Refinery workers defend their wages and pensions
At 6am on 27 April the night shift at Grangemouth oil refinery walked out on strike. A sea of red flags of the Unite union signaled the beginning of a 48-hour stoppage by 1,200 workers that ceased the flow of oil from the North Sea and the distribution of fuel from Grangemouth to petrol stations.
More than 250 workers and supporters took part in a rally at Grangemouth on the first strike day. The mood was angry and determined. The appearance of the owner of the plant, venture capitalist Jim Ratcliffe, at number 25 in the Sunday Times’ Rich List (a personal fortune of £2.3 billion) on the day the strike began, was not lost on the workforce.
At the rally, Unite convenor Mark Lyons explained that when Ratcliffe bought the plant from its previous owners British Petroleum, the pension scheme was in a healthy state. He said that the emergency services would continue to receive fuel and that the plant would still be serviced for Health & Safety by workers. He stated to applause: “This dispute is in recognition of all workers. It is a fight for all pensions!”
Another worker explained how Ratcliffe wants to impose a 6% wage cut by forcing workers to pay a contribution from their wages to their pension from now on.
The industry’s offshore operations shut down for maintenance during June and July, therefore requiring workers to achieve a speedy victory.
Workers’ leaders have stated that any refusal by management to reconsider their attack on pensions will see further strike action. The scheme represents one of the best currently in existence, where only the employer makes contributions. The workers are determined to defend it.
Workers’ power against bosses’ offensive
Following on from last week’s strikes by teachers and college lecturers in England, civil servants and Shelter workers throughout Britain, and Birmingham local authority workers, the Grangemouth strike has led to a section of the press speculating that a new wave of workers’ militancy is breaking out.
Iain MacWhirter, writing in the Scottish Sunday Herald, commented: “Gordon Brown thought he was living the new economic paradigm until, like Sam Tyler in Life on Mars he found himself back in the 1970s. The eruption of union militancy is the most remarkable echo of that decade”.
While we are not back to the 1970s’ level of strike activity, the burning anger of workers over pay cuts, pensions and working conditions is beginning to be reflected in an increased preparedness to take strike action. The ongoing crisis facing the increasingly catastrophic Brown government can also help to embolden workers against New Labour’s offensive on pay.
The added significance of the Grangemouth action was the immediate and serious impact it had on the functioning of the capitalist economy, especially the oil industry and transport network.
Not only was the Grangemouth oil refinery, the only one in Scotland, shut down, but the oil pipeline from the Forties oil field in the North Sea, which supplies 40% of the UK’s daily oil output, was also cut off. The Forties pipeline goes to the BP run Kinneill site, which relies on electricity, water and steam from Grangemouth to function. 700,000 barrels of oil and 80 million cubic metres of gas a day are effectively lost during the course of the strike. Not only venture capitalist Jim Ratcliffe’s company Ineos at Grangemouth, and BP at Kinneill, but also a further 80 companies in the North Sea and beyond are affected. This led to howls of outrage from oil bosses and capitalist spokespeople that this action would cost the economy £50 million a day.
Oil and Gas UK chief executive Malcolm Webb, ominously demanded that the government must “take all the necessary action to ensure that the country is not held to ransom”. This is a veiled threat to demand the use of emergency powers against the strike were the action to be escalated in the coming weeks.
The media’s propaganda offensive failed to turn the public against the strike. There is widespread sympathy for the Grangemouth workers, who are seen as taking action in defence not only of their own pensions, but also against the bosses’ onslaught on pension rights generally. Ineos represents all that is rotten in modern capitalist society.
Not only were the refinery workers not blamed for the threat of petrol shortages, but it was the fuel companies and garages – some of whom jacked up petrol prices – who were the main target for public anger. The expected £6 billion profit from BP and Shell for the first three months of 2008 will only increase the mood of opposition at blatant profiteering over fuel misery.
One of the important outcomes of this action is to nail the myth that the working class no longer has any power in a modern economy. Contrary to volumes of capitalist propaganda saying that the working class no longer exists as a result of deindustrialisation, and on the decline of so-called union power, the Grangemouth action demonstrates that when the working class strikes, everything they are working on stops.
This is also true of public sector workers, as the recent strike action in schools, the civil service and local government demonstrates. As New Labour minister John Hutton commented: “When employees in an enterprise stop working there really is nothing anyone can do about it.”
The Grangemouth workers and Unite will be under enormous pressure, not least from the Brown government and the SNP government in Scotland – who have refused to come out on the side of the strikers – to make concessions to Ineos. However, the mood of the workforce is very strong and unless Ineos withdraws its plans to tear up the pension scheme then further strike action should be called.