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Unite members at Grangemouth in 2013

Unite members in Scotland fight back against brutal bosses

By Matt Dobson

Three major industrial disputes are on the agenda in private sector workplaces in Scotland over attacks on trade union rights, pay freezes and assaults on workers’  terms and conditions. In each of these cases, Unite are the union fighting to defend its members.

Babcock

Unite members who work for Babcock Marine at the Trident naval bases at Faslane and Coulport are involved in an overtime ban and rolling sectional strike action in response to “a systematic campaign to undermine workers, including victimising worker representatives, withdrawing facilities for shop steward meetings, and failing to meaningfully consult and negotiate with the trade union”.

On April 5th, Unite were informed that MoD navy personal would be ordered to carry out the duties of civilian staff taking industrial action.

Unite should respond with a mass public campaign to shame this strike breaking. Demonstrations and pickets an escalation of the strike action, drawing in a larger part of the workforce, is important. Pressure should also be applied to the Prospect union to support Unite’s action. Socialist Party Scotland fully supports the fight of naval base workers for effective trade union organisation and we call for an ending of the outsourcing to Babcock Marine and other contractors.

We also oppose and call for a scrapping of Trident nuclear weapons, linked to a socialist strategy to defend and create jobs through a program of retraining and utilising the workforce skills for diversification.

Grangemouth

Another development is the re-emergence of an industrial conflict at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant. Unite and its members suffered a serious defeat in 2013, inflicted by Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos.

Unite members accepted, following a threat by the bosses to shut the complex, an agreement involving a three year pay freeze, a ban on strike action, pension attacks and the removal of its convenors in return for Ratclifffe keeping the plant open and maintaining jobs. The alternative to accepting these attacks was the organising of a mass campaign involving strike action, possible occupation of the plant and the demand for the nationalisation of Grangemouth. (Our statement on the Grangemouth dispute in 2013 can be read here)

With the agreement made in 2013 now finished, Unite is looking to ballot its members who have suffered a pay cut over three years of 6%. They are demanding a 3.25% pay rise. Ineos has responded by saying they refuse to recognise Unite’s right to collectively bargain.

Socialist Party Scotland raised in 2013 that the defeat, although a serious setback, was not final and that opportunities would come for the union to recover its position if the union and its leadership were prepared to mobilise and prepare for action, as they did successfully in 2008 over pensions.

This flare up comes in the wake of Ratcliffe and Ineos buying and gaining control over a major part of the North Sea oil industry from BP, the Forties Oil Pipeline. Ineos and Ratcliffe have been lobbying the Tory government to further restrict trade union rights.

Stagecoach

Stagecoach bus drivers in Cumbernauld are also balloting on strike action over exhausting shift patterns. Over 120 drivers at Stagecoach’s Cumbernauld depot are expected to take long breaks of between two and three hours between running services, effectively forcing them to work split shifts. Unite says these shifts will badly affect the work-life balance of drivers, as well as creating major health and safety concerns The ballot opened on Wednesday 29 March and will close on 12 April. Any strike action could affect local bus services across west central Scotland, as well as intercity journeys run under the Citylink and Megabus brands. 

Public ownership 

Unite Scotland are rightly calling for the public ownership of local bus networks. However, neither Scottish Labour nor the SNP are raising this in the council elections. Both are complicit in privatisation of these services. This dispute and the key issue of Labour and SNP councils implementing Tory cuts, directly impacting on the jobs of Unite members, raises the issue of political representation of workers. This is why TUSC is standing across Scotland on a clear policy of no cuts budgets, for public ownership and socialist policies with a record of supporting workers in struggle.  

In a recent Scotsman article (31/03/17) Pat Rafferty, Scottish Secretary of Unite correctly commented: “We need a radical rebuilding of our economy, to invest for a future that’s planned by all of us, for the benefit of all of us. We can no longer carry on gifting the fruits of our shared society to a rich few.”

Unite in Scotland would receive large public support if they launched a mass campaign for nationalisation and public ownership of the oil and gas industries and assets like Grangemouth, linked to the industrial action and mass action by members in these disputes. This demand, politically aimed at the Scottish government and Westminster, could be linked to using the profits and wealth in these industries at present siphoned off by billionaire tax dodgers like Ratcliffe and Souter to invest in public services, like the NHS and local government. Such a demand could also be linked to a call to open the books and accounts of “failing” private firms to trade union scrutiny who are attempting to make mass redundancies and relocate, such as the Chivas and Doosan Babcock plants in Renfrewshire, Ford in Bridgend, Wales and the oil industry

These disputes show workers in the private sector increasingly pushing up against pay freezes, real terms wage cuts, attacks on terms and conditions and the right to organise industrially. This is an opportunity for workers to claw back what they have lost through the crisis and gain confidence in struggle as well as confront anti – union practices by the bosses.

Socialist Party Scotland members in Unite have consistently raised the need for national co-ordinated action across the public and private sector to push back against austerity and pay cuts. 

Unite general secretary election

The campaign for the re–election of Len McCluskey as Unite general secretary is vital in this context. His leadership has given, in general, given space and support for Unite members in struggle. McCluskey during his campaign has addressed mass meetings of the workers at Faslane and has committed Unite to doubling strike pay.

The likes of Jim Ratcliffe, big business and their supporters among the Blairite right wing within the Labour Party and the Tories are working for a victory of the right wing anti-McCluskey candidate, Gerard Coyne. Electing fighting United Left representatives to the Unite NEC, including the four Socialist Party/Socialist Party Scotland members standing for election, will aid this process.