LABOUR was facing fresh pressure over the fall-out from the Grangemouth dispute last night, as the Tories called on Ed Miliband to condemn “thuggish” attempts by the Unite union to target managers at the plant.
A week after the crisis that nearly led to the closure of the petrochemical site, the union was yesterday forced to defend its use of so-called “leverage tactics”, where managers who worked for the plant’s owner were directly targeted at home.
One Ineos director said he feared for the safety of his wife and two children after 30 Unite protesters turned up at his house during the holidays.
The tactics prompted the Conservative chairman Grant Shapps to write to Mr Miliband yesterday, insisting he distance himself from the “intimidation”.
Unite, however, defended the tactics, saying they had been successful. Last week, it was forced to capitulate to Ineos after the firm said it would close Grangemouth’s petrochemical plant.
Unite was forced to accept a no-strike deal at the plant for the next three years. Its own organiser, Stephen Deans, resigned from his job earlier this week after being presented with evidence of an internal investigation into his conduct.
Mr Deans is also expected to be ousted as chairman of the Falkirk West Labour Party in a confidence vote this weekend. It follows a bitter internal row over allegations he used his position in Unite to sign up Grangemouth workers to join Labour, in order to ensure his union’s favoured candidate, Karie Murphy, stood for the party in the seat.
Police Scotland confirmed its officers had attended an address in Dunfermline on Friday, 18 October, following reports of a protest but said the occupants were not present .
However, one unnamed Grangemouth boss was reported as saying a “mob” had gathered at his house. “Their intent was to gain concessions. But taking it to someone’s home, to someone’s drive, during the school holidays, is way over the line,” he said. “It had quite an impact on my kids. My wife is very concerned they could turn up at any time again. They know where I live. ”
The daughter of another director said she had received a “wanted” poster criticising her father at her home in Hampshire.
Prime Minister David Cameron said the “leverage” allegations were “shocking” and should be investigated.
In his letter to Mr Miliband, Mr Shapps said Unite, which is the Labour’s largest donor, had sent a so-called leverage team to “threaten senior Ineos executives at home, and to seriously intimidate their families”.
He said it was “clear from Unite’s website” the tactics were a “consistent strategy”.
Mr Shapps wrote: “Unite claim that this is both ‘legal and legitimate’. I’m sure you’ll agree it falls way short of decency.
“Last year [Unite leader] Len McCluskey praised this as ‘a new, sophisticated, smart way to do business’.”
He continued: “The Labour Party, and the Scottish Labour Party, backed Unite and their actions throughout the Grangemouth dispute. You must now accept the consequences of this disastrous misjudgment.”
If Mr Miliband did not, he said, Labour would “send out the message to the British people that you are too weak to stand up to the union bosses that bankroll your party”.
However, Unite claimed the tactic had secured “landmark victories” against employers such as Honda, London Buses and Mayr Melnhof Packaging.
A spokesman said: “All the activities referred to are both legal and legitimate. Bad employers should have nowhere to hide.”
Unite also said Mr Shapps’ letter showed how “our basic liberties – including the right to protest – are not safe with the Tories”.
Labour had last night made no response to Mr Shapps’ comments.
First Minister Alex Salmond said Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont had been “silent” over the Grangemouth dispute, which now threatens to cause further internal damage for Labour, with Mr Deans’ future being decided at an extraordinary general meeting of the Falkirk party this weekend.
It follows reports that Unite subverted an internal Labour inquiry into alleged vote-rigging in Falkirk through threats, intimidation and dirty tricks.
The allegations are contained in an internal Ineos investigation into Mr Deans, and include suggestions Unite arranged for people in Falkirk to withdraw their evidence against the union.
Both Mr Deans and Ms Murphy had been suspended by Labour after evidence was submitted to party officials. However, that inquiry was dropped after the evidence was removed.
Mr Miliband is now facing intense pressure to kick-start an inquiry again, with senior figures including Jack Straw urging an investigation.
Meanwhile, UK government figures have countered SNP claims that Alex Salmond rescued the plant by persuading Ineos to reverse its decision.
They said Chancellor George Osborne last week wrote to Ineos reiterating a £125 million loan guarantee was still available if it decided to invest as planned. Last weekend, Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said the result was an example of Scotland having “the best of both worlds”, as the UK and Scottish governments had tried to come up with a rescue package.
Direct action tactic that involves targeting people in their homes
UNITE’S website provides information on “leverage” – which it describes as “a relatively new tool helping Unite to defend and strengthen its agreements and protect and empower its workplace reps”.
The basic idea behind leverage, it says, is to make “all interested parties aware of the treatment received by Unite members at the hands of an employer”. Interested parties are defined as anyone from shareholders, competitors, customers and even the marketplace itself.
The process kicks in, says the union, when it makes a judgment that an employer is acting ‘immorallly”. If the union judges this to be the case, it will then conduct “lawful protest” so that employers cannot “hide behind veils of secrecy”. It adds: “Where Unite members are involved in such lawful protest, the union will use its best endeavours to ensure such members are aware of their rights of lawful protest.”
This is not to replace negotiation, but to supplement it, the union argues.
In the case of Ineos, “leverage” appears to have included protests outside the homes of the senior members of staff. Unite claims that similar direct action forced a change of heart in other disputes with companies such as Honda and London Buses. However, in the case of Ineos, the attempt seems only to have increased the resolve of the private firm to dig in its heels and refuse all of the union’s demands. Unite was then forced to capitulate to Ineos last week, leaving workers with fewer rights – including a ban on strike action for the next three years.
But the union is defending its tactic and says it will pursue it again, adding that “bad employers should have nowhere to hide”.