SO imagine an electricity provider is having a spot of bother over pay and pensions.
A perverse workforce are refusing to make themselves worse off and believe the firm is in financial distress. What's the management's next move?
Announcing to the country all the lights are going off wouldn't feature in most industrial relations textbooks. Insisting negotiations and consultations cannot commence until all demands are met would baffle anyone fond of dictionary definitions. In brief, it wouldn't go down well.
Antique social history tells us what the response would be if trade unions engaged in such behaviour. Newspaper columnists - you know the colourful kind - would pile in with lectures on irresponsibility and "holding the country to ransom". Those left sitting in the dark would be mightily aggrieved.
Ineos is not the only example available in Britain of what passes for modern management. Over the past 30 years, "the right to manage" has evolved into a dictatorial self-regard. Consultation is weakness; co-operation a defeat. The minimal rights still available to employees are obstacles, or intrusive "red tape", or a tiresome challenge to be overcome. The main owner and operator at Grangemouth is less sophisticated even than that.
First, it has staged a confrontation over the alleged behaviour of one Unite union convener, Stephen Deans, despite his being exonerated by Labour in the aftermath of the Falkirk nonsense. Quite how his case ever had anything to do with a desire to flatten wages and shut a pension scheme has never been explained. Undaunted, Ineos has moved swiftly to a scorched earth policy.
First it closes the plant, then it threatens to walk away from Grangemouth entirely. For good (or bad) measure, it gives workers three days to surrender every argument or risk unemployment. It gives a description of the financial condition of the business that bears very little scrutiny. Throughout, its attitude towards its employees, their families, dependent businesses, government and Scotland is "Take it or leave it". Corporate social responsibility is not an Ineos speciality.
Almost two-thirds of Unite members have refused to be browbeaten. That is to their credit, but now they could do with some help. If industrial relations can be defined as a balance of rights and responsibilities between management and employees, it should be clear to anyone attempting to be dispassionate that the scales have tilted wildly. Ineos, headquarters in Switzerland and under the absolute control of the billionaire James Ratcliffe, accepts no obligations of the moral variety.
Grangemouth, to state the obvious, is not just any old industrial unit. Bizarrely, it contains the only refinery in this oil-producing nation. It serves the strategically crucial Forties pipe-line. Its petro-chemicals area is both a major employer and a vital industrial provider. For Scotland it is more, vastly more, than a chip in a game of corporate poker. Yet Mr Ratcliffe can alone whether he likes this year's costs as he understands them.
Even if we had a saintly and altruistic billionaire on our hands, this would be intolerable, almost akin to giving one individual control of power, water, or transport. You cannot run a big part of an economy on one man's terms, especially if his company refuses to recognise any responsibility towards that economy. No one is expecting Mr Ratcliffe to subsidise Grangemouth - though he could manage a decade of those "losses" from his own pocket - but hardball played by his rules is no sport for a mature democracy.
He could take his business elsewhere. That's his right. It is hard, nevertheless, to think of another country that would allow a strategic asset to be treated in the way Grangemouth has been treated. In France, Germany, or even the US, it would not be tolerated. Before anyone suggests, meanwhile, that such is the fate awaiting a tiny independent Scotland, the muted response from London over this issue has been startling.
The Scottish Government is looking for a buyer. Given the Ineos track record, you could say it's about time. Someone might no doubt be found to take on the refinery: no rocket science is at stake. The petro-chemicals operations on the site will be trickier by far to preserve. Ineos has partners, including the Chinese, in the refinery business. But if they save the day, ration your gratitude.
Finance Secretary John Swinney says public ownership of Grangemouth would be "inappropriate". There speaks a man who sees a big hole in the budgets over which he slaves. Mr Swinney probably has half a mind on European rules, too, though in this case those are hardly insuperable. There might also been an unvoiced thought: is this what Ineos wanted all along?
It would accord with Mr Ratcliffe's history. His talent has been for "efficiency", by which is meant the relentless driving down of costs. Those are known to others as wage packets and pensions. How does he lose from the current situation? Either he reduces the human cost of his operation and inflates his bottom line, or he gets an offer. Ineos has made it clear over the last few days it is always open to such an offer.
Perhaps, on the other hand, Mr Ratcliffe is right. Perhaps the financial distress being endured by the Grangemouth operation is such that only drastic action will do. Ineos might then want to explain how that situation has come about under its management. Equally, it could rebut the Unite claim that its description of losses, real or potential, is a tribute to the accountant's art. Ineos could even refute the claim that this entire crisis has amounted to an attempt to make a profitable business more profitable.
If Grangemouth is a going concern, it would be entirely appropriate for Mr Swinney to consider public ownership. In fact, if the SNP is right about the future of the North Sea and the Norwegian model for handling such a resource, a publicly-owned refinery and petro-chemicals site would be a Scandinavian solution.
Grangemouth says two things. First, that there is no "balance" between employers and employed when a big company decides to treat the concept of industrial relations with such contempt. Secondly, that ownership of strategic national assets is not something that can be left to the markets, far less to individuals with big money and small ideas. Mr Ratcliffe has a stake in a site and no stake in a country.
It says something about what Britain has become that politicians of every stripe are at a loss over Grangemouth. The media, too, have reacted reflexively to a "dispute" with two sides "at odds". There is even the quaint old notion Unite have "walked into a trap". It might be better to wonder about a management that would set such a trap when a country's fuel supplies are at stake.
That accomplished, those who make politics could pause to wonder how public ownership of a strategic asset could possibly be worse than the farce being staged in the Forth Valley.
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