Grangemouth … Just who benefited from this dispute and what does it tell us?


  By G.A.Ponsonby
Grangemouth, Ineos and Unite.  We have all sat transfixed by a battle between management and union that appeared straight out the 1970s.
“This has been one of the worst industrial relations disasters of modern times and has disturbing implications for trade unionism, the Labour Party and Scotland.” wrote Iain Macwhirter in his own analysis.

Macwhirter was bang on the money with his appraisal of First Minister Alex Salmond’s efforts in helping persuade Ineos that it was in their interest to keep the plant open.  But Salmond’s efforts have not transferred into positive headlines in the Scottish media – surprise, surprise.

The role of the Scottish media in this episode and the sometimes obsessive desire by BBC Scotland to try to stir up controversy during the most delicate periods of the dispute will be touched on later.  But I think it’s worth looking at who benefitted from the ‘Battle of Grangemouth’.

It goes without saying that the workers have been let down.  The union balloted them on industrial action after a Unite official was investigated for apparently conducting Labour party business during work time and on Grangemouth plant premises.  According to reports, Stephen Deans was trying to recruit staff employed at the facility into the Labour party and then, according to leaked emails, tried to cover up his actions.

The membership voted to strike after Ineos threatened to discipline Deans and a chain of events was set in motion that almost ended up with the plant being closed.

The other big loser is the Unite union itself.  It walked into a fist fight with a street brawler who hits below the belt.  Jim Ratcliffe treated threats from the union with arrogant contempt.  The first sign of the ruthlessness of Ratcliffe and Ineos arrived with the command to cold-shutdown the plant.

It took everyone by surprise and resulted in an almost immediate climb-down by the union which issued panicked statements pledging no strikes until the New Year.  This prompted an emboldened Ineos to send letters to workers outlining changes to their terms of employment that the company said were necessary if the plant was to stay open.

Whether the consultation letter was really a serious attempt at avoiding a closure of all or part of the plant is unknown, but events took a turn for the worse with Ineos’ shock announcement that the petrochemical plant would close.

That decision effectively ended Unite’s role in the dispute in any meaningful sense.  They had been outmanoeuvred and were now reduced to begging Ratcliffe for a reprieve on behalf of workers whose livelihoods they had placed in jeopardy.

In the background though the Scottish Government had anticipated Ineos and were already days ahead in search of a new site manager.  Alex Salmond’s actions may well have saved not just Grangemouth but any realistic chances of a Yes vote in the independence referendum.

Standing back and looking at the debris in the cold light of day, Unite have been beaten.  The union’s credibility is in tatters.  How many worforces throughout the UK will place their futures in the hands of a leadership that has proved so inept?

Throughout almost all of this the Labour party sat silent.  Miliband didn’t even bring the matter of Grangemouth up at Prime Minister’s Questions after Ineos had announced its closure plans.

Now a union who dared take on the UK Labour leadership has been publicly humiliated – how very convenient for Ed Miliband.

Moreover, the dispute between Unite and Labour in Falkirk is back in the spotlight.  Emails have been leaked to the Sunday Times that appear to show Unite official Stephen Deans conducting Labour party business during work time.

The narrative being presented is that Deans was out to circumvent Labour party procedure and was attempting to rig the ballot to select a replacement for disgraced MP Eric Joyce.  The latest saga to the Falkirk fiasco also paints Ed Miliband as the hapless victim in a coordinated attempt by Deans at covering up Unite’s actions in Falkirk.

Labour of course carried out their own internal investigation which found no wrongdoing by the union.  The emails leaked by Ineos may well see that investigation resurrected and who would bet against Deans being found guilty in this feral atmosphere.

Deans’ days may well already be numbered at Grangemouth.  The Sunday Times revealed that the company has already indicated its desire to sack the Unite official.  Don’t be surprised if Ineos gets its way very soon!

Labour may also get to announce Unite’s guilt in Falkirk and so two troublesome birds are effectively killed off with one stone.  Ineos get what they want, Labour get what they want and a Falkirk dispute that caused difficulty for Johann Lamont is blamed on an out of control union.

