BOTH sides in the bitter industrial dispute at the Grangemouth oil refinery remained deadlocked on Friday night after management and unions failed to agree a deal to resume production at the plant.
At a meeting on Friday, Ineos, the site operator, asked the union Unite to make a commitment to call no further strike action before the end of the year. Unite said it would agree, but on the condition that Ineos did not impose a threatened pay freeze and changes to pension provision on the workforce.
Afterwards Ineos claimed it would have restarted operations at the petrochemical plant, which has been shut down since Wednesday, if the union had given the company a “no conditions, no strings attached” assurance that it would take no more industrial action.
In response, Unite has taken out a full page advertisement, which will appear in tomorrow’s Scotland on Sunday, accusing Ineos of “waging a campaign of fear” against its 1,400 employees. The message, addressed to the “people of Scotland”, states that Ineos chairman Jim Ratcliffe bears “full responsibility” for the current crisis.
“This is a company out of control. This is holding Scotland to ransom,” it goes on. “This climate of fear has been created to try to force working men and women into signing away their rights and the pensions for which they have saved all their working lives.”
Yesterday, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said Ineos’s decision to close the plant was “not the way we should be engaging in workplace disputes in the 21st century”.
Ms Lamont said: “I have spoken to both the union and the company this afternoon and as a result of the union undertaking that there will be no strike action up to the end of the year, the company should now withdraw the ultimatums they have delivered to the workforce.
“The company should also undertake to immediately reopen the plant and return to production, and both the union and the company should return to meaningful talks, with Acas if necessary, to deliver a solution to this matter which has serious consequences for Scotland and the UK.”
In emergency talks on Thursday, First Minister Alex Salmond called on Ineos to return Grangemouth to normal production and for Unite to guarantee in writing that it would not strike this year.
In a major intervention, Mr Salmond had left the SNP conference in Perth for the discussions with both sides.
Finance secretary John Swinney, speaking at the party conference, urged Ineos and Unite to “respond positively” to the First Minister’s intervention and “put Grangemouth back to work”.
The First Minister held talks to “try to create common ground”, Mr Swinney told delegates.
Last night, Calum MacLean, Ineos Grangemouth (UK) chairman, said: “Unite’s response is unbelievable given how much effort has been put into securing this deal with ourselves, the Scottish and the UK governments all working hard to find a way
“We will now concentrate on discussing the survival plan with our staff during the 60-day consultation”.
Workers have until Monday to accept the management’s plan, which Ineos insists is the only way to keep the plant open. The company has said that the loss-making petrochemical arm of the plant will close by 2017 unless a £150 million government bailout can be agreed.
Unite, which called off a
48-hour strike that was due to start tomorrow, will stage a demonstration today outside the Grangemouth facility.
The union insisted that the company had to “lift the sword of Damocles” by calling for all workers to sign new contracts or face the sack.
Pat Rafferty, Unite’s Scottish secretary, said: “We are urging people to come down and show their support for the hard working men and women of Grangemouth.
“We cannot allow a powerhouse of the Scottish economy to be held to ransom while the company hold a gun to the heads of a loyal workforce.
“At ACAS talks earlier this week, Unite committed to conducting no industrial action ballots or industrial action before 31 December 2013.
“This was on the basis that the company would not impose cuts on the workforce during the same period. Unite also proposed that these negotiations over the future of the site during this period would be held under the auspices of Acas.”
Mr Rafferty added that if Ineos ditched its agenda for changes to pay, pensions and conditions, then Unite’s offer still stood.
He said: “If the company can provide that guarantee, then there is no reason why the plant cannot return to production and both parties can return to negotiations immediately to secure the future of Grangemouth.
“But it is absolutely vital that Ineos removes its threats to the workforce immediately. We cannot work on a secure future for the site while the workforce is in fear for their jobs.”
Last night, Labour’s shadow energy secretary, Caroline Flint, backed the union and called for fresh Acas talks and the reopening of Grangemouth.
She said: “Grangemouth is a vital asset, a key part of our economy with potentially great prospects. The way to resolve this is by negotiation.
“The union has now said it will commit to no industrial action this year if Ineos agrees to lift its ultimatum to the workforce and begin talks about the future of Grangemouth. This is a welcome step.
“I urge Ineos to now adopt a similar approach, by ending the shutdown of the plant and the ultimatum to the workforce, and agreeing to get back around the negotiating table free from the threat of strike action.”
A statement from Ineos claimed the union had rejected its offer to reopen production at Grangemouth, where it says staff have now been placed on safety and maintenance duties. The company said: “Ineos needs the undertaking because it would be hazardous to start up the plant only to have to stop it a few days later in response to further threats of industrial action.”
The dispute with Unite, which arose over the treatment of union convener Stephen Deans, has cost the company £20 million so far.
Mr Deans was involved in the row over the selection of a
Labour candidate in Falkirk, where he is chairman of the constituency party.
He was suspended by Ineos and later reinstated, but is facing an internal investigation by the company over issues linked to the Falkirk affair.