Friday, 1 November 2013


Some time ago the management of Grangemouth petrochemical facility put a plan to the workers, through their union Unite, to make the plant economical as it was losing money. The union disagreed and stated is was making money. The workers were told of the consequences and the union urged them to vote for strike action. They voted in favour, only just, but we live in a democracy so a simple majority is good enough. So out they went and the plant stood idle. The management told the union that if they guaranteed no strike action for 60 days, a reasonable request, they would reopen the plant and continue negotiations. The union refused but in actual fact, it was playing politics as the main dispute was over a sacked union official. The union was really looking after itself rather than the interests of its members but that didn't come across to the majority.

The upshot of the argument was that the owner of the refinery decided to close the unprofitable petrochemical side of the plant with the loss of 800 jobs. As the workers came out of the meeting where they learned of their fate they all damned the management for their loss. Not one admitted that they had voted for the strike or that perhaps the union was wrong. It was all down to the management who had laid out a very reasonable scheme to make the plant viable and profitable which included a massive re-investment. They followed union instructions and voted against that and then with a certain amount of hypocrisy blamed the management for the end result.

In general owners of businesses that are profitable do not close them down. If a business is unprofitable it will eventually go bust. In the eyes of most people looking on at the Grangemouth dispute they would see the terms offered as being reasonable, not great if you are an employee taking a pay cut and big changes to your expected pension, but better than no job at all. It should be mentioned here that the average pay at the Grangemouth refinery is double the national average in Scotland. So here we have a company that could be profitable with some changes in the work practices and a large investment to modify and update the plant, and a union with a grievance because of a sacked official able to make a lot of trouble because of the general unrest it sees amongst its members.

Look at union history and the same story is repeated over and over again throughout the twentieth century. When the unions were first started they were genuinely needed. The owners rode roughshod over their employees. However, give any organisation with the potential of power an inch and it's a natural instinct to take a mile. Between the two world wars the unions did a good job. They helped lift workers out of poverty and improved working conditions considerably. After the Second World War Britain was in a parlous state, the country was broke and life was difficult for most people and many businesses. In an effort to get better deals for their members, unions flexed their muscles, usually in the form of strikes. Britain became not only the strike capital of Europe but a bit of a joke. It was regularly termed as The sick man of Europe.

As the unions got stronger management got weaker and floundered in a search of ways to deal with them. The unions had the upper hand, they just called their members out on strike and the business went further into the red. During the 60s and 70s the unions got so powerful they were able to dictate to governments. They were also able to dictate to the owners and particularly to nationalised industries. The result, massive over employment in many industries and pay hikes well above inflation and often far more than the companies could well afford. This resulted in the closure of Britain's main ports such as Liverpool, London and Hull. It also led to many industries pricing themselves out of the market. Shipbuilding, car manufacture, steel production all fell foul of union manipulation and greed. They had become parasitic. And like parasites which feed on the blood of the host they eventually suck it dry and it dies even though that means their own death.

The news paper industry was a classical example. The unions ruled supreme, you were a member or you didn't work. Step out of line with a shop steward or convenor and you didn't work. On the other hand If you didn't turn up or were told not to bother and have a day or two off you were still marked in by the union official and paid by the company. Employees actually didn't have to register with the company just the union and so they didn't even pay taxes as they booked in under such names as Mickey Mouse. It was a joke and if the papers were to continue being printed something had to be done. Eventually the owners moved out of Fleet Street and in the new premises banned the unions. One famous newspaper owner offered the Fleet Street building and all its contents free to the union so it could run it as a going concern itself. It declined the generous offer because the union elders knew it was an impossible task if they were to run it as they had been.

So now back to Grangemouth. The owner stated that the petrochemical side of the plant would not now reopen, would go into bankruptcy and that the liquidators would be in by following week. What has the union done, gone running to him, tail between its legs, and told him it would accept all his proposals. He is now in the driving seat and can force through much harsher terms than he was offering before and my bet is that he will. It's always the workers who lose out but they never seem to blame the union.

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