Thursday, 5 November 2015

When Kez Met Len

Image result for patronising bullshit

I was appalled at this 'puff piece' by Kevin McKenna in The Observer in which the former Daily Mail editor lavished praise on the new Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. 

Now I'm not complaining about Kevin's cack-handed attempt to breathe new life into Old Labour, but for his patronising paragraph describing Kezia's audience with Len McCluskey, as if the boss of Unite is some kind of 'godfather' bestowing his blessing on the new kid on the block.

What a load of old nonsense which could only have been written by a man, of a certain age, and a particular outlook on life, if you ask me. 

Because regular readers will recall that Len's 'leadership' of Unite almost cost thousands of workers their jobs at the giant Ineos plant in Grangemouth where the union went into battle over a shop steward who was caught out doing work for the Labour Party in the company's time.

Kezia Dugdale has made a fine start. Now she needs policies

By Kevin McKenna

The leader of Scottish Labour has an excellent relationship with Jeremy Corbyn, the approval of the unions, and growing respect in Holyrood and Westminster. Now she must begin the hard part


Kezia Dugdale, the leader of Scottish Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Observer

Failure of Leadership (26/10/13)

I am struggling to recall an industrial dispute in which a trade union ended up shooting itself in the foot - both feet arguably - in the manner of Unite at Grangemouth.

For weeks now Unite has been running a high profile and aggressive campaign against the owners of the Grangemouth site, Ineos, egged on by certain commentators in the press - yet the union has now signed up to an agreement which is, arguably, much tougher than the deal that was on the table only a few days ago.

Now this is because Unite began to believe its own propaganda and badly overplayed its hand - by calling a strike that had no real purpose and served only to poison industrial relations with Ineos even further.

The end result is that Unite has signed up to a package which includes:
  • A three-year 'no strike' agreement
  • A three-year pay freeze
  • A much inferior company pension scheme  
  • An end to the practice of full-time union conveners operating at Grangemouth 
Now in return, Ineos will reopen the Grangemouth plant immediately, rehire up to 2,000 contractors who were laid off after the complex was shut down - and will invest £300 million to handle imported shale gas from America. 

But of course these 'good elements' of the deal were always on the table and the spark that led to the dispute - a strike over the 'treatment' of a full-time union convener - has resulted in full-time union conveners being abandoned altogether.

In future, local union reps at the site will be 'hands-on' employees first and foremost - with time off to conduct their union duties when required - which presumably will be properly managed and monitored.  

Apparently the news of a reprieve for Grangemouth's was greeted by huge cheers from the workforce, who had gathered at the plant to hear the announcement - which speaks volumes  about Unite's appalling leadership during the dispute.

I imagine there will be astonishment amongst the workforce at the words of the union's Scottish regional secretary - Pat Rafferty - who told the waiting press:

"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 £300m will be invested into the plant."

Yet only days earlier Unite had told Ineos to stick its rescue plan where the sun don't shine and advised its members to prepare to man the barricades - which is completely at odds with what the union is now saying, in public at least.

So, this is not the finest hour for Scotland's trade unions especially when you consider that just down the road in South Lanarkshire Council, a Labour council - yes a Labour council - has imposed changes upon hundreds of workers by threatening to terminate people's contracts of employment and offer re-engagement on inferior terms.

Yet in that particular case the unions stood aside and abandoned people to their fate.  


Debacle of a Dispute (24/10/14)

BBC Scotland's business editor, Douglas Fraser, does a good job of summarising the lessons of the disastrous dispute at Grangemouth which came within a whisker of shutting down the giant Ineos plant. 

If you ask me, the union reps involved owe the workforce a huge apology for the way they fought the dispute because the bottom line is they were playing politics, party politics at that, with people's jobs and livelihoods.   

Lessons from the Battle of Grangemouth

The Grangemouth dispute moved quickly over the past two weeks

Well, it's been a white-knuckle ride for Grangemouth and anyone who cares about the Scottish economy.