The ground is already being laid for Labour to absolve itself of any responsibility for Falkirk with Lamont turning up on Sunday’s Politics Scotland saying the claims against Deans “should be looked at” and Labour should not be a “plaything of individual groupings”.

The Conservatives won’t mind a powerful union being weakened.

Like I say, it all appears too convenient.

But what of the SNP Government?  Incredibly Swinney and Salmond have emerged with credit and Salmond’s stock has enhanced considerably.

This though is almost certainly down to Salmond and or Swinney realising what was happening.  Nobody really took seriously the possible closing down of the Grangemouth facility.  Indeed hours before the shock announcement BBC Scotland reporter Colin Blaine reported his own belief that the plant would remain open.

The corporation adopted a stance that refused to take seriously the possibility that Grangemouth was indeed under serious threat of closure.  It was a belief that was prevalent throughout BBC Scotland’s coverage.  Coverage that periodically sought to politicise the crisis, questioning its impact on the independence debate.

Interviews conducted by BBC Scotland saw questions asked that appeared to be designed to generate controversial headlines that would undoubtedly have compromised the Scottish Government’s role as an honest broker.

Bizarre questions were posed that invited Salmond and Swinney to endorse what were a mixture of anti-Chinese xenophobic claims and spurious evidence free allegations.

James Naughtie’s question to Alex Salmond the day after Salmond entered the dispute was as ludicrous as it was dangerous when the BBC presenter suggested the Chinese Government were responsible for the erosion of workers’ rights at Grangemouth.

The Labour MP cited by the BBC presenter – Michael Connarty – had in fact attacked the UK government accusing it of having colluded with Ineos in order to break the workers at Grangemouth, as can be seen from the video at the end of this article.

The anti-Chinese sentiment was also evident in a less than impressive interview conducted by Gordon Brewer on the evening before Ineos made its shock closure announcement.  Some of the language used by Brewer in this interview is shocking, accusing the Scottish Government of “hawking” Grangemouth and of “soliciting” buyers.

Brewer then conducted an interview with Unite Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty in which the BBC man invited the union official to effectively threaten strike action.  Had Rafferty done so then a very delicate situation could have been made worse.

Note the references to North Sea oil in both interviews, which was also highlighted in the opening sequences at the beginning of the programme.

Throughout the crisis and indeed even after the shock closure announcement, BBC Scotland appeared desperate to introduce the independence angle into its coverage.  Douglas Fraser and Tim Reid presented the dispute as damaging to the pro-independence campaign and others were keen to present the dispute as a major threat to North Sea Oil.

Alex Salmond’s emergence as the key broker desperately trying to get both sides to see sense was an irritation to the corporation.  Even when the plant had been saved, some at the BBC still could not find it within themselves to praise Salmond.

The interview conducted by BBC presenter Edward Stourton was a case in point and Salmond found himself having to educate another arrogant BBC employee.

But arguably worse was a set-piece between BBC Scotland Business and Economy Editor Douglas Fraser and former Labour party senior researcher Alf Young that was broadcast on Sunday.  Alf Young is no lover of the SNP and is very much a pro-Union journalist, although that fact is never disclosed when the journalist appears on political programmes.

Fraser and Young used the time not to highlight the role played by Salmond and the outstanding actions of the Scottish government in helping end the dispute, but used the events in order to mount a thinly veiled attack on independence and North Sea Oil.

North Sea oil, as well as being a volatile commodity, is now a “vulnerable” resource that “small” independent Scotland would be unable to protect.  In case listeners didn’t get the point, Young and Fraser also managed to disparage small independent Finland at the same time.

So, was there any conspiracy to bring down Unite?  One person seemed to think so and it’s a part of the story that has disappeared from the radar.  Labour MP Michael Connarty smelled a rat early on in the dispute and made his views clear in the House of Commons.

We’ll probably never know who was involved or indeed whether there was any collusion by anyone.  But doesn’t it seem strange that Westminster involvement in this dispute was kept to a bare minimum right up until Ineos announced the petrochemical plant was to close and Unite finally fell to its knees?

The Scottish Government could have been collateral damage in this episode and BBC Scotland appeared to be readying itself for an all-out attack on independence.

Alex Salmond realised what was happening, took control of the situation and the rest is now history.