“Strike to win”, “Unity is strength”, “Workers’ solidarity”. Old fashioned? Yes, but these trade union slogans have never been more relevant than today.
All of the above is enshrined in the ethos of the Grangemouth trade unions hub — where various unions across different sectors have joined forces. The hub was founded just after the Ineos dispute in 2013, in order to bring together refinery workers, dockers, rail workers and tanker drivers to give us more leverage during any future disputes.
We quickly realised that our companies were taking an active interest in what we were doing — they seemed to know when our meetings were. They were concerned because they had never dealt with trade unionists across different companies and contracts uniting like this before.
A key aim of ours is to encourage other branches to establish their own specialist hubs, with an overarching view of bringing all of them together. International trade unions got involved in our efforts — we are now linked with unions from Norway, America and Germany.
As the hub continues to expand, our ethos has remained consistent: if companies can speak to each other and cooperate on deals and negotiations, then so too should trade unionists. We are actively attempting to rebuild the strength of the unions so that we are more equipped to fight the various attempts to weaken our movement, primarily the implementation of the Trade Union Act. We believe that stronger, more organised workforces can and should protect the smaller ones.
An example of this is the Grangemouth dockers’ strike last March. Despite 15 months of amicable negotiations with the Port Authority the workers had new conditions imposed upon them, which would result in wage losses of up to £1,800 per year. The Port Authority was confident that the workers would not get enough support for action, as they had never struck before. However, the ballot result came back at 100 percent support for a strike, leaving only managers and agency staff remaining.
During the strike the dockers moved the picket line to cover an access road that directly interfered with the Grangemouth Ineos in/out gate. Chaos erupted when drivers refused to cross it. The union lawyer was nervous about the legalities of blocking the road. As far as we were concerned, as drivers, we were not going to cross the picket line, whether legal or not.
I believe that there is a disparity between the suits and the boots within the trade union movement. Too often in disputes, the suits within the union are in a hurry to secure a quick deal, as opposed to being bold and waiting until we get the right deal — as the boots would expect. However, given that the general secretary of my union receives a bigger salary than the prime minister, perhaps it is clear that radical action from the top is not going to be forthcoming.
The dockers’ strike action meant that all impositions have since been lifted and they have managed to negotiate a fresh deal, which the dockers are treating as a victory.
I believe that, as workers, we have been force-fed a neoliberal agenda which, in turn, has resulted in a neoliberal mind-set. It has been drilled into us that we should be grateful for anything that we are offered in the private sector — because our 3 percent pay rise looks decent when compared to the 1 percent granted to those in the public sector. In reality, we should all be looking for much more — and we must not feel like we are asking for too much.
We are being targeted by a Tory government that is butchering everything from public spending to workers’ rights. In the same year that we saw the junior doctors go on strike, major cuts to disability benefit and the continuation of the austerity agenda, we were also made aware of the Panama Papers and the lengths that the wealthy are prepared to go to in order to hide their fortunes and deprive the public purse of much needed funds.
It seems that neoliberalism works for some people, but not for us. In times like these it is vital that the trade union movement maintains its strength, its unity and its readiness to act.
It is apparent that this Tory government is hell bent on reigniting Margeret Thatcher’s war on the trade union movement by continuing to erode workers’ rights and neutering the strength of the unions — which brings me back to the Trade Union Act. We must show Theresa May that we are prepared to stand up across the country to oppose any and all attacks on our rights, our security and our employment.
Branches must be ready, willing and able to break the law if and when it is required. After all, an attack on one trade unionist is an attack on all trade unionists. In the face of uncertainty, it is vital that we stand together.
Liam Stevenson is a member of Unite at Grangemouth