The Battle of Grangemouth
A Workers’ Story
London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2017
Paperback. 238 p. ISBN 978-1912064007. £12.99
Reviewed by Keith Laybourn
University of Huddersfield
President of the Society for the Study of Labour History
This is a perplexing, confused, contradictory and controversial book which is deeply embedded in the recent political history of the Labour Party and the trade union movement in Britain. Ostensibly it is about the ‘Battle of Grangemouth’ of ‘November 2013’, when Ineos, the petrol-chemical company, threatened to close down its Scottish plants with the loss of 2,000 jobs. This action forced Unite (the old Transport and General Workers’ Union, TGWU) to accept a three-year pay freeze, poor redundancy terms, the end of the final salary pension scheme for workers, and the effective sacking of Unite site organisers and stewards. Its ramifications are potentially much wider than that for the conditions of employment and pay for workers in Britain, especially as they face rapacious industrial managements at a time when Brexit, and all its uncertainties, is looming. This book offers an insight into how big business is operating and the failings of partnership arrangements with industrial management. Unfortunately, it is written in the form of a pantomime sketch to the extent that one can almost join in and boo and hiss when the ‘devious’ and ‘greedy’ Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of Ineos, appears on the page, and cheer when the ‘brilliant’ Pat Rafferty, the Unite Scottish Secretary, and others of the Unite union enter the stage. Lyon also adopts an anecdotal style which makes it very difficult to establish the details of the events in a clear manner, especially when his anecdotes about individuals cut across some major points of discussion, and even more so when dates seem to fluctuate. The events at Grangemouth, near Falkirk in Scotland, actually took place in October 2013, although the plot is frequently referred to as November 2013. Obfuscation is often present with the result that a smokescreen descends over the script.
The early part of this book focuses upon the family background of Mark Lyon, the McMonagles from his mother’s side, his father, his friends, and his early career of apprenticeship and work at the British Petroleum (BP), petroleum and chemical plant. Lyons argues that in one form or another, BP ran this vast complex from 1924 until 1987 and, despite the problems of BP shares being sold off to private owners between 1977 and 1986/7, he considers the 1970s and early 1980s being almost an idyllic age for the workers. Indeed, one chapter is entitled ‘The Socialist Republic of Grangemouth’, an industrial site where ‘BP belonged to you and me and all other citizens of the UK’ . Employment conditions, pension arrangements, and even the environment were good in the hands of BP – the benevolent and paternalistic BP. It is a helpful ploy for the arguments presented in this book to have a ‘golden age’ against which to measure everything else, even if that age was not so golden. Lyon, after all, does imply that BP under-invested in the plant and, by the 1980s, was making attempts to undermine the position of the established unions at its plant before conceding the need to maintain some time of partnership with the unions. Indeed, this ‘golden age’ seems to have been breaking down, if it ever existed, as Lyon joined BP in 1980 as an apprentice. By 1986/87, when Jim Ratcliffe bought the surviving Grangemouth complex for Ineos, the rights of workers were beginning to be seriously threatened.
What seems difficult to understand is why this change of strategy and management is not placed within the wider attack which Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and their Conservative administrations, levelled against trade unions between 1979 and 1997. The eight major trade union and employment acts to restrict trade unionism in these years are not discussed. The attacks on the unions in the steel and coal industries are not mentioned. In other words there is almost myopia when it comes to the wider context, and the important lessons of the exercise of the power of the State in the miners’ strike of 1984/5 are ignored. The sale of Grangemouth to the Ineos Group could have been well placed into the privatisation and de-regulatory moves of the Conservative governments of those years.
What is more perplexing is that the thrust of the book seems to be the belief of Lyon, and indeed Unite, of the need to work with management in order to ensure the profitability of the firm. The chief concern of the unions seems to have been to protect jobs by ensuring the profitability of the firm at the costs of workers’ rights. Partnership arrangements in Britain have rarely worked well for the unions and their members, and are perhaps best evidenced in the outcome of the crisis in October 2013 when there was a reduction in workers’ rights. This is a study in failure.
