You have probably never heard of Grangemouth. Even its mother would be hard pressed to call it a pretty town, festooned as it is with tall steel chimneys belching fire into the night sky on the Firth of Forth about 15 miles west of Edinburgh on Scotland’s east coast. It is home to an oil refinery that accounts for about 10% of Scotland’s GDP and it is owned by a company called Ineos. You have probably never heard of it either, though it is Britain’s largest private company.
Nor will you have heard of Stephen Deans, convener of the Unite union and an employee of the plant at Grangemouth these past 24 years. Regular readers of the blog will remember the story of the Unite union and its alleged (and unproven) attempts to infiltrate the Falkirk labour party, supposedly to ensure that its favoured candidate was elected in the upcoming 2015 election. Well, Stephen Deans, and here the plot thickens, is the leader of the Falkirk Labour party, the very man behind the signing of dozens of new Labour members in Falkirk. It was alleged that Unite would pay their membership fees – on the understanding that they would back the union's choice of candidate. According to an article by James Cook, the BBC’s Scotland correspondent, “crucially it was alleged that some of the members were signed up in the refinery, i.e. on the property of INEOS, Mr Deans' employer”. This offends against Ineos policy, so Mr Deans was suspended.
Ineos management has been carrying out its own enquiry and results were due to be announced on 18th October. The union has been pressing for Mr Deans immediate reinstatement and when the company failed to cooperate, it threatened a strike by the workforce.
Talks took place at ACAS but to no avail. Despite this, the union called off the strike. Management claim that the plant was already in the process of being shut down, so they closed the plant anyway and, since then, it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped. The company claim to be losing money; the unions claim that management are doctoring the figures. Management want all kinds of new working practices put in place to ensure the site’s future. The union is dragging its feet in agreeing to any changes. Management is now speaking directly to the workforce, effectively bypassing the normal routes of communication.
Let’s put this into perspective. Here is a plant that refines about 13% of the UK’s oil and provides 70% of Scotland’s fuel. Management claim that the site is losing about £10m per month and could shut down in 2017 if changes are not implemented. The sound bites from leading lights on both sides of the dispute get tetchier by the minute. Pat Rafferty, Unite’s Scotland secretary, is quoted in the Times of 17 October, “Ineos’ decision to keep Grangemouth shut is an act of economic vandalism. There is absolutely no reason for the site to remain shut — the company is holding Scotland to ransom.”
One is reminded of past union management disputes that spiralled out of control when personalities got involved. The only way out of this impasse may be for a change in team on both sides; a reflection on key objectives; a negotiating process of give and take and – difficult this, when tempers run high – the giving of “face” to the other side.
And when it comes to objectives – the one at the back of my mind that keeps popping to the front? Keep the factory open!
Negotiators on both sides would do well to reflect on that.
STOP PRESS! (Noon, 24th October)
In the shock development on 23rd of October Ineos announced their intention to close the petrochemical plant at Grangemouth. This threat has brought the Unite representatives back to the negotiating table with the offer of more concessions to the management. As a result of the meeting held this morning Unite has embraced all of the changes that management has proposed. The ball is now back in Ineos’s court.
These dramatic breaking developments will doubtless bring senior politicians to the dispute. Grangemouth, as stated in the main article is far too important an industrial asset to be closed unilaterally by the current owners.