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By John Millington
Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story accusing the Unite Union of “intimidatory tactics” against Ineos executives and their families during the bitter Grangemouth dispute.
The story was picked up by Prime Minister David Cameron who used parliamentary privilege to slander now former Unite convenor at the petrochemical plant, Stephen Deans and urged an investigation into the union’s leverage campaign.
He said: “No-one has a right to intimidate. Nobody has a right to bully. Nobody has a right to threatened people’s families. No-one has a right to threaten people in their homes. If these things have happened, it is very serious. It needs to be properly examined.”
Journalist Harriet Sergeant joined in on BBC Question Time last night saying Ineos executives have children under 5 who have been “besieged” and “attacked” by union members during these leverage campaigns by Unite.
As one of a seemingly dying breed of industrial reporters in Britain, I have reported extensively on the activities of Unite and other trade unions affiliated to the TUC.
I have reported from dozens of union conferences and nearly 100 hundred pickets, demonstrations and acts of peaceful civil disobedience by union members up and down the country.
I was not at the Ineos executive’s home when the union came to protest. But neither was David Cameron, Harriet Sergeant and it seems from the report, neither were journalists from the Daily Mail.
And unlike the above mentioned, I have seen first-hand the use of the perfectly legal leverage campaign by Unite particularly in the BESNA dispute of 2011 where 7 electrical engineering companies conspired to unilaterally cut wages by 35 percent and the more high profile campaign against the illegal practice of blacklisting.
Rather than seeing union bullies at work, terrorising young children, I have seen workers exercise their democratic right to protest, to show their employers the effects of cuts in wages and being on an illegal list which prevents them finding work and providing for their family.
And on more than one occasion I have seen workers thrown to the ground, punched and restrained by overzealous security men and police officers during industrial conflicts such as the underreported BESNA dispute.
I have interviewed workers similar to those who work at Grangemouth, grown men who have broken down whilst recalling the last 20 years where they couldn’t get a job because of being blacklisted and the adverse effect this has had on their family.
During the BESNA dispute I asked a building site manager in London who refused to give his name to comment on the effects of a 35 percent cut to his staff.
He replied: “If it were up to me, I would pay them £1 an hour.”
Do Ms Sergeant and Mr Cameron not think that workers feel intimidated every time their job is under threat? How do children in working class families feel when their parents can’t pay the bills, are forced to move house when they can’t pay the rent or can’t afford presents at Christmas because they have lost their job through no fault of their own?
The reporting of the Grangemouth dispute has been a case of union bad, boss good in the majority of cases.
Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe’s investment package was described as a “rescue plan” and Unite acting to protect pensions, union rights and pay were reported as “demands.”
Regardless of union tactics, the reality is Mr Ratcliffe threatened to go on strike, by not investing money that he already has, to close a plant that would have wrecked his workers lives and devastated the surrounding local community, unless all his demands were met.
Being an industrial relations reporter you see humanity at its best and at its worst; People who work in the same trade who may have nothing else in common other than that their livelihoods are under threat coming together as one and on the other hand, corporate executives blaming market forces for their decisions while laughing all the way to the bank.
Mr Cameron is right – intimidation is wrong and the intimidation of Britain’s workers is one of the country’s most underreported realities.