If the government and the liquidators get their way, over 800 workers at Coryton oil refinery in Essex will be sacked as the plant is shut down on 19 June.
The refinery has been under a shadow since its Swiss owner, Petroplus, having loaded itself with debt, became insolvent in January, placing the facility in the hands of the receivers, Price Waterhouse Cooper.
PWC plan to sell the plant to the highest bidder, regardless of the effect of their decision on the workers.
In this case the highest bidder would appear to be a cover company for the Shell oil company, who intend to dismantle the refinery and replace it with a terminal – a facility for the importation of fuels employing a fraction of the numbers that currently work there – leaving Coryton workers without even the guarantee of basic redundancy pay – even though many have given decades of service.
Members of Unite at the refinery are fighting back. On 11 June they mounted protests at the refinery gate and at the Vopak fuel depot, a supply hub for petrol stations across the region, as well as marching into the centre of the local town (Corringham), where they were welcomed by the people there, who understand the blow that the closure will deal to their community.
It has come out that Shell’s offer for the site was not the only one, and that in fact another bidder had a proposal that would have maintained production at Coryton.
The difference between this bid and Shell’s amounts to some £50-£60 million. Calls for the government to step in with guarantees for this amount have been stonewalled, even though it has been reckoned that the closure will cost up to £80 million to the local economy. This is quite a contrast with its actions in relation to insolvent banks.
There are echoes here of the Visteon struggle, where a ruthless employer and the former parent company Ford attempted to weasel out of its responsibilities towards its employees.
That struggle, played out only a few miles away at the Visteon plant in Basildon, is well known to Unite members at Coryton.
It showed that workers can win something if they fight. After months of occupations and pickets, Visteon workers facing only statutory redundancy payments won an enhanced pay-off.
For the Coryton workers there is a very limited amount of time in which to take action. If the closure is allowed to go ahead as planned it will not only be a disaster for the workers on that site, sacked with the maximum statutory redundancy off the government of under £13,000, but it will be used to undermine the security, pay and conditions of workers right across the fuel supply industry – including drivers and depot workers as well as refinery workers.
While the Coryton workers need to have an urgent but serious and sober look at all of the options open to them, including occupation, their union has a responsibility not just to back their actions, but to deal with the issue on an industry-wide basis, by taking action across the industry to protect jobs at Coryton.
If Unite made the threat that the sacking of these workers would trigger a national stoppage at all oil refineries and in particular the oil tanker drivers, it would put huge pressure on the government to intervene.
Industry analysts and commentators speak ominously of “overcapacity” in the UK. It would be naïve to imagine that the closure of Coryton would settle the matter.
The Coryton closure is part of a ‘race to the bottom’ in a global industry whose key players are amongst the most ruthless capitalists on the planet.
Even a successful campaign to save Coryton would be only a temporary victory. As socialists we call for the public ownership of the fuel supply industry, under workers’ control and management.
Then we could look seriously not just at securing the future of the workers in that industry but also at the wider issue of the efficient, sustainable and ecologically sound development of the energy industry.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 12 June 2012 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.