Michael Kelly: Trade union has a lot to answer for

Behaviour of Unite over Grangemouth is difficult to understand and harder to forgive. Picture: PA
Behaviour of Unite over Grangemouth is difficult to understand and harder to forgive. Picture: PA
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Unite refused to recognise its weak position over Grangemouth and should have been ready to compromise, writes Michael Kelly

HOW much responsibility will the trade union be prepared to accept for the current disastrous situation at Grangemouth? Unite, like other trade unions before, refused to recognise its weakened position and failed to adopt another approach to replace the confrontations that provided the trade union movement with so much success for their members in the 1960s and 1970s.

The dwindling number of trade union members plus the increasing ease of international trade bringing globalisation and encouraging the creation of powerful multinational companies has significantly weakened the power of trade unions. And yet British trade unions are still trying to operate as if the economy was dominated by big, inefficient national companies like car-maker British Leyland or monopolistic nationalised industries where, in both cases, the government, fearing political damage, could be relied upon to sit as a third party at the bargaining table and force a negotiated settlement over “beer and sandwiches”. All that changed with Margaret Thatcher and her decision to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers – a union misguided enough to fall into her trap. Not that Thatcher was right. The coal industry that she sacrificed in pursuit of her revenge for defeats inflicted on Edward Heath in the 1970s could today be contributing to our growing energy gap.

No UK government has since seriously amended that approach. And the readiness of foreign governments to compete for inward private investment means that governments, never mind trade unions, have increasingly less control over resisting enforced changes in wages and conditions.

That is why the behaviour of Unite over Grangemouth is difficult to understand and harder to forgive. When the company made its offer of massive new investment conditional on the workforce accepting significant worsening of their wages and salaries packages, the union knew it was dealing with a hard-headed owner of an international business assessing the future of one small (to it) loss-making plant in a sector where there is worldwide over capacity. Why did it refuse to take the threat of closure seriously? It was clear from the leaks emanating from the talks that management was indifferent to whatever reply the union made. They had provided for either contingency. While a union’s instinct is to protect workers’ wages, conditions and pensions, it was obvious in this case that the workers’ best interests lay in accepting an unpalatable deal to save their jobs. As union officials provocatively sifted through the individual rejections of the management terms, it looked to me like they were displaying their own redundancy notices. And so it proved to be. Over half the workers will lose their jobs as the petrochemical plant shuts. There is surely no other option now than to accept these terms on behalf of the refinery workers to ensure that side of the plant continues to operate.

Hopefully, the lessons the workforce has suffered will teach other unions to be more realistic in their goals in the light of modern industrial conditions. There is little sign of that happening in many sectors. Scotland’s teachers are ready to strike in opposition to the sensible modernisation of the ways schools are run. This easiest of the professions with its short days, long holidays and excellent working conditions has little to boast about as educational outcomes of the simplest kind, such as reading, writing and arithmetic, continue to worsen. Accepting a degree of flexibility is the least they can do by way of apology.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) has even more grandiose ambitions. The threatened abortive strike against the privatisation of Royal Mail has been turned into a challenge as to how the new company will be run. The November strike is to force its management to sign a legally binding agreement to “determine the strategy, principles and values of how the Royal Mail Group will operate as a private entity.” According to the CWU “this means there will be no further break-up of the company, no franchising of individual offices or delivery rounds, no introduction of a cheaper workforce on two-tier terms and conditions and no part-time industry.” In other words, the union wants to run the company. It’s a fight the union simply cannot win.

This kind of behaviour is putting at risk what remains of the union movement and affecting whether or not it has a future. Young people, under the influence of rapidly changing technology, understand innovation and flexibility. Trade unions to them represent conservatism, resistance to new ideas and opposition to change. That’s one reason why they won’t join them. Yet this is the wrong message. If only they realised how essential trade unions still are to protecting their industrial rights against indifferent employers driven solely by the profit motive. Individual workers are weak and the trade union promise that “unity is strength” still holds true.

There are many issues to be confronted. Low pay, short-time working, zero-hours contracts and agency exploitation begin a very long list. A fair and just society should share the benefits of success evenly. Some businesses will do that, but best practice is not widespread. Tory governments will rely on markets which are often inefficient, to avoid intervention. Workers’ organisations can play a central role. Whether that is to be trade unions as they currently exist depends on their abandoning ambitions of overweening power and of posturing on the national stage and instead get down to what they were formed to do – protect vulnerable work people.

They could do that better if they worked for a return of a Labour government. But as long as they insist on imposing Old Labour leaders on the majority of party members, both in Scotland and the UK, and as long as they are determined to advocate the left-wing policies that caused so many defeats in the Eighties and early Nineties there is little chance of their achieving that.