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Say No To Crackers Essay Contest


The Grangemouth oil refinery dispute took on a new turn in the autumn. After learning that the petrochemical plant in Falkirk, Scotland, will stay open following a deal struck with Unite, allegations emerged of a campaign of bullying and intimidation echoing the union militancy of the Seventies and Eighties. A senior manager at INEOS, the company that operates Grangemouth, claimed that the Unite union sent a mob of protesters to his home, leading him to fear for the safety of his wife and two young children. Meanwhile, the daughter of another director said that she had received a “wanted” poster criticising her father, at her home in Hampshire, hundreds of miles from the Grangemouth plant. David Cameron described the allegations as  “quite shocking” and called on the Labour Party to investigate the claims about the union, which is its largest donor. Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, defended the tactic as “legal and legitimate”, adding:  “If a company director is engaged in what we believe is an unfair attack on workers and their families and their communities, then the idea that faceless directors can disappear to their leafy suburbs and get away with that type of action is something we think is wrong.” Here, Jim Ratcliffe, the chairman of INEOS, talks about how he took on the union, and what British industry can learn from a thriving Germany. INEOS chairman Jim Ratcliffe reflects on the Grangemouth dispute and union militancy Towards the end of 2005, INEOS acquired Innovene, the petrochemicals arm of BP, for $9 billion. It quadrupled the size of INEOS overnight and brought with it some of the world’s largest industrial sites.  One of those was in Cologne, Germany. Three months later I visited the Cologne site, similar in size to Grangemouth but far more profitable, where I met the union convenor. His name was Siggi, he stood 6ft 4in tall and was known to represent employees robustly, but fairly. After 15 minutes of ‘get to know you’ chat, he said: “Jim, I don’t like your bonus scheme.” Taken aback, I replied: “But why, Siggi? It’s a very generous bonus scheme.” He responded: “I would rather you spend the money on the plant, on capital expenditure, maintenance and painting so we can be sure there will be jobs for the employees’ children and their children.” There has never been a strike on that site, or a hint of one. The union, on behalf of employees and INEOS, share a common goal: a long-term, successful future. Employees retain good-quality jobs, and INEOS makes profitable returns and reinvests on the site. Sad to say, but invariably a chemical complex in Germany is in better condition and is more efficient than an equivalent one in the UK. And, equally regrettably, the German chemical industry has fared better than its British counterpart, which has experienced a number of closures in the North East and North West. The constructive dialogue that we encounter in Cologne has been lacking at the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant in Falkirk.    Unions can play a valuable role in large organisations where it is difficult to talk to a thousand people. They can negotiate annual pay awards with management, represent grievance cases, and explain and advise   on complicated changes in employment or pension law. However, in my view, they must understand that a business has to be profitable to survive, that the world is always changing, so firms have to adapt to remain competitive, and finally that their role is to safeguard the long-term employment of their members. On the Grangemouth site this year, Unite threatened a strike three times – in February, July and October. In February, the union demanded a pay rise of 3.9 per cent, a level that the business simply could not afford. We had no option but to accede, as the site was not prepared for a strike and it simply would have been too damaging. In late July, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, telephoned the site personally and demanded the reinstatement of Stevie Deans – who had just been suspended following a discovery of thousands of Labour Party emails on our system – or he would “bring Grangemouth to a standstill”. Again, a strike would have been too damaging at that time. And then, in October, came the straw that broke the camel’s back. Unite declared a strike over the investigation of Stevie Deans but, critically and far more damaging, they refused to engage in discussions about the future of the site. Without change, Grangemouth would certainly fail. The business had been unable to adapt to a world that had moved on and become more efficient and competitive, because the union had kept a stranglehold on the plant. Each operator on the Falkirk site now costs close to £100,000 per annum, if one takes salary of £55,000 plus a pension contribution of £35,000, plus bonuses and National Insurance. This level of expense is simply unsustainable in our industry. It is misplaced for unions in Britain to think that we are the enemy. We are not. It is not necessary, nor appropriate, to sow dissent and misrepresent employees or constantly to threaten industrial action. It is wrong for “brothers and sisters” letters (this is how missives from the union to members on site are addressed) to describe doubters or anyone who deigns to cross the union as scabs. It also has the hallmarks of bullying. Not only is it wrong but it is also intimidating, and designed to suppress alternative views – an attitude that runs absolutely counter to the values of society today, in which freedom of speech is cherished. During the dispute, a female employee in accounting, who was worried by the union drumbeat, expressed concern about her job and confirmed that the