At the time of going to press, 1,200 members of Amicus/Unite employed at Grangemouth oil refinery are due to begin 48 hours of strike action at 6.00am on Sunday 27 April – the first strike in a British oil refinery since 1935.
The strike could result in fuel supplies in Scotland, the North of England, and Northern Ireland drying up within a matter of days, and also lead to a shutdown of production in the North Sea oilfield.
(Although the strike is only due to last 48 hours, running down, and then resuming, production at the refinery is a lengthy process. Fuel shortages could last for as long as a month.)
The 97% vote in favour of strike action has been triggered by the decision of the refinery’s owners – Ineos, who bought the refinery from BP in 2005 – to decimate the pension scheme inherited from BP.
Having already stripped £40 millions worth of assets from the pension scheme, Ineos now intends to close the final salary pension scheme to new entrants, reduce its contributions to the scheme, impose financial penalties for early retirement, and introduce a money purchase pension plan for new starts.
When Ineos bought Grangemouth from BP, the pension scheme was funded to 115%. Despite Ineos’s depradations, it is now funded to 120% and is in surplus by 11%.
The scheme requires £16 million a year funding by Ineos – small beer for the fourth largest chemical business in the world, with an annual turnover of £45 billion, and profiting to the tune of between £1 million and £3 million from the Grangemouth plant every day.
An emergency motion in support of strike action by the Amicus/UNITE members was passed by the Scottish TUC on the opening day (21 April) of its annual congress: “…Congress strongly supports the 1,200 Unite members at the Ineos refinery in Grangemouth who will undertake industrial action to defend their pensions.”
The same day, however, Amicus/UNITE issued a press statement stressing that “a strike is an absolute last resort. There is still time to negotiate and avert a strike and we are calling on the company to get back around the table now.”
The union has also accused Ineos of “scaremongering” over the impact of a strike – although what Ineos is now saying about the likely impact of a strike scarcely differs from what Amicus/UNITE was saying when it first announced the strike late last week.
The SNP government, inevitably, is opposed to strike action. It has come up with the idea of drafting in “an expert” (the President of the Factulty of Actuaries) to investigate the proposed changes to the pension scheme.
His findings, which would be available by the end of May, would then be a matter for further consultation between the union and Ineos, in a search for “an amicable solution.” In the meantime, the threat of strike action would be withdrawn.
Although Amicus/UNITE has yet to make any reponse to the proposed intervention of an “expert”, it has agreed to meetings with ACAS – whilst simultaneously (and quite correctly) dismissing supposed concessions which Ineos has made in an attempt to head off the strike as “nothing new”.
Amicus/UNITE members in Grangemouth are in a position to win a total victory over Ineos. They should use their industrial muscle to do so – and not allow themselves to be fobbed off with a few cosmetic half-concessions by Ineos.