Workers Hammer No. 225
Labour paved way for attack
Union bashing at Grangemouth
The following article was first published in Workers Vanguard no 1035, 29 November 2013.
On 25 October, the leaders of Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, signed a deal amounting to a humiliating defeat for workers at Scotland’s only oil refinery, in Grangemouth. Formerly owned by British Petroleum (BP), the vast industrial complex near Falkirk powers a major pipeline from the North Sea and supplies fuel to pumps throughout Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of northern England. Since the takeover of the facility by Ineos in 2006, boss Jim Ratcliffe has been determined to break the union. His previous assault on the pension plan was defeated by a successful two-day strike in 2008, which shut down the pipeline that carries 30 per cent of Britain’s oil.
The stage was set for the recent anti-union attack by the Labour Party leadership, which instigated a vicious witch hunt against Stephen Deans, a senior shop steward who worked for 25 years at Grangemouth. Bowing to Tory allegations that Unite was rigging the selection of a candidate in the Falkirk district, Labour leader Ed Miliband called in the police to investigate the local party branch, of which Deans was chairman at the time. Not a shred of evidence was found, by either the cops or the Labour Party’s own investigation. But the dirty deed was done. The oil bosses continued with disciplinary proceedings against Deans, threatening him with the sack.
The accusations against Deans stem from the union’s role in recruiting around 150 union members into the Labour Party and backing its preferred parliamentary candidate. This strategy is politically misguided, to put it mildly. Given the intense hostility of the Labour Party elite towards any taint of association with the unions, Unite’s strategy of “reclaiming” Labour, which was never more than a reformist party loyal to bourgeois rule, is something of an exercise in feeding the hand that bites you. Nevertheless, it was correct and necessary for the union to defend Deans against management, which went after him on the grounds that he was conducting political work on the company’s time. In fact, political work is a normal part of a shop steward’s job.
In September, union members in Grangemouth voted for strike action in defence of Deans by a resounding 81 per cent. The union called a two-day strike to begin on 20 October. But on 15 October, Ineos shut down the entire Grangemouth site, effectively locking out all 1370 permanent workers as well as some 2000 temporary contract workers who were already being laid off. What was needed from the outset was a strategy aimed at mobilising the social power of workers throughout the oil industry, in Scotland and elsewhere. Faced with a declaration of war on the union, a leadership worth its salt would have sought to choke off the supply of fuel to petrol stations by appealing for class solidarity from the oil tanker drivers. These members of Unite waged a strike in February that defeated an attack on their pensions by BP, showing that it is possible to fight the bosses and win.
Far from appealing to workers outside the Grangemouth complex, union leaders threatened with the shutdown offered to call off the strike. This betrayal further emboldened Ratcliffe, who issued an ultimatum to the workforce: sign an agreement slashing jobs, pensions and pay, or be sacked. Once again, union members voted to fight, rejecting Ratcliffe’s blackmail by a two-thirds majority. On 23 October, Ineos announced the permanent closure of the petrochemical facility, with the loss of 800 jobs, supposedly because it was in “financial distress”. The Unite leadership surrendered completely. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and Scottish regional secretary Pat Rafferty agreed to swallow the “survival plan” that union members had rejected a few days before. The plant was reopened on Ratcliffe’s terms, which include a three-year pay freeze, a no-strike agreement, an end to the final-salary pension plan and no more full-time union representatives on site.
Rather than call this defeat by its right name, the bureaucrats spun the story as if they had won a victory by “saving jobs”. Rafferty said: “Relief will ring right round the Grangemouth community, and across Scotland today. Hundreds of jobs that would have been lost can now be saved and £300 million will be invested into the plant” (Unite website, 25 October 2013). McCluskey declared: “I went to Scotland last week to save those 800 jobs and keep a vital national asset open in the face of a real threat of closure”, admitting that the deal with Ineos is not that different from “the difficult discussions my union and others have had with many employers during the current banking slump” (Guardian, 30 October 2013).
For the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy, “saving jobs” means the workers must make sacrifices to maintain the company’s profitability. Over the decades, such class collaboration has led to one sell-out after another. Take the much celebrated 1971 work-in at the financially troubled Upper Clyde shipyard — led by Communist Party-affiliated union officials and supported by Labour “left” Tony Benn — which saw workers complete orders rather than take industrial action. Today, only two shipyards remain on the Clyde, with the loss of 1800 more jobs looming between the Scottish yards and England’s centuries-old Portsmouth facility. Shipyard workers, who mainly work on strategically important Ministry of Defence contracts, have the industrial muscle to fight these threats. To wield that power requires a class-struggle programme, not the class collaboration that has proven utterly ineffective in preventing the capitalist production system from chewing up workers and throwing them on the scrapheap according to the whims of the world market and the relentless pursuit of profit.
