Men shouting at each other, not trying to find any common ground, each escalating the disagreement with every utterance. That’s how it is with the Grangemouth dispute and both sides are, from what I can see, as bad as each other.
Grangemouth is a huge oil refinery and petrochemicals plant in central Scotland, on the shores of the Firth of Forth. It’s role in supplying Scotland’s petrol stations is crucial. Yet, bizarrely, it’s the management who are keeping the plant shut down because the Unite trade union wouldn’t guarantee that there would be no further strike action this Winter. It’s an odd response to the cancellation of the 48 hour strike which had been planned for last weekend.
There’s a lot going on here. Plant owners Ineos has said that the plant will need significant investment from Government in order to survive beyond 2017. It’s certainly not doing much to make its case at the moment.
Unite, on the other hand, are being just as bad, refusing out of hand to accept changes to terms and conditions. Let’s be clear, Grangemouth is no minimum wage enterprise. Its skilled workforce is pretty well off. A job (since removed) on the Ineos website a few days ago offered a top salary of up to £69,000 for a mechanical engineer who would get guaranteed overtime and guaranteed bonuses on top of that. Ineos want to institute a pay freeze and make changes to pension provisions. Like many others, they are moving from a final salary to a career average.
The changes the company want to make are not far off what many other employers, many of them in the public sector, have been doing. It’s a sign of the times and straitened circumstances in which we live. It’s not ideal, but maybe we need to inject a bit of realism into this.There is clear room for compromise and both sides need to try to find it.
There are few things I find more frustrating than seeing a truculent trade union and an intransigent management kick lumps out of each other on the media. As usual in these circumstances, I observe that we’ve really only seen men on the airwaves and every time they open their mouths, it seems to escalate the dispute a bit, their words being as flammable as their product.
A few years ago, when the nursery nurses went on strike, yet another example of male dominated trade unions letting down low paid female staff), I and other mums at the nursery reacted to the media spat between unions and management by creating Parents against strike action and organising colourful demos outside Council HQ and at picket lines. We were interviewed on the radio at the time. What annoyed us was that the two sides were not round a table talking while our kids were being deprived of our education. The two parties to the dispute were exhibiting the sort of behaviour that, rightly, wouldn’t have been tolerated from the 3 and 4 year old kids caught up in it all.
And so it is now. Ineos are bad, but Unite’s actions let them away with it. Like the miners in the 1980s, they play right into the hands of the management. The unions generally seem to be more bothered about rehashing the battles of the 70s and 80s than actually contributing to a long term, sustainable settlement.
Here’s what needs to happen. Ineos needs to fire up the plant again. Then, both sides need to get themselves round a table, with some skilled mediators, and get on with sorting out the dispute. The way they are behaving at the moment is not likely to grab public sympathy for either side, especially when so many people on much lesser salaries are already feeling the pain of pay freezes or real terms cuts with rising living costs.
There are ways to manage change within an organisation. It’s best done in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect and where people feel that at least if unpleasant things are going to happen, it’s all being done fairly and inclusively. Ineos are not alone in getting it all so spectacularly wrong, sadly.