The defining theme of this book is that for many years Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos were plotting to destroy trade unionism at Grangemouth by removing the main union organisers, such as Stevie Deans. Part of this process, it is argued, was the exploitation of the Falkirk Labour Party affair, which deeply involved Deans, as the chair of the Falkirk Constituency Labour Party. This political affair crisis arose when in 2012 the sitting Labour MP for Falkirk, the adjoining constituency to Grangemouth, announced that he would not seek re-election at the next general election, thus provoking a contest over the future Labour parliamentary candidature. In essence this provoked a conflict between Unite, and the left-wing trade unionists, who wanted their candidate put forward, and the more right-wing trade unionists and Labour activists who favoured an alternative candidate. This internecine conflict led to accusations that Unite were trying to impose their candidate illegally on the Falkirk Labour Party, and the police were drawn in to the affair to establish whether or not there was any criminal intent involved. These accusations and events led to a media storm as Ed Miliband, the then Labour leader, tried to distance himself from the trade union domination of the Labour Party and the very union that had placed him in power. Of these events, Lyon writes that ‘I have been mentioning the company’s plot against the union throughout the book. The Falkirk Labour Party events merely gave them an excuse to get things going. The date for putting the plot into action was November 2013’ . In other words, the events of the Falkirk Labour Party affair are drawn into a wider plot on the basis of assumption. This is all drawn together with other events, such as the company’s attack on pensions, as evidence of a build-up to the implementation of the plot. In the end the crisis point occurred towards the end of October 2013.
What then of ‘The Battle of Grangemouth’? The blurb on the back cover of the book states that ‘This book tells the story of the industrial dispute at Grangemouth in 2013, when the owner threatened to close a large part of the complex unless the workforce accepted cuts to their wages and conditions’. However, whilst the whole book is built upon the events of October 2013, or the plot of November 2013, there is little evidence of a battle for Grangemouth at this time. Ineos demanded changes in the conditions of employment, pensions and the right to strike and closed the works. Unite threatened a 48-hour strike which was suspended, and accepted the management terms: ‘We simply had to give the company all it wanted at this stage in order to be sure of keeping the plant open’ . Yet Lyon accepts that the company never had any intention of closing the plant on this and that the union should have called its bluff. Whatever the battle refers to it does not seem to be about the events of 2013. There was no battle. Instead there were difficult industrial relations, resolved by site partnership discussions from the mid 1980s, in which the one great success for Unite occurred in 2008. On that occasion, Unite called a 48-hour strike to resist attacks upon the pensions of workers and forced the company to drop their demands. The rest was retreat. Lyon’s revenge-and-plot thesis, on which the book rests, seems to date from this time and perhaps it is the events of 2008 that should be the real focus of this book.
Why then was this book produced? Why should it have been published in March or April 2017? Some may think that it has much to do with the vote for the new General Secretaryship of Unite in April 2017 and might see it as an attempt to boost the existing Unite leadership, many of whom appear somewhere in the book. If so, it is an ill-chosen record of Unite’s failure to work in partnership with management to secure workers’ right and protect jobs. It might be that it is a genuine attempt to offer a ‘worker’s story’ of the events at Grangemouth. If so, it is a remarkably partial document in which only the views of union activists seem to appear. Indeed, remarkably little is said about the various workers on the site. Lyon might have offered evidence of the workers at Grangemouth, many of whom did not necessarily follow the union line, as the vote on relinquishing some union rights in favour of a temporary financial reward suggests.
This book deserves to be read since it offers a particular worker’s perspective on the events that led up to the battle of Grangemouth in October 2013. Unfortunately, it is a very partial account, one-dimensional in its approach. It tells the reader little about the attitudes of the workers or the management and very much presents Unite as a militant industrial organisation in the context of failed partnership arrangements in which it proved reluctant to be militant. The book would have had some significance had an editor or copy-editor called for more context, an uncluttered chronology, and a clearer structure. However, that was not to be and the author marked my card by constantly referring to the plot of November 2013 for events which culminated in October 2013, and also by the fact that the opening line of the Introduction  has an obvious typo referring to the 2103, as opposed to 2013, dispute. What a pity! This could have been an important and perceptive book. What a pity that Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, should seek to endorse a book which throws little light on the events of 2013 and little honour on his union, of which Mark Lyon is vice-chair. The story of Grangemouth deserves a detailed and worthy study. This is not it.
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