Grangemouth: a few big men push the rest of us from society
This week’s news has been grim reading for those of us concerned with democratising the economy. Big events which affect us all have been sewn up by a small number of very powerful men.
First, the ‘rescue package’ which stopped the Cooperative Bank from going under left it now majority-owned by outside shareholders, primarily American hedge funds. Now the bank’s activities will be skewed towards making profit for those shareholders, rather than towards societal benefit. Much ink has been spent on the effect this will have on its ethical stance, said to be the bank’s USP.
Of course ethical banking is important but more pressingly for me as a Coop account holder, my money will now be used to make money for some guy in a pinstriped suit rather than for its members. I also find myself with very few alternative options. A couple of managers of large American hedge funds have managed to deprive us of one of the few large mutual-owned banks, and we had no say in it. Coop Chief Executive Euan Sutherland celebrated this deal saying “This is the first bank to be rescued and survive as a stand-alone entity without taxpayer money.” Out of a government bailout or a corporate takeover, I know which option I would have preferred.
Next was Grangemouth, where Jim Ratcliffe and his company Ineos managed to play the nation like a fiddle. I was reassured to know that when one man holds a vital part of the country’s infrastructure to ransom, the press, government and even the unions will do everything they can to make sure his demands are met.
The short story is that Jim Ratcliffe provoked the union into industrial action by suspending a union official on dubious grounds. In the run up to a planned strike, news began to emerge of the plant’s huge losses, claimed to be £10million a month, and Ineos issued a rescue plan which would freeze workers’ pay and make cuts to their pensions. Presumably such measures would make little difference to such mammoth losses. The workers, naturally, voted to reject this plan, but cancelled their strike whilst negotiations were ongoing. Despite this concession, Jim Ratcliffe decided to close the plant, the equivalent of stomping his feet and taking his ball home because they wouldn’t play exactly by his rules. Not out of character for someone who during negotiations demanded a personal apology from the unions and said it was ‘a deal breaker’.
This was an example of a member of the capitalist class going on strike, and taking a vital part of the country’s infrastructure with him. Clearly keeping the refinery in his private hands was just too risky – calls for nationalisation of the plant were growing, other buyers were lining themselves up, and the Scottish Government made clear that they were not going to let the plant close or let the jobs be lost. Victory for the workers seemed all but certain.
And it was then, when the villain of the story was plain for everyone to see, and when circumstances seemed to be lining themselves up behind the workers, that yet another powerful man managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. After Len McLuskey crossed the border into Scotland, suddenly the rejection of the deal by the workers didn’t matter anymore, and the Unite shop stewards agreed not only to the original deal of the pension cuts and a 3 year pay freeze (ie probably at least an 8% pay cut), but they also acknowledged that jobs will be lost in the restructure of the company and, incredibly, agreed to take no strike action over the next 3 years. The Unite rep will sign the agreement and it will then be binding on the workers, with no vote necessary. Ineos, the government and Unite all celebrated the agreement as a good result. I wonder what a bad one would have been.
Privatising and marketising our infrastructure turns ‘one person one vote’ into ‘one pound one vote‘. It also puts control of vital parts of our economy and society under the control of wealthy people who have their own interests at heart, and not ours. And as Grangemouth has shown us, even our union representatives, themselves powerful bureaucrats paid large sums of money, can cut deals which undermine our interests. This is exactly the alienation Jimmy Reid spoke of. We have no control over our lives, our work, our public institutions, or even our unions.