingly it is a word borrowed from the lexicon of city takeover bids when the assets of the target company are used to secure loans taken out to finance the aims of the predator.

More colloquially, it implies the application of pressure on a target, and if the focus of Unite's campaigns of demonstrative action against companies and their owners can be portrayed as "provocative and intimidatory" it may have the effect of deterring them and other unions from taking more effective action.

But this accusation of intimidation is not only one sided - the real bullying at Grangemouth came from boss Jim Ratcliffe of INEOS who put the livelihoods of hundreds of workers at risk with his threat to close the plant. It is also a blatant attack on the rights of workers to protest.

The victory against blacklisting at Crossrail and the success of the BESNA dispute were built in part on the imaginative tactics of protest and demonstrations which targeted the bosses directly.

But it is important to stress that "leverage" protest are not a substitute for the more effective strategy of industrial action.

Michael Bradley's article on the collapse of Unite's strategy at Grangemouth in November's issue of Socialist Review was a timely reminder that we need all the shots in our locker if we are to mount an effective defence against the bosses' offensive.

There is another danger implicit in responses to the Tory attack and that is the Faustian pact between the union bureaucracy and the Labour Party. Ironically Labour paved the way for the attack on Unite by its own attempt to smear the union over its intervention in the selection for the candidate in the Falkirk by-election. Labour wants union funding but not its political influence.

The challenge for the unions is to put forward a strategy that puts the interests of their members first regardless of the links with Labour. Unfortunately the history of this relationship does not augur well for the future.

Already it is clear that Unite's response to Labour's review of its relationship with the unions is at best ambivalent. It dodges the issue. Simultaneously it continues with a political strategy of funding Labour to the tune of millions of its members and banking on a Labour victory at the next election.

The initiative from the Unite-backed People's Assembly to launch a petition against the Tory review of union activity is welcome and everyone should commit themselves to it. But we need to go further.

When we are confronted with an attack as serious that presented by the Tory's austerity offensive we have to ensure that we adopt a range of political and ideological initiatives, including demonstrations and protests, linked to an effective programme of united and sustained strike action.

Clic here to sign the People's Assembly petition.