Only one of the surprising parts of this story is how fast it moved. Disputes like this usually take many weeks to unfold. But having come to the boil only two weeks ago, this one had dramatic tension and pace and was over before the weekend credits rolled.

Who won? Well, of course, Grangemouth did, and its workers and the wider Scottish economy. Politicians showed they can put differences aside to act as peacemakers.
Jim Ratcliffe founded Ineos 15 years ago

Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos emerged from relative obscurity to become poster boys for global capital. The firm secured a bundle of sweeteners from governments, BP (easing the terms of its supply contract) and, of course, from workers.

And who lost? Workers made sacrifices on pay and more so on pensions, but the humbling was for their union, Unite.

Red top notoriety

The employers had asked for a no-strike deal for two months. What they got was three years, along with everything they sought on pay and pensions.

The union lost all that, when it hadn't even fought over it. Instead, it chose to make a stand on a disciplinary matter, letting it become entangled with much wider demands from employers, then rushing calamitously into provoking the shut-down with a strike date.

The disciplinary issue, affecting union convener Stephen Deans, still isn't resolved, though it was due to be completed on Friday.

But it's worth noting the Ineos 'survival plan' was firmed up to ensure that the Grangemouth complex will have no further full-time union conveners.

Despite his red-top notoriety, Jim Ratcliffe claims not to be anti-union. He told the BBC he sees a role for them in representing workers, and in working with management on investment options and maintenance programmes, while sharing the common aim of the company's success.

He claims to get on fine with unions elsewhere. Indeed, he's got a similar investment project under way in Norway, where little moves in the oil and gas sector without union consultation.

Carrots without sticks

For other unions, and on other sites, co-operation has become more of the norm, for instance finding common cause on training and safety. Workers and bosses have worked together to steer a path through the downturn, where sacrifices have been made to secure jobs, retain skills and minimise compulsory redundancies.

It will be interesting to see if that unravels when the fruits of recovery are there to be shared out, or if lessons have been learned that can be carried over from the co-operative downturn years.

It might be more likely to do so if these relationships existed within one country. But the Ineos case is a reminder of how a modern corporation can work; behind veils of secrecy about its affairs and finances, without accountability, and with global investment portfolios allowing it to play off one plant against another.

As Unite has learned the hard way, there's little a trade union can do about that. And as governments have found, they can offer carrots to attract international investors, but the modern economy offers them few sticks. Carrots were duly deployed in this case.

Near death experience

Perhaps the main lesson to learn from this is the need to think and plan ahead. Several commentators have reflected on this.

For unions, there's a need to see the context in which their sector works, and to see ahead to the direction their employers are heading. Change is a constant, so it's doubtful that digging in to defend the past is much of a long-term strategy.

For government too, the near-death experience of Grangemouth petro-chemical plant brings up questions of what it can do to constrain or harness the power corporations have over strategic assets.

It also raises the question of how governments can plan ahead as industries rise and fall. That helps inform the skills and infrastructure that government puts in place, and where it puts seed and development funding where markets won't.

For 49 hours between Wednesday and Friday, the threat to Grangemouth prompted Scotland to face up to a future without the business of producing and processing hydrocarbons.

This has taught us a lot about the refining and chemicals industry, just one facet being the threat across Europe from efficient competition in other parts of the world.

The Scottish chemicals consortium responded to the Grangemouth turnaround with a welcome, but also a warning - that the competitive advantage it gets from re-orienting itself to the processing of shale gas from the US also protects it from the looming 'bloodbath' across the European sector.

Even if Grangemouth has now secured its future for 25 years, it may already be time to ask; what comes next?

Business Scotland this weekend considers the lessons of the dispute at Grangemouth. BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday at 10:00. It will also be a feature of Sunday Politics from 11:45 to 13:00.

Article written by Douglas Fraser
Business and economy editor, Scotland

Unite Debacle (23 April 2014)

Unite's handling of the Grangemouth dispute last year was widely seen as inept, even within the trade union movement, but for reasons best known to itself Unite seems determined to draw attention to the debacle all over again.