The attacks on Unite have continued unabated since Grangemouth reopened, with the Sunday Times and Daily Mail adding fuel to the fire. The dirty anti-union smear campaign is all to the benefit of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories, as Unite provides substantial funds to the Labour Party. Meanwhile, Stephen Deans has been hounded out of his job and is not seeking re-election to his position in the Labour Party.
The attack on Unite is part of an assault on all workers, in Britain and internationally, to make them pay for the global capitalist crisis. There is no simple trade union solution to the ills of the capitalist system. But if the unions are to become effective in fighting for their own interests — and those of the unorganised working class, temporary/agency workers and the unemployed — what is needed is a new leadership that bases itself on a programme of class struggle against the capitalist order, as opposed to class collaboration. This task is linked to the forging of a revolutionary workers party to fight for a workers government that would organise production for social need, not for profit.
Reformists hark back to “old Labour”
The Grangemouth betrayal shows that the “socialist” left lacks any alternative to the bankrupt politics of the trade union leadership. Both the Socialist Party of England and Wales, which advocated a vote for McCluskey as Unite leader, and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) bemoaned the fact that he didn’t fight. For these groups, the way to “save jobs” is to appeal to capitalist governments to nationalise ailing enterprises, a call raised by McCluskey himself at Grangemouth. The SWP looked to pressure Cameron’s government in Westminster, saying that “a real campaign to nationalise Grangemouth would have been very hard for the weak and divided Tories to ignore” (Socialist Worker, 5 November 2013). Showing a preference for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which runs the Scottish parliament, the Socialist Party Scotland wrote: “Decisive action by Unite, including the occupation of an appropriate part of the site, would gain mass support and apply huge political pressure on the Scottish government to carry through the nationalisation of the plant” (quoted in “Trade Unions Must Learn Lessons from Grangemouth Setback”, socialistpartyscotland.org.uk, 25 October 2013). Never mind that the SNP was working in collusion with the Ineos bosses!
Plant occupations flout the property rights of the bosses, and in so doing point the road forward in the struggle for working-class power. But for the reformists this tactic is a means to bring pressure towards nationalising industry under capitalism. In the same framework, Socialist Party Scotland raises the demand for Ineos to open the books to inspection by the trade unions. Gaining access to the real books can be useful to exposing the truth behind the company’s propaganda. Unite appointed accountants to study the company’s published finances in order to challenge Ratcliffe’s claims that the Grangemouth plant would have to close because it was losing £10 million a month. However, in the absence of class struggle, such exposure had little effect on Ratcliffe. By calling off the strike, the union tops were in no position to call the company’s bluff — once the union leadership folded, the bosses did not have to show their hand.
One thing is certain: the Ineos bosses hyped up fears about job losses to turn the screw on the union and to grind more out of the workers, while milking taxpayers to underwrite millions in loans that will make Grangemouth a more lucrative source of profits for City of London investors. Moreover, if Grangemouth had been taken over by a capitalist government — whether in Edinburgh or in London — as the reformists demand, pensions, wages and bonuses would have been slashed as much as they were under the Ineos “survival plan”. In contrast to reformist “socialists” who put forward nationalisation schemes to rescue failing capitalist enterprises, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky declared:
“We can say to the miner, you wish nationalization. Yes, it is our slogan. It is only the question of conditions. If the national property is too burdened with debts against former owners, your conditions can become worse than now. To base the whole proceedings upon a free agreement between the owners and the state signifies ruin of the workers. Now you must organize your own government in the state and expropriate them.”
— “For a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government,” July 1938, printed in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder, 1977)
Marxists advocate the nationalisation without compensation of certain strategic industries, such as that related to North Sea oil and gas, including the refineries. This perspective has nothing in common with the social-democratic call for nationalisations to bail out bankrupt industries. Bourgeois nationalisations can do nothing to fundamentally counteract the ravages of the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist system that periodically puts entire sections of industry out of business with devastating consequences for the working class. Under a planned economy administered by a workers government, collectivised industry would play a profoundly liberating role. The rational allocation of resources within the framework of an international division of labour would unleash the productive forces, strengthening the working class.