business was in financial difficulty (she prepared the figures each month) in an email that she put out across the site. She received rude anonymous phone calls, with the phone being slammed down. This small incident was much discussed in INEOS. It upset many of us that a lady in our company, a mother of three, was unable to express her views and concerns freely. It played a part, ultimately, in our resolve not to accept a solution for the site that did not bring with it changes on many fronts, but most importantly, in attitude and working practices. The union issues on the Grangemouth site date back to the Seventies. Only three weeks ago, half a dozen friends and I were guided on rocky trails through the high Alps in Italy on mountain bikes. One participant, Tony Loftus, who had been the operations director for INEOS’s predecessor, Inspec, revealed in a discussion about the troubles at Grangemouth that his first job after a chemistry degree at Manchester University had been as a graduate trainee on the Grangemouth site in the early Seventies. He said, quite spontaneously: “When I was in Grangemouth, there were no problems, we didn’t have any strikes, and management did as they were told.” Little has changed since, and today the site struggles compared with its German counterparts. While unions did not play a part in my family life when I was being brought up, my early years were most certainly spent in a working-class community. My first 10 years were in Failsworth, a northern suburb of Manchester, close to Oldham. I recall being able to count more than 100 mill chimneys from my bedroom window – this is probably how I learnt to count. We lived in a small cul-de-sac called Boston Close, in what I remember as a very pleasant council house. It still exists today. I do recall my father telling me that when he was younger he had climbed every tree in Miles Platting, a neighbouring suburb where he was brought up. It was only many years later as a teenager that it dawned on me that there were no trees in Miles Platting. It is a far cry from the leafy suburbs of the Home Counties. These communities in Lancashire developed in the late 1700s. Workers migrated from the fields and sought new employment and opportunity in the Industrial Revolution that began in the heart of Lancashire. Britain invented the concept of manufacturing. I can clearly see in my family tree many of my ancestors moving from the fields of Derbyshire to Manchester. All signed their name with a cross. I undoubtedly have an affinity to manufacturing, as do many from this part of the country. I am a strong advocate for actually making things in a major economy like Britain. That is not to say I have anything against services. I do not. But I believe that a robust, balanced economy requires a healthy manufacturing sector. We spend a good portion of our income on goods of one sort or another, from washing machines to handbags (heaven knows why so many are required), and it is common sense that we are better off making some of these goods than importing them. Britain has suffered a collapse in its manufacturing base in the past 20 years. A typical economy splits three ways: agriculture, manufacturing and services. Agriculture is normally quite small, at less than 10 per cent; services is generally the largest sector;  and manufacturing might be in the 20 per cent range, as is the case in Germany. Twenty years ago, Britain lagged behind Germany by a small margin, maybe 2 or 3 per cent. Today, Britain’s manufacturing sector is only half of Germany’s. The obvious questions are, why this collapse, and is it important? For me, it certainly is important. An over-dependence on services leads to a fragile economy. Germany emerged from the 2008/9 recession much more quickly and vigorously than Britain. Equally important is the geographic divide here. The Midlands and the North are much more heavily biased to manufacturing, and communities have suffered from high unemployment. London is clearly services-based, and very successful for it. But they are not the only game in town. I see some tendency in government, which sits in a ‘services environment’, that is to say in London, to believe that the future is all about the City and its love affair with financial services. We should take some lessons from Germany, where they have a strong attachment to their thriving manufacturing base and recognise its key role in a balanced economy. I see the rapid decline in manufacturing in Britain stemming from previous governments’ lack of recognition of its importance. Britain doesn’t have a knock-out sales pitch to attract manufacturers. INEOS has several sites in Britain, but they are not as profitable as our plants in Germany, Belgium and, particularly, the US. Britain has expensive energy, skills are not at the levels of other countries, pensions are expensive, and unions can be difficult. Historically, government was not switched on to manufacturing in Britain. In contrast, the USA has excellent skills, most of our sites there are non-unionised, energy is a fraction of the cost in Britain, and they have an enormous market. Germany is simply good at manufacturing – as we used to be. There is no reason that manufacturing should not revive in Britain. The present Government is becoming more attuned to its importance in maintaining a healthy economy. We should never forget that the Brits invented manufacturing. To return to my main theme – the unions and the headlines asking “Unions, good or bad?” – I maintain that Seventies-style union behaviour leads to ruin. By contrast, Siggi, the convenor in Germany I mentioned, is in the 21st century. He challenges, he tests, he shakes the tree and negotiates, but he always persuades INEOS to invest. A good union is good for employers – and for employees.

