WE'VE been here before with Ineos, main owner and operator of the Grangemouth site.
In fact, the latest drama to threaten the economic life of Scotland bears a startling resemblance to the panic on forecourts in April 2008 when, for the first time, the Forties pipeline was shut down.
On that occasion, too, there was a fight over pensions. There was a company claim that investment and jobs were at risk if trades unionists did not yield. Ineos Capital, it was announced, might put its money "in Norway, or France or Germany, and not Grangemouth". This conglomerate has form.
Even to the untutored eye, October 2013 has provided certain contrasts in perception. When the Unite union threatened a strike for this weekend, the company asserted that Scotland would be shut down by a reckless action. Yet with the threat averted, Ineos elects to close its site regardless. It, too, has demands. Suddenly, its concern for the country's welfare is less than obvious.
Ineos would blame trades unionists for that, of course. Ineos always blames trades unionists. The private Swiss-based concern and Jim Ratcliffe, its multi-billionaire main shareholder and chairman, have no record of embracing unions. Instead, since 1998, Ineos has grown its 15 "units" around the world by cutting wages, stripping out pension schemes and altering working practices.
In 2013, one of its demands for Grangemouth is "a more modern approach to workplace representation". The language is scarcely coded. In 2013, yet again, Ineos wants to be rid of a pension scheme it deems "unaffordable". Once again, it wants to pay less in wages. Not for the first time, duress is inherent in each and every company statement. If workers do not comply, a £300 million investment required for "long-term survival" will not be forthcoming. Supposedly.
According to the Sunday Times and its Rich List, Ratcliffe, the former chemical engineer turned tycoon, was worth upwards of £3 billion in 2010. His estimate of when an asset is viable might not be entirely in line with the average, then. Unite insists, in any case, that the figures produced by Ineos to show that Grangemouth is in "financial distress" are, let's say, deceptive.
The union analysis shows a company describing capital expenditure as a loss. This is an unusual, if perfectly legal, accounting practice, to put it no higher. It shows that the deferring of a tax allowance of £117m implies an expectation of a half-billion profit in the years ahead. It shows that the growth in both sales and operating profit could hardly be healthier. But Ineos won't have it: all such views are "naive" and fail to grasp why a conglomerate would shuffle money between its divisions.
Most of us suffer that failure of understanding. What is plain is that, having faced down the possibility of a strike for which it was strangely well-prepared, the footloose multinational is now exerting maximum pressure on its workforce, the politicians and the general population. The charge is that unions, those which once supposedly "held the country to ransom", have nothing on Ineos.
This is industrial relations in the modern style. If employees are a bar to profit, reduce their cost. If politicians quibble, make them aware of how much they depend on the company to keep the public quiet. Grangemouth contains Scotland's only refinery. Until we cure the oil addiction, it could hardly be more important. But it operates on the whim of a billionaire with his headquarters in Switzerland.
Grangemouth workers do well enough, by most standards. Why should they not? Like their colleagues in oil extraction they do hard, essential work on which the country depends, work from which multinationals extract profits vastly greater than any wage bill. Ineos prefers not to regard productive labour in those terms. Workers are the human nuisances in otherwise flawless accounting procedures.
Steadily, year by year, we are all being reduced to that category. The non-unionised and the worst-paid have gone first. In April of this year, one MP spoke furiously of the way Tesco was treating disabled workers, agency and full-time staff being laid-off at a distribution centre in Essex. The MP alleged attacks on equal pay and claimed staff had been threatened with the sack just for speaking to him. What made the story piquant was the identity of the enraged parliamentarian. He was Robert Halfon, stout Tory MP for Harlow.
That politician spotted something his own party cannot yet bear to face. A fundamental social contract has been broken by some of Britain's biggest companies. It is not a left-wing pipe-dream sort of contract. For Tories, it was encapsulated in Norman Tebbit's belief that anyone who got on their bike and looked for work could achieve decency and self-respect. Yet that deal, that minimum, is being shredded, at will, across the country.
Alan Milburn has long since forgotten any left-wing pipe-dreams he ever had. The former MP for Darlington is not that kind of senior Labour politician. Yet when he conducts research into social mobility and child poverty for the Coalition Government, what does he find? It is not the fabled land of shirkers and strivers.
The strivers are those parents who work yet cannot lift themselves or their offspring from poverty. Milburn found that two-thirds of Britain's poor children are in families with a working parent. In three out of four of those households, at least one of the parents was working full-time. Crudely: work all you like, but you can't feed your kids.
The mythology says, meanwhile, that in a country awash with shirkers, too many don't want to work. Last week's unemployment figures, the official caricature, found 1.5 million adults in part-time employment, with the majority complaining that they needed and wanted more hours. Women, in particular, are being punished in this "jobs market" while British Gas sticks its bills up by 9.2% and inflation generally makes a joke of the few pitiful wage gains going.
Milburn makes dutiful noises about social mobility with the air of a man who knows the idea has become a joke. The middle classes are fast losing ground already plundered from what's left of the working class. Fear is both endemic and rational in a country of falling wages, crooked employment contracts and absolute insecurity. Last week, the former Labour minister's soundbite was a kind of epitaph: "Work is not a cure for poverty."
Even under Thatcher, we were told to believe the opposite. Want could always be cured by work. That was the contract, that was the deal. Now, even for decently-paid industrial workers such as the people at Grangemouth, the terms have been altered. The deal is that there is no deal. One million of the young unemployed, and among those younger and a little older, know this far better than the rest of us.
At the heart of it all are the big employers. They've had all the tax breaks, subsidies and helpful legislation they could ever demand. For thanks, they avoid their obligations, reduce their workers to peasants, and treat government as a helpline. These are oligarchs regarding the inhabitants of a democracy as serfs. The question becomes: for how much longer will the serfs tolerate that treatment?
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