Labour betrayals boost Scots nationalists
For the Socialist Party Scotland, Grangemouth shows yet again that “today Labour does not support workers in struggle and that Unite should come out clearly in favour of a new mass workers’ party, public ownership and a real political alternative to the austerity agenda” (25 October 2013). The illusion that old Labour supported workers in past struggles is central to the Socialist Party’s core programmatic commitment to recreating an old Labour-type party, ie, a party based on the trade union bureaucracy and the myth of public ownership under a bourgeois government. This myth was enshrined in Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution, which nominally committed the party to “common ownership of the means of production” and codified the notion that socialism could be achieved through legislation in parliament. It thereby was a rejection of the need to smash the capitalist state (the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) and establish a workers state, the dictatorship of the proletariat. The adoption of Clause IV in 1918 was an attempt to deflect the radicalising impact on the working class of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Labour was founded as a bourgeois workers party — while saddled with a pro-capitalist leadership, its membership consisted primarily of the trade unions. In 1994, shortly after counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, Tony Blair announced the abolition of Clause IV, signalling his intention to transform Labour into an outright capitalist party. The process stalled due to Labour’s dependence on trade union funding, but as we observed in 2008: “New Labour today is moribund as a reformist party of the working class” (Workers Hammer no 204, Autumn 2008). As a follow-up to the witch hunt of Deans and the local party in Falkirk, Miliband has picked up where Blair left off, calling a special conference next spring to end the system whereby union members are registered en masse as members of the Labour Party.
For the Labourite left, the high tide of old Labour and Clause IV was the nationalisation of coal, steel and other industries by the Clement Attlee government elected in 1945. In the context of Britain’s dramatic decline from its once-dominant role in the world economy, these giant capitalist bailouts were designed to help British capitalism to compete in the world market. In that sense, the post-WWII nationalisations under old Labour were no more socialist than the bailout of the banks carried out in 2008 under the then New Labour government (or, for that matter, by the Bush/ Obama regimes in the United States).
Social-democratic support for nationalisation of failing industries goes hand-in-hand with protectionism and national chauvinism, which is poison to working-class consciousness. A grotesque example is the 2009 construction workers’ strikes at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire demanding “British jobs for British workers”, in which the Socialist Party of England and Wales played a prominent role. We vehemently opposed this reactionary campaign, which was not intended to secure more jobs or to defend existing jobs, but to give preference to British over foreign workers in the allocation of existing jobs. In rejecting such divide-and-rule ploys that pit workers of different countries against each other, we called for the unions to defend the rights of immigrant workers and to organise the unorganised. We wrote: “Consistent opposition to these reactionary strikes requires a revolutionary internationalist programme and a perspective of mobilising the multiethnic working class in Britain in a struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the racist capitalist system” (Workers Hammer no 206, Spring 2009).
North of the border, the Socialist Party Scotland shamelessly panders to Scottish nationalism. The demands they raised during the Grangemouth showdown were entirely limited in scope to Scotland, mainly to Grangemouth itself, with no attempt made to appeal to workers at oil refineries in England and Wales. At least on paper, oil unions in other European countries had defended the union rep at Grangemouth. Leif Sande, president of the trade union Industri Energi in Norway representing 60,000 oil, gas and related industry workers, wrote a letter demanding that Ineos Britain put “an end to the intrusive and accusatory investigations and threats of dismissal against the shop steward Stephen Deans”. While such declarations of paper solidarity do not carry great weight in and of themselves, they point to the possibility of mobilising the unions in concrete acts of class solidarity.
SNP hails Grangemouth as Scotland’s future
Reformist leftists in Scotland (and in England), who previously tailed Labour, are now in thrall to the bourgeois-nationalist Scottish National Party. The SNP, which controls the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, is campaigning for a “yes” vote in next year’s referendum on independence. The vote “no” campaign is led by Labour — for decades the main party in Scotland — which argues for Scotland to remain in the “United Kingdom”, but with more autonomy.
SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, who helped broker the anti-union deal at Grangemouth, crowed when it reopened that the plant has a “bright future”. Some future. Grangemouth — one of Scotland’s few remaining industrial complexes, where the trade union has now been crippled and workers cowed into submission — indeed prefigures the kind of future the working class can expect in capitalist Scotland, independent or otherwise. The SNP’s vision of “independence” does not include a break with the British monarchy or the sterling currency.
We revolutionaries oppose the reactionary entity known as the “United Kingdom”, which is centred on the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established (Protestant) churches and incorporates the Orange statelet in Northern Ireland. The Westminster parliament reflects the favoured status granted to finance capital, the City of London and the Home Counties of southeast England by the ruling class, which has nothing but contempt for the former industrial areas of northern England as well as Scotland and Wales. We uphold the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales, which means the right to form independent states.
As such, we defend the democratic right of the Scots to choose whichever option they want in the independence referendum, but we do not advocate either a “yes” or a “no” vote and are indifferent to the outcome. Our programme is for a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles. Within such a federation, we do not predetermine what Scotland’s status will be — an independent workers republic, an autonomous region or any other status of their choice compatible with working-class rule.