Now to recap the dispute started with the claim that the local Unite convener, Stevie Deans, was being victimised by his employer, Ineos, and the union called a strike in support of their local representative.

But as the affair dragged on and threatened the closure of the plant, Ineos claimed that Mr Deans had been abusing his time off arrangements, by devoting much of his time to Labour Party business, instead of representing the direct interests of his own members.
And when push came to shove Mr Deans resigned from his job rather than face the serious charges of which he had been accused.

So why Unite would want to rake over the coals of this disastrous dispute is beyond me, although Paul Hutcheon is on to a good story with the following piece in The Sunday Herald. 

Unite-Ineos relations plummet as union considers Labour candidate proposals

THE Unite trade union is considering plans to withhold support from Labour candidates unless they back a campaign to seize the assets of the company that owns the Grangemouth oil refinery.

In a sign of worsening of relations with plant owner Ineos, Unite will debate whether to link backing for Labour at Westminster and Holyrood with support for nationalising the company's operations without compensation.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said it was clear the union had a "stranglehold" on the party.

Unite's shambolic attempt at influencing Labour's Westminster selection contest in Falkirk, in which the union signed up over 100 new members in a bid to help their favoured candidate, had huge political ramifications.

The sign-up, which was linked to the Ineos plant at Grangemouth, was criticised by Labour leader Ed Miliband and led to the party rethinking its links with all its trades union affiliates. It also spiralled into a major industrial dispute.

Ineos accused Stevie Deans, at that point the plant's shop steward and Unite Scotland's chair, of using company time and resources to work on Labour Party business.

That row led to Unite backing strike action and was followed by Ineos threatening to close Grangemouth. The employer also insisted on swingeing changes to workers' terms and conditions. High-level political interventions led to a last-minute agreement between Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe and Unite, but the dispute left the union feeling wounded and Deans out of a job.

It also cost the Scottish economy an estimated £65 million.

The Sunday Herald can reveal Unite will reopen the Ineos issue at its UK policy conference in June. A copy of the preliminary agenda contains a motion signed by two Scottish branches.

It condemns the "threat by Ineos's Ratcliffe to shut down operations in Grangemouth" and noted that it was "unacceptable" for "one individual to be able to wield such power".

The motion also commits Unite to "campaign for the nationalisation without compensation and under workers' control of all Ineos assets in the UK".

It called for this demand to be a "major focus" of the union's campaigning in the run-up to the next Westminster and Holyrood elections, including "withholding support from any candidate who does not support that demand".

Unite is the biggest union donor to Labour, but the party has not come close to backing calls to seize any of Ineos's assets.

A Labour source said: "You can understand why Unite have concerns about the ownership of Ineos, but they clearly have not learned any lessons from Falkirk if they think the solution is to hold a gun to the head of Labour candidates. It is crazy."

If passed, the motion could result in only a handful of left-wing Labour candidates receiving funds from Unite and starve Miliband of resources. It would also hamper Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont's bid to become the next First Minister in 2016.

The row between Ineos and Unite was one of the most bitter industrial disputes in years. The company was accused of treating the plant's workers in a brutal fashion, while the union was believed to have over-played its hand by backing strike action.

Another motion to the conference, from branches in the northwest of England, calls for Unite to cut the money it gives to Labour.

Murdo Fraser said: "It seems that no matter what Ed Miliband and the Labour Party say, the unions still have a stranglehold on the party.

"With their massive funding of the party they are always going to have a significant influence, including the selection of candidates.

"Despite the Grangemouth dispute costing the Scottish economy £65m, the unions do not appear to have learned any lessons."

A Unite spokeswoman said: "It is in the preliminary agenda. It will have to go through due process before being debated and could well change."

She added: "It will be for conference to decide."

An SNP spokesperson said: "It is of course a matter for trades unions which candidates they wish to support and for what reasons, but this resolution obliges Johann Lamont to set out exactly what Labour policy is."

An Ineos spokesman declined to comment, as did a Scottish Labour spokesman.