Monday, July 15, 2024

Coryton: Summer of discontent warning as fight goes on

A SUMMER of industrial discontent and a possible threat to the Olympic Games could be the immediate legacy of the closure of Coryton oil refinery as workers and redundant staff battle back.

Several hundred workers have already been axed from the plant, which is set to be closed as a refinery and will operate as a terminal after being bought by a conglomerate of three major fuel suppliers.

However, those that have gone, and some of those still employed, look set to get militant.

Around a hundred people turned out for a public meeting entitled “Justice for Coryton” on Wednesday evening when union leaders, politicians and workers from other industries urged them to take action to bring pressure to bear on the Government – which has been accused of hoping the problems “will just drift away.”

The first test of more aggressive tactic could come as early as next weekend (21/22 July) when a union-backed two day protest and fuel blockade is being planned at the West Thurrock depot of Vopak, one of the companies buying Coryton.

Local union leader Russ Ball urged people to back the official picket in big numbers, winning big applause when he said: “We need to put the pressure on, it’s the only way the Government will listen. You have the power to do it, to take the fight to them. We need numbers and we need to keep the pressure up. We can threaten fuel supplies, colleagues in other unions will support us and we can take the fight across London and even threaten the Olympics. Then they will start to reconsider us.”

Representatives from other unions pledged support for direct action and it seems a workforce that has won huge praise for its restraint could yet turn a regional issue to a major national talking point.

That was the theme of a number of speakers at the meeting including Euro MP Richard Howitt who gave an impassioned and impressive speech, outlining exactly why he believes the Government, administrators PwC,

Petroplus’ management and other financial and business institutions should be brought to account.

Together with union leaders and other politicians he is backing a campaign for a full public inquiry into what has happened at Coryton.

He opened his address to the meeting by expressing his sympathy over the failure to save the refinery. “I just can’t say how sorry I am. When we started this I really thought that we would win the fight.
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“All along the government said ‘leave it to the administrators’ and refused to get directly involved in the way governments from the four other European countries affected did to save their refineries.

“The administrators themselves confirmed in private more than once that state aid would have enabled a deal with one of at least three bidders, and the full story must now be told in public and on-the-record.

“If either the Government or the administrators acted in bad faith it is only right that they are held to account.

“While they are sitting secure in their jobs it is time to get the full answers as to why those who are losing their jobs have been so badly let down.”

Mr Howitt who produced a list of ten detailed questions to be answered about how the crisis escalated, also blasted South Basildon and East Thurrock Tory MP Stephen Metcalfe for his lack of action throughout the Coryton saga and for not turning up at the meeting at the Pegasus club.
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We could have taken a united approach, I asked him several times to do that but he would not join me in a cross party lobby, he refused to do that, like he refused to be here tonight. His attitude is poor and he should have been here and served his constituents first, said Mr Howitt.

The meeting, chaired by Unite national officer Linda McCulloch, began with strong words from Unite Assistant General Secretary Tony Burke who demanded a public inquiry “into the events that surrounded the closure.”

He said: “”I believe that the Government’s lackadaisical attitude is lamentable and their policy won’’t end here. It will go elsewhere and put the country’s fuel supply in danger. We just can’t leave it to market forces to be left and collapse.

“And locally we are dealing with the most devastating problems we have had for many years. It will go through the whole community. We now have to fight back, we just can’t let this go, we have got to stand up for the local community.”

Mr Burke then paid tribute to the work of union officers and the attitude of workers at Coryton and threw in praise for Thurrock Council leader John Kent.

In contrast he rubbished the efforts of Stephen Metcalfe and ripped into the Government, challenging Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills Mark Prisk to visit Thurrock and get involved in creating a regional task force to offset the legacy of the closure.

He stressed the need for strong local – and national –action saying: “I am really, really concerned that if we are not careful the Government will let it drift and hope the problem goes away.”

He explained why it was crucial for the country to have a public inquiry. “We need to know why the British Government said they couldn’t help, while other European Governments protected their refineries.

“And also we need to look at the way the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers, behaved. At first they were very helpful but then they weren’’t minded to listen to our point of view.

“It’’s important we understand why all this has happened. It won’t get your jobs back, but it may stop it happening elsewhere. We are calling for demonstrations all over the country and we are also going to put pressure on the companies that are going to buy this place.

“It doesn’’t end here and we are going to push and push. Our message to the Government and to the Minister is ‘For God’s sake help us’.”

Labour politicians also addressed the audience, with Basildon Council deputy leader and Unite activist Bryron Taylor, who was blunt in his speech, saying: “This isn’t going to get your job back but you deserve to know the answers and we should hold the Government to account.”

Thurrock’s parliamentary Labour candidate Polly Billington spoke of how the closure could devastate the local community, saying: “We want to know that millions won’t be sucked out of South Essex. The Government have had the opportunity to do something, if only they had the political will, but they have the political won’t. What we need is a sense of justice and that the lessons we can learn from this means what has happened to you, hasn’t happened in vain.”

A more forthright challenge to the Government came from platform speaker Ray Morrell of the ‘Right to Work’ movement who urged the Coryton workforce and supporters to take more direct action. “We still have the opportunity to fight to save your jobs. You are still in a very powerful position. The recent action at Vopak when we had just 70 or 80 people gave us a glimpse of what power you have. If you stand up and fight you will get huge support.”

Russ Ball then took up the battle cry, saying it was time to fight back and use union muscle and industrial action to force a Government rethink. He said the campaign had already received backing from Unite nationally, with workers across the country ready to stand up and support action.

That included the possibility of blockading fuel supplies and bringing organisations like Transport to London’s bus service to a halt. He also spoke of targeting and disrupting the Olympics, saying making the issue a national one was the only was to go.

“Look what happened with the tanker drivers – and electricians who won their battle against massive and unfair pay cuts. We have got tremendous support and it is time to take up the fight,” he concluded.

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