The right of self-determination also implies the right not to separate. This course can be preferable for semi-assimilated nations like Scotland and Wales, both of which lack decisive differences in either language or religion with England. When the Spartacist League/Britain was founded a year before the era of Margaret Thatcher began, we declared: “We are for the right of self-determination, but call on the Scottish people to exercise that right by choosing to stay in the same state as the other peoples of Britain” (Spartacist Britain no 1, April 1978). Over the course of the intervening decades, our press has stated many times that the pervasive English chauvinism of the British bourgeoisie could well drive the Scots towards separation. This was clearly seen during the Thatcher years, when the hated Poll Tax was imposed first on Scotland, in 1989. The destruction of manufacturing industry has had particularly devastating consequences in Scotland, whose proletariat was often in the vanguard of the British trade unions.
One affront after another — from the treachery of Labourite union leaders that sealed the defeat of the year-long 1984-85 miners strike by the Thatcher government to New Labour’s subsequent adoption of Thatcherite policies — has increasingly driven the working-class in Scotland to electorally support the Scottish nationalists, although not necessarily the call for independence. The SNP’s popularity with former Labour supporters has more to do with policies that the Scottish parliament has introduced, including free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly, no university tuition fees and a freeze on council tax. By contrast, Labour promises not to reverse the Tory cuts in public spending if elected.
Central to the SNP’s case for independence is the claim: “It’s Scotland’s oil.” From the time it came on stream in the late 1970s, North Sea oil was also claimed by the British capitalist rulers to be the solution to the country’s profound economic decline. The Thatcher regime shut down most of the coal mines — largely as a political move to destroy the militant miners union — and promoted North Sea oil and gas as the country’s main source of energy. Even at its most productive, when revenues poured into London, North Sea oil did not fundamentally improve British capitalism’s position relative to that of its rivals. And now North Sea oil has passed its peak. The cost of exploration and extraction is growing, and the oil giants are shifting their investments to more lucrative areas of the world. With oil profits set to decline even further, the British ruling class increasingly views Scotland as an economic drain, a phenomenon reflected in the frequent ranting in the English chauvinist press about subsidies to Scotland.
Trillions of dollars are invested worldwide in infrastructure related to oil and gas production and refining. At the same time, the price of oil can be wildly unstable. In the naked pursuit of profit, the big oil companies are always striving to ratchet up the rate of exploitation of the working class. The industry is also notoriously unsafe — from the industrial murder of 167 workers on the North Sea’s Piper Alpha platform in 1988 to the numerous fatalities in crashes of helicopters ferrying workers to and from the rigs.
The Grangemouth plant produces much of Scotland’s refined petroleum and chemical exports, but like the rest of Europe it is struggling to cope with falling consumer demand for petrol and stiffer competition, with shale gas production slashing the price of American chemical products. Britain increasingly imports its diesel, even as it exports much of the petrol it produces. Meanwhile, the government is expanding its nuclear energy capacity and has plans for shale gas. Britain’s aging refineries are also facing competition from modern ones in the Near East, India and China. As a result, the Coryton refinery in Essex closed last year, with Milford Haven refinery in Wales reportedly now under threat of closure.
One of the lessons to draw from Grangemouth is the need for an industrial union of all oil workers. As we wrote in “Oil workers — shut down production now!” (Workers Hammer no 116, September 1990) during a series of strikes and occupations of North Sea oil rigs: “A hard strike would lay the basis for forging one solid union of all onshore and offshore oil workers. Production workers, as well as maintenance and catering workers, must be mobilised in struggle: a Piper Alpha-type inferno does not distinguish between contract workers and others.” In the wider context of war moves by the US and British imperialist powers against oil-rich Iraq, the article concluded:
“Thatcher has particularly targeted the working people of Scotland, with her devastation of the Upper Clyde, the coalfields and now Ravenscraig. Those who are lucky have got jobs doing hard, demanding and dangerous work offshore. And whether Labour or Tories administer capitalism the companies will extract extortionate profits from the sweat, blood and corpses of oil workers. That wealth should benefit not a handful of bankers, capitalists, colonels and sheikhs but the working people of the world, who will lay claim to it through proletarian revolution and the establishment of an international socialist order.”
In the article “Union bashing at Grangemouth”, Workers Hammer no 225, Winter 2013-2014, we stated: “We uphold the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales, which means the right to form independent states. As such, we defend the democratic right of the Scots to choose whichever option they want in the independence referendum, but we do not advocate either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ vote and are indifferent to the outcome.” The referendum does not pose an issue of principle and we are not taking a stand for or against independence. But we are not indifferent to the outcome, nor to the many questions it will surely pose. (From Workers Hammer no. 226, 18 April 2014.)