After Falkirk and Grangemouth, where next?
The article below should be seen as a contribution to an ongoing discussion. It draws on discussions with members of Democratic Left Scotland and others in late 2013. Any comments would be very welcome.
“… we represent the only real organised challenge in society to the values and views of our bankrupt establishment.” States Len McCluskey in relation to the events of 2013. Events we are told that help illuminate ‘the nature of power in society today’. A telling assertion that suggests that the Labour Party, as it is now at least, offers little in terms of taking on neo-liberalism and the interests of capital. Additionally Unite’s General Secretary also states that globalisation renders our politicians and governments weak in the face of the ‘almost unlimited power of private ownership to act as it pleases’.
Few on the Left would take issue with the general thrust of these comments and it is easy to see how they were informed by the events at Falkirk and Grangemouth but given the outcome some discussion is required.
Falkirk: At one point Falkirk was represented by the popular and effective MP Denis Canavan. That was before New Labour and boundary changes. Then the disastrous Eric Joyce prompted a selection battle. Unite unlike other unions Public Commercial and Services (PCS), Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and Rail Maritime Transport (RMT) have emphasised the recapturing of the Labour Party. Unison and GMB are more agnostic. This leaves Unite alone with an active strategy of ensuring more working class and anti-austerity MPs get elected to Westminster. A strategy that means taking on the Labour Party career machine where Lord Sainsbury supported candidates are pushed up the ladder of patronage. Interestingly many in Falkirk and elsewhere within the Labour Party opposed this challenge from Unite. For many in Miliband’s Labour Party Unite are seen as ‘the other’.
Conversely the fact that our biggest trade union feels the need to open up this second front to take on the bosses as a class, not just as employers, is remarkable. This is because Labour are considered, as suggested above, as ideologically and practically redundant when it comes to supporting legislation and action that will allow workers to challenge the power of private ownership.
In Falkirk this saw Stevie Deans, Unite’s leading lay official, divide his time between defending workers at INEOS and as he saw it promoting their interests via a changing Labour Party. Whilst the likelihood of Westminster passing laws that can effectively challenge globalisation can be debated the tactic of a ‘political’ as well as industrial strategy is understandable. Working to raise people’s political consciousness in a way that supports them to take part in the democratic process is a desirable proposition. Whether that is entirely what was happening is another question. However what is apparent is where the Labour Party establishment are challenged in selection battles for relatively safe seats; things can become very competitive and very mucky. More energy and money would appear to get spent on securing a favoured candidate rather than building political understanding and engagement of new and potential members.
All this effort is premised on Unite’s belief that the Labour Party is the only realistic potential political vehicle for change with all other options being considered fanciful or unworthy of consideration, this side of the UK general election in 2015. In this context Unite’s actions on the electoral front seem understandable. The connection between workers and all political parties is distant and becoming increasingly so. Labour retains a historic link to working people in realms of recoverable memory but the reality is different particularly out with the public sector.
Grangemouth: The private sector is different. As for all workers it is hard to hold onto gains but in the private sector asserting ‘moral guardianship’ over the relationship between the production process and a community is fiercely contested by the need for ever growing profit. In spite of this and the dirty and dangerous aspects of the work at INEOS the workforce were considered well organised and relatively well rewarded. The recent attacks by the owners on the workforce’s pensions had been resisted back in 2008; wages this year were increased against a background of erosion elsewhere.
But nothing stays the same. Changes to the ownership, access to raw materials, competition, the balance sheet, and scope of future production were taking place. This impacted on the workforce’s leverage over the manufacturing processes. Labour could still be withdrawn but INEOS had repositioned itself in relation to the chain of effects. It could control the turning on and off of the tap, the timing of this and to a degree the consequences.
Given Stevie Deans involvement in events in Falkirk they went for him too. Whether this provocation was simply vindictive or calculated is largely academic (except of course for Stevie as an individual). INEOS created a situation where a straight-forward strike was of little consequence to them. They were challenging the UK government, Holyrood and the workforce to fund the costs of the modification of the plant and their continued and increased profit margins. A bi-product was further reducing the terms and conditions of the workforce and taking on the union at the plant.
At that juncture retaining the jobs was important. INEOS had argued that Grangemouth without investment was becoming a liability. Its threat to close the refinery needed to be taken seriously. By the end of October it was too late to call their bluff, irrespective of the reality of Jim Ratcliffe’s bank balance, without having adequate local and national alliances in place to do so.
Where next: Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it is perhaps too easy for those at a distance to ask what if? But it is important that learning takes place.
Governments in London and Edinburgh had already agreed in principle at least to fund Jim Radcliffe and INEOS in their venture to re-fit Grangemouth with the capacity to process shale gas shipped from the USA to the Forth. The environmental and economic rationale for this only makes sense in the context of supporting the globalised tax avoiding pursuit of ever increasing profit. Whilst the media and others to some degree acknowledged the questionable moral position of Jim Radcliffe and INEOS they did little to fundamentally challenge his position. The plant have morally been ‘ours’ But the profit was Ratcliffe’s.
David Cameron compounded this by attacking, Unite, Ed Miliband and Stevie Deans. Labour in London appeared largely compromised by its electoral ambitions. Johann Lamont said nothing. Attempts were made by Unite to ensure the ‘bad bosses’ had nowhere to hide but the alliance between Britain’s political class and INEOS remained intact. Ideologically, globalised profiteering might not be considered pretty but right to exploit Grangemouth was not contested. Whilst people spoke about employment and the local community, the Scottish economy, or with Britain fuel needs no concrete alternative people’s alliance was formed.
For Unite, and other unions, industrial relations are informed by the right to withdraw labour. But little seems to be done to strengthen control and influence over the productive forces when advances have been made and negotiations are taking place. Jim Ratcillfe would appear to have been in sole control of the information and decision making relating to the future of Grangemouth. Does direct workforce involvement in the management and ownership of manufacturing needs considered? Limitations need to be taken into account but waiting for reluctant politicians to effectively legislate equally seems like a long haul. Strikes, occupations and work-ins must remain part of the equipment of challenging exploitation but ways need to be found to consolidate and expand control over wages, conditions, but also the means of production as part of the wider economy. However controversial this would appear to be, a more direct route to limiting and transforming relations with global capitalists is not on the horizon.
The European elections, the referendum and the 2015 general election result could provide us with a renewed political landscape upon which to build the strength of our movement. This will take hard work and imagination. However there also remains the need to find an effective political party that does not prioritise profiteering. It would be welcome if the Labour Party as an institution could be moved in that direction. Working people however cannot remain still whilst real wages are being reduced and the economy and environment are being continually exploited for the needs of the few. Unite needs to connect to this resistance if it wishes to contribute to an effective challenge to the values and views of our bankrupt establishment.