14 min read

The view is blurry – the camera is scanning the school’s concrete quad at ground level, focusing on masses of feet walking, running; two feet crossing one over the other; one foot standing with the other foot slung out. Overhead, muffled voices are heard, each chattering about a different subject: Mr. Hall’s chemistry test, the pop quiz in Spanish, the fight over the weekend, the party tonight, who just asked who to the dance, where so-and-so is going to college. The camera rushes on through the crowd of blur, halts at a single pair of sneakers, then pans up on a boy sitting alone, silent. This is JJ. He has a brain tumor.

Everyday I put together the school’s televised news. I report on concerts, pep rallies, sporting events with cheering crowds. I film, edit, produce, and anchor, and just lately it occurred to me that everything I cover is loud.

JJ is not loud. He therefore is not “newsworthy,” and so he becomes invisible. His voice broke three years ago, when he looked in the mirror and saw one of his eyes swinging outward. His parents thought, as parents would, that this was eye fatigue, caused by their fourteen-year-old sitting in front of computer and video games too often.

The truth was scarier. An MRI pinpointed pineal germinoma, and his strange eye activity was just the first sign of a grotesque conglomeration of cells growing behind his optic nerve.

JJ was too old for the pediatric wards and too young for the adult, so he spent the next three years bouncing between the two, getting the best of intentions and sometimes the worst of care. A clumsy female nurse getting tripped and ripped the intravenous pick line out of his arm. A male nurse talked all night about his love life: “He actually kept me up until five in the morning telling me how his girlfriend doesn’t respect him,” said JJ. “I was half asleep, saying, ‘Please leave.’” Pressure in JJ’s brain affected his gross motor skills and when he walked, he dragged one foot. Chemotherapy took his hair. Doctors put a patch over his wandering eye. All the while JJ strove to maintain a normal teenage life.

Today he is seventeen, and that teenage life disappeared long ago. Kids he once considered his friends now make comments like, “There goes Captain One Eye.” JJ remains silent and instead, he chooses to express himself in another way: through art, angry art. One of his pieces, “Broken Lives, Shattered Dreams” has an emotional effect that cannot quite be explained on paper. From the outside, the piece is a refrigerator-size, very white plywood box that stands upright. It has a hinged door with a bent metal handle and light switch, with an electrical wire running down the rear.

Many who see the box say that it is empty, because it is, sort of. Inside it is painted pure black and lined with pieces of smashed mirror. A clear, bare light bulb hangs down from a cord. Hands with horny fingernails reach at you from the walls, some hands clutching crumpled tin cans. If you are brave enough to step inside and close the door behind you, you are instantly claustrophobic, shut up inside a world of pain, surrounded by grasping fingers and stared at by your own splintered reflection.

“I try to incorporate meanings and messages.” When JJ finally cracks his shell to tell even a part of his story, there is little he says, and yet much that he exudes. His voice is quiet and he tires easily, but his vehemence comes through, and his longing to get back into the art studio to express the pain. JJ knows he is broken, and knows that peers to confide in are a luxury he doesn’t have.

“If somebody feels that it is a burden to be your friend, then that friendship is not worth it. Fiund somebody who cares about you enough to really make an effort,” JJ says. “The only real friends I have now are grown-ups, and they act like they are my older brothers or sisters. If somebody can’t totally love you like family, they are not going to be there when you are sick, or get too old. Family never leaves you.”

At least he has real family to judge by.

My camera is moving again. In the lens are more feet: feet in white shoes running around on white linoleum floors. The first auditory impression is silence, and then faint beeping and muffled voices over an intercom. We enter inches above the floor into a pale blue room with a green vinyl chair and a hospital bed. The camera angle jumps up and zooms in on painted toenails. Seventee-year-old Rolanda is in the bed, her thin legs sticking out from underneath the rumpled cotton blanket. She tries to whisper, “”hi,” but coughs and coughs.

Once upon a time, her voice worked. At age seven, Rolanda threw herself over a casket and screamed through tears, “I didn’t get to say goodbye!” Her aunt, the only parent she had ever know, was dead of cancer. For the next eight years, Rolanda ricocheted among parents, or in any case, no parents who cared. At last, fifteen years old and a child of the court, Rolanda was diagnosed with cancer of her own. As liver cancer ate her alive, she kept faith: faith that she would make it to her 18th birthday, faith that when the final day came, she would be going home to God.

When time was sinding down and she could not physically stand long enough to hold a job flipping burgers, Rolanda and I started work together, creating a website with words of hope and advice for kids dealing with catastrophic illness. She reached dying kids on their level with her straight, strong language:

There may be someone out there in the world a step away from giving up. If that’s how you’re feeling, I just want you to know that I understand. I have liver cancer, and I am in and out of the hospital because the cancer is now in my lungs and I have trouble breathing. It’s hard, and it hurts to know that I have to live with this disease for the rest of my life. I think about giving up. When I really start thinking seriously about it, I always remember the outcome. I wouldn’t be the survivor that God wants me to be.

I’m signing off now. See you tomorrow.

God Bless, Miss Rolanda

Her words break my heart. See you tomorrow? She wrote firmly, as if they were not dying, leaving no doubt that everyone would be online when the next dawn came.

Now Rolanda sits all alone in her UCLA hospital room, and when she goes home, if she goes home, it will be to a foster house. She physically has no voice, but she still distributes hope and love to the world through her keyboard. Rolanda believes in her heart that she will pass from this life to more life, and in the meantime she lives happily.

My camera is moving one last time, panning down from Rolanda’s feet to my own. The two pedicures are identical, hers and mine each carefully dabbed with flowers on the big toes. My feet, though, generally fit in with the crowd, and it is rare to see them on the ground alone. What do broken voices and lonely feet mean to me?

As I edit together my videotape, this is what it shows: Life is meant to live happily. It is so short, so short. Whether we are sick right now or not, we must take advantage of time, because we all die one day, some of us sooner that others. In rough times, there is tremendous emotional energy, and all that built-up energy inside has to go somewhere. Surrounded by voices that say hurtful things, JJ lives for the company of his art and then displays his art to teach compassion to the world. In a world where comforting voices have not been present, Rolanda lives for the company of others on our website and displays her writing to comfort others.

Their feet remain lonely, outside of the crowd, so most of all, my video shows me this: When voices are broken, sometimes it is better to listen with my eyes.

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