THE BATTLE OF GRANGEMOUTH: A WORKER’S STORY
Published in association with Unite by Lawrence and Wishart at £12.99
The book’s author is the former Unite convenor at Grangemouth oil refinery where the owner was able to use the threat of closure in 2013 to force the workforce to accept severe cuts to their wages and conditions. Following which Mark Lyon was unfairly dismissed in 2014. He later won his Industrial Tribunal.
After an earlier apprenticeship on the giant complex, Lyon began working there permanently in 1988. By this time the privatisation process that began under Jim Callaghan’s Labour government had been completed under Margaret Thatcher. It meant that the entire group of nationalised BP companies had been sold off at bargain prices to the private sector.
Three highly profitable businesses operated in co-operation at Grangemouth. These were the refinery, chemicals (where Lyon worked) and the pipeline system that carries around 40 per cent of UK oil at a time.
Industrial relations reached a low in the early 90s when BP briefly de-recognised the unions. Thankfully, at least in an industry that is extremely hazardous the company had the sense to maintain the position of union safety reps and the joint management-union committee structures.
In 1997, Mark Lyon became a TGWU steward and soon after he became the vice-chair of his branch. He later became the elected convenor.
Over the following years, the trade unions sought to align wages and conditions across all the sites at Grangemouth and they also faced a continuous battle to prevent redundancies and the outsourcing of jobs. Below inflation pay increases were accepted in exchange for saving jobs.
But the situation was to become a whole lot worse when in 2005 the chemicals division and the refinery at Grangemouth was sold for $9,000,000,000 to Ineos. It soon became clear that the new owners had failed to undertake any due diligence of the site, which had been allowed to degenerate due to BP’s lack of investment in it. Ineos had gambled heavily by borrowing most of the money.
Ineos chief executive Jim Ratcliffe immediately made clear he was ideologically opposed to final salary pension schemes, even those such as the one at Grangemouth that had a healthy surplus. He aimed to close it as soon as possible. However, he was forced to back down in 2008 when Unite members successfully organised a 48-hour strike.
Afterwards, no-one was celebrating especially as highly skilled and long serving Ineos employees were slowly being replaced by agency staff. Then three years later Ineos sold half the refinery such that the workers’ pension schemes and union agreements at Grangemouth became again substantially altered.
There then began a persistent negative campaign about Grangemouth by its new owners. Ineos had previously successfully lobbied and obtained funds for their previously owned ICI chemical site at Runcorn in Cheshire from the Blair government and the European Union. Ineos, who in 2010 moved their headquarters to Switzerland in order to reduce their UK tax bill, were now intent on shoving the UK and Scottish governments to financially support them amidst fears the company might carry out their threat to shut Grangemouth down completely.
Despite their severe reservations, Lyon and Unite felt they had no other option except to back their employers and as part of which Mark Lyon and branch secretary Steve Deans conducted, as was often the case, political activity.
The book provides numerous examples of such work and even instances where Ineos was highly complimentary to Unite for opening up important political corridors at Westminster. Unite also ran equality courses on site that were attended by Ineos Human Resources staff.
It was therefore nothing unusual when Unite at Grangemouth was approached in 2013 by Karie Murphy, a working class woman with a lengthy Labour Party and trade union history, who was seeking support for her bid to replace the disgraced local MP Eric Joyce who had announced he would not be standing for re-election in Falkirk in 2015 at the general election.
Deans chaired Falkirk Labour party. With the agreement of Ineos, Murphy was invited to the Grangemouth site to speak and answer questions about her policies at a meeting attended by union leaders from across the district. The event was well received by all those present and the accompanying enthusiasm naturally led to many Unite and trade union members in general asking to join — or, in many cases, rejoin — the Labour Party.
This was simply too democratic for the media and the then Labour leadership. When the former began running false stories that Unite was exploiting its Grangemouth members — by even registering them without their approval as Labour Party members — the latter suspended Deans and Murphy and contacted the police, who later confirmed there was no substance to the media’s claims and no criminality had occurred. The affair did though prevent Murphy from standing at the 2015 general election and at which Labour lost Falkirk to the SNP.
Just as worryingly the fact that the Ineos name had featured so prominently in the media gave the company the chance it needed to discipline Deans. The Unite branch secretary again found himself under huge media and political pressure and, later resigned his job. It was a brave decision and compares favourably next to David Cameron’s unwillingness to take up the challenge at the time to repeat outside of the Commons, where what is said is legally protected, his statement that Deans was a ‘rogue trade unionist.’ Steve is now employed as a Unite regional officer.
Ineos were by now attacking all Grangemouth workers terms and conditions and using the threat of closing the site to extract financial subsidies from politicians.
The book reveals how the company plotted an employers’ strike and how Unite adopted a cautious approach to defending its members by taking action short of a strike and offering major concessions at negotiations.
Lyon is convinced that Ineos did not really want to carry out their threat to close the plant. The vast majority of the union members he represented were unconvinced and when it was clear that the possibility of losing their jobs was too scary a prospect he did what was required and agreed a deal that ensured the site stayed open. Pay freezes, an end to final salary pensions and no strikes for three years were agreed along with no convenors on site.
Lyon himself was later disciplined on spurious charges and forced out of his job in February 2015. By which time many of his fellow experienced workers had left Ineos to take up employment elsewhere in the chemical and oil sector. The loss of such skills, allied to the reduction by the company of the number of elected safety reps, has left Grangemouth a less safer place. It has also left Ineos, which remains financially in hock to the banks, desperate for staff and the once ultra-confident management there are being forced to offer bonuses to people to come and work for them. Unite workplace stewards were elected at Grangemouth in June 2015.
Having won his legal case against Ineos, Lyon has the company back in his sight in his role as an industrial organiser with the International Transport Workers’ Federation. One of his key responsibilities is organising in Grangemouth. This excellent, easy to read book will help workers’ as they seek redevelop trade union organisation at Grangemouth and in locations elsewhere. It stands as a fitting testimony to the indomitable spirit of people like Lyon and those who are brave enough to step forward and become representatives of their fellow workers.
See also the 18 March 2017 interview with Mark Lyon in the Daily Record and in which he expands on some of the political points he makes in this book.