Book Review

Mark Lyon, The Battle of Grangemouth: a worker’s story, Lawrence & Wishart, 2017, 9781912064007, pp240, £12.99

Grangemouth and its large petro-chemicals complex was the scene of a major political and industrial crisis in October 2013. Ineos, the Swiss-headquartered owner and employer, threatened the immediate closure of the entire site, with the loss of just under one thousand directly-employed workers and upwards of 2,000 contract workers. Ineos claimed that the site’s already weak economic and productive position was being made impossible by unacceptably high labour costs. Under enormously heavy pressure, the workforce and Unite, the largest union on the site, accepted a highly unpalatable cocktail of employer ‘takebacks’, the most important elements of which were the end of a final salary pension scheme, a three year pay freeze, and eroded redundancy terms. Ineos then victimised Unite’s local leadership: the established rights of workplace representatives were summarily withdrawn, including office space and paid time for union business; and key stewards were dismissed from employment on a variety of fairly transparent pretexts, one of which related to the Falkirk Labour Party’s selection process for a Westminster candidate to succeed Eric Joyce, who in 2012 announced his decision not to contest the next general election. This element of the controversy was emphasised by the firm in advance of the October 2013 crisis as well as exploited in its aftermath. 

A former workplace representative at Grangemouth is the author of this book. Lyon is now an industrial organiser of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. Lyon grew up in Grangemouth and was a long-term employee on the site, starting there for the first time in 1980. Various criticisms of the book have been made and are mainly exaggerated or frankly unwarranted. There was a Battle at Grangemouth. Lyon’s book makes it clear that historically this was fought on several fronts, and over at least a decade prior to the crisis in 2013. Unions seeking accommodation with employers, to protect jobs in periods of economic uncertainty, are behaving pragmatically. Acknowledging the realistic balance of forces on a battlefield, and seeking to retreat, is not tantamount to surrender. Nor is it an acceptance that the interests of management and workers are synonymous. The battle in any case was a struggle for public policy and resources as well as worker rights. Like many other buccaneering free enterprises, Ineos has no apparent compunction about taking public subsidy in a number of forms: government grants and loans, or loans from banks supported by public money since 2008, or in kind, through tax relief and other benefits. Lyon’s account shows how the company made functional business use of the union-Labour party link to secure these public goods. Union stewards and officials were routinely asked by Ineos to mobilise Labour MPs and MSPs to lobby UK and Scottish governments for policy initiatives that would benefit the firm or the petro-chemicals industry more broadly. Thinking about this in moral economy terms, in accepting these public goods the firm acquired social obligations which its behaviour in threatening plant closure in 2013 plainly transgressed. What is equally transparent is the hypocrisy of Ineos managers in harassing and then victimising the union representatives who in good faith had sought to help the company, in order to defend the employment and incomes of their members.

The Ineos treatment of Lyon, Stevie Deans, who was Lyon’s predecessor as plant convenor, and other workplace stewards, was deeply repugnant. It was also highly personal. Lyon’s emphasis on the misbehaviour of Ratcliffe and others might be a little repetitious, but it reflects his everyday experience. These were the individuals who made his working life a daily misery; their actions were unpredictable, even volatile, and resulted in severe downward pressure on the working conditions and living standards of Grangemouth employees. The personalised nature of the account from this perspective is one of the book’s strengths. Lyon grew up in the community and began work at the site when Grangemouth was owned by British Petroleum. From the 1950s until the Thatcher privatisations of the 1980s BP operated with a large degree of UK government involvement, hovering around 50 per cent of share ownership. In these decades BP was a good employer in Grangemouth, with a broad sense of community responsibility and social obligation. More than 5,000 workers were employed full-time. There were few if any contract workers. The company built, owned and maintained housing, a social club and other facilities. Lyon writes movingly about this secure and confident industrial community. There is humour too, in the stories of the women and men who built this community, with optimism, resilience and love. The moral economy theme comes to mind once more: workers in Grangemouth and Falkirk came to regard the site’s facilities and jobs as community resources and not the property of the firm. The sense of loss articulated by Lyon in assessing the abandonment of these resources by Ineos is keen. Some of Lyon’s critics claim that he makes too much of the distance between BP and Ineos, which acquired the site in 2005, but there is evidently a moral and qualitative chasm between the employment and business cultures of these two highly-distinct enterprises as well as the contrasting political economies of the 1970s and 2010s.

Dr Jim Phillips works at the University of Glasgow. A longer version of this review appears in the 2017 annual volume, Scottish Labour History.