HUNDREDS of workers at the Grangemouth oil plant have rejected new pay and conditions put forward by management, according to union chiefs, raising the prospect of a continued shutdown of Scotland’s largest refinery.
Unite said it had received written assurances from more than 500 employees that they would not accept proposed changes to their pensions, overtime and redundancy payments.
Managers said on Sunday that they would only reopen the site if enough workers agree to the new conditions. Billionaire owner Jim Ratcliffe warned it could close permanently if not.
Owners Ineos said at least 250 workers had agreed to the changes by Saturday night, which is about 18 per cent of the 1,350 employees at the site. If both figures are accurate, that leaves about 600 to make their decision before a deadline of 6pm today.
Petrochemical giant Ineos closed the refinery and neighbouring petrochemical plant last week after union members said they would strike en masse, though industrial action was later called off.
The firm had said the plant would not reopen unless unions pledged not to strike again this year. But yesterday Mr Ratcliffe said the plant could close if workers do not accept proposed changes.
“This is not a bluff. The clock is ticking,” he said. “Grangemouth could have a future, but that is absolutely in the hands of the workers. If we go down the wrong road, then I’m afraid this story will not have a happy ending”.
A protracted shutdown or even closure is likely to lead to fears over fuel shortages and hikes in petrol and diesel prices. The plant provides 80 per cent of Scotland’s petrol and processes more than 10 per cent of North Sea oil.
The Swiss-headquartered firm, whose shareholders are due to meet tomorrow, last night told The Scotsman it still hoped a majority would sign up to the new conditions.
A spokesman would not be drawn on how many workers had to accept for the plant to start up again.
Unite, however, angrily rejected the suggestion that the plant could be run on less than a full workforce.
Ineos has said ending its generous final salary pension scheme is critical to ensuring a future for the huge facility and stemming losses of £579 million in the past four years. It is currently losing about £10m per month from the site, it claims.
Tom Crotty, a director at Ineos, told The Scotsman: “We briefed everyone on Thursday and they have until 6pm on Monday to give their response to our offer.
“We hadn’t been expecting many responses over the weekend, so it’s a good sign to receive 250 by Saturday alone.
“We are encouraged by the fact there are a lot of people who recognise our key message, that are this is all about the long- term competitiveness of the site and that if we don’t make these changes, the site won’t exist.
“We just can’t compete with the US, China, the Middle East, and we can’t live in a bubble pretending they’re not there.
“Unfortunately, the union has not been accepting change and if that carries on, the jobs here won’t exist.
“And these are very well paid jobs. What we’re offering here is still a very good pension scheme, better than most, to replace the final salary scheme.”
Employees who accept the new terms and conditions will be given compensation of between £2,500 and £15,000, with the majority at the top of that range, Mr Crotty said.
Workers who do not agree will have up to 60 days as part of a consultation period to sign a new contract before they lose their jobs, says the firm.
Ineos has already warned the plant will close in 2017 without fresh investment and changes to workers’ terms and conditions.
Mr Crotty went on to suggest that the site could be reopened without the agreement of the entire workforce, though he said it was likely they would need a majority of workers.
About 700 staff are employed at the chemical plant and about 500 at the refinery.
He said: “We’ve made no particular decision about restarting yet. A lot depends the numbers and capability to run the plant. We have to have the confidence we have enough people to keep it running.”
He added: “Clearly what we’d like to have happen is we get sufficient numbers of our employees voting for this change, which would then allow us to say we have the confidence to restart the plant and carry on with our new plan. If that doesn’t happen, our shareholders will be reflecting on that on Tuesday after the closure of this offer. And then we’ll take some decisions.”
About 400 employees, some with children and family, attended a rally outside the plant yesterday in heavy rain and heard from speakers from Unite and other bodies such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress – though Ineos disputed the attendance figures.
Site convener Mark Lyon told the crowd: “This is far from a typical industrial dispute. There are old-fashioned words that come to mind like fairness and equality, and that’s what we want.
“Incredibly, our members have been served notice that they will be sacked in 45 days unless they bend to the will of Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos. This is a move to sack one of the most skilled workforces in the country. It’s crazy, and we won’t let it happen on our watch.”
First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday repeated a plea for
unions to agree to take no industrial action and management to reopen the site in order for negotiations to take place.
Ineos has said it needs an assurance that there will be no industrial action due to “safety concerns” about restarting the plant.
Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty told the crowd: “The company now needs to get back to the table, as the First Minister has called for, to stop this imposition and negotiate, and that’s in all our interests.”
The rally came on the day Unite published a strongly worded advert in a number of Scottish newspapers, titled “a message to the people of Scotland”. A similar advert appears in newspapers today.
The union said Grangemouth was the “powerhouse” of Scotland’s economy and urged management to open the plant.
Mr Rafferty later told The Scotsman he expected more workers to today join the 500 who had rejected the deal. He also said the union remained ready to negotiate the terms.