A good rule for public debating counts equally true for communications. Never ask a question of your opponent when you don’t already have a pretty certain idea what the answer might be. And if you don’t know the answer already, then for goodness sake, don’t pose your question in public.
In the case of the dispute at Grangemouth, a crucial problem has been that neither side in the debate has been speaking publicly from a position of trust. That means they have been briefing about one another via the press, making assertion and counter-assertion, where reasoned, de-politicised private conciliation should always have been the order of the day. Megaphone diplomacy never worked in the past – clearly neither does communicating via the media.
Now it’s clear that Unite had been mishearing or misunderstanding what Ineos was saying throughout. When the company publicly stated that it would close the Grangemouth petrochemical plant unless workers acceded to drastic alterations in working contracts, the union presumed this was a negotiating tactic rather than a statement of fact. So, Unite told workers to reject the offer and asked Ineos publicly “what are you going to do about it?”
Despite the clarity of public utterances, somehow Unite didn’t quite believe what Ineos said it would do. Now it is abundantly clear that Ineos is happy to play a zero sum game (something that commentators have been warning was the case for weeks). Unfortunately, the union thought it had been negotiating publicly, while Ineos had been communicating its intentions.
There are times when one side should further a hand in negotiations by pressure through the media. But it’s worth bearing in mind that public campaigning rarely trumps reasoned private discussion absolutely. Knowing and acknowledging your opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and red lines is fundamental to success and failure. But communication – especially hearing what is said – is at the heart of situations like this and Unite failed to hear what was being said as the rest of the world hear and understood.
Now we all know for sure what Ineos’s red lines have been all along. Why didn’t Unite?