The role of leverage

Submitted by AWL on 19 November, 2013 - 12:04

We continue our discussion of the lessons of the Grangemouth defeat. Here, a contribution from Mark Best discusses how Unite’s “Organising and Leverage Department” can help win disputes.


Football pundits are fond of pointing out that it is not so much the defeat itself that teaches you anything meaningful about a team, but how they react to it in the matches that follow. Much the same could be said about Unite and the left following Grangemouth.

This was a big defeat. Exactly how big remains to be seen, but the workforce at Grangemouth have accepted massive cuts in terms and conditions and the union has accepted the neutering condition of a no-strike clause. What’s more, there was no anti-victimisation agreement, as a result of which Stevie Deans has been disgracefully forced out of his job, and the company is already widening the net to bring disciplinary charges against other stewards. What’s more, the union seems to have failed to negotiate legal closure, meaning that the company retains the ability to attempt to work up a case to sue Unite for damages caused by the failed dispute.

This could well have a much broader effect on morale elsewhere in the working class. Certainly, sections of the bourgeoisie are already crowing, heralding Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe as a hero, and suggesting that other bosses need to face Unite down with similar toughness. How Unite, the labour movement, and the left respond will indeed show the true character of our “team”.

After a defeat like this it is easy to lose one’s bearings in the search for blame and answers. Instead we must rationally take stock, learn lessons, and ensure we are stronger to fight the next battle. AWL has already discussed in some detail, in the pages of Solidarity and on our website, what went wrong at Grangemouth, but it is worth focusing here on two aspects of the dispute in particular: how Unite conducts its negotiations, and the role of the “Organising and Leverage Department”.

The negotiating strategy and media message seemed confused to say the least. This seems to stem from a mixture of a lack of resolve in much of Unite (and indeed much of the trade union movement) a lack of co-ordination (again, a problem hardly unique to Unite). If the union is declaring war on the one hand, preparing to launch a leverage campaign, and announcing industrial action, why are its press releases and public statements from its Scottish leadership appealing to Ineos’s directors’ sense of decency and offering concessions?

A much more strategic, co-ordinated and resolute approach is needed in the future. This implies some reorganisation in Unite’s structures — cutting the confusion between industrial sectors and geographic regions; the heads of media, the negotiating team, organising, political and legal working together to one strategy on important disputes; officials and staff working in managed teams; clear lines of responsibility; greater accountability and so forth. It also implies a political change — if Unite is serious about being an organising, fighting back, winning union, it needs to be prepared to challenge the Labour Party to raise issues like taking key strategic assets such as Grangemouth into public ownership, and it needs to be much more consistently combative in its approach to industrial relations.

The Organising and Leverage Department has come under sustained media attack, accused of bullying, thuggery, and even deliberately targeting school kids, particularly by the Daily Mail (the paper that, in the 1930s, brought us the headline, “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”). There is good reason that this department is hated by the right-wing press.

Unite’s leverage campaigns — against companies including Balfour Beatty, Honda, BFK, and othersfboast a near 100% success rate where they have been allowed to actually run their course. In this case the campaign was pulled before it even got started.

There may well be some improvements and innovations that can be made to the leverage strategy (we may suggest that Unite be more careful to ensure pickets of directors’ houses do not take place outside of school hours, for example) — but so bloody what? Leave the nit-picking attacks to the bosses’ press. We should encourage and support developments in the unions that see them targeting all points of vulnerability in a hostile company and holding all parties who profit from or invest in rogue companies to account and should suggest improvements and innovations that can make them still more effective.

When we go into dispute with large or determined employers, they prepare. They have strategies to take unions on. Wal-Mart has a special department dedicated to “union avoidance” that it can wheel in to counter a unionisation drive. Solicitors firms and consultants such as the Burke Group specialise in union-busting, to prevent unions winning recognition campaigns or undermine support for the union. Companies will promote, side-line, or sack workplace leaders. They send videos to workers’ home addresses and arrange one-to-one meetings to explain why they don’t want a union. They will attack the union’s vulnerable points (for example T-Mobile placed a six foot cardboard cut-out of Fidel Castro in the entrance to their building, so as workers arrived for work, they were asked if they wanted to pay money to a union that donated to the Cuban regime). A company may point out how much money the general secretary earns (we should of course fight to control officials’ pay, and oppose support for regimes like Cuba). In a strike, they will prepare to bring in scabs from other sites, stockpile supplies, and imply that anyone who strikes will miss out on future bonuses or promotions. In short: they do their homework and prepare for a fight.
Unite’s Organising and Leverage Department attempts to bring the same preparation and resolve to our side. We should encourage similar initiatives in other unions.

The future direction of organising in Unite has already been set out by its executive — to focus efforts on organising in “critical industries”, the key economic areas identified by the Government as vital to the operation of “Great Britain Plc.” — docks, airports, power generation, fuel supply, etc. The defeat at Grangemouth is undoubtedly a body-blow to this ambition but Unite should not shrink from the challenge. Unite is a key player in most of these critical sectors. If it organises industrial strength, develops a culture of militancy, and educates workers to challenge the power of capital and re-shape society it will play a hugely significant role in shaking the foundations of the neo-liberal project. Socialist will have a key role to play within all that.

Dale Street and Anne Field (Solidarity 302, 6 November) highlighted the media witch-hunt taking place against Unite, and against Unite convenor Stevie Deans. Unite and all friends of the workers’ movement should of course rally to the defence of Stevie and other Unite activists at Grangemouth. Socialists have a duty to defend Unite against these attacks from our class enemy. Don’t join in. The SWP-backed candidate for the General Secretary election in Unite, Jerry Hicks, has called for the re-running of the election contest he lost convincingly to Len McCluskey last year and has provided fuel for attacks on Unite in the Mail and the Sunday Times.

Grangemouth was a dreadful defeat, but we should not allow it to tip us off balance. Unite and the trade union movement needs to continue and accelerate the pace of change: to become more combative, not less; more organising-focused, not less; better organised, not less.

If we achieve that, the next time a Jim Ratcliffe confronts us we will be ready for him, and the result may be very different.

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