With the government determined to allow our steel industry to wither and die, it’s worth looking to the example of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, whose successful work-in saved British shipbuilding in the 1970s, writes Laurence Platt CP Midlands trade union organiser.
A crisis is hitting tens of thousands of workers in the steel industry and is a grave warning to all others.
Work in metals, whether it be bronze, tin, iron or steel, has been central to the development of societies in the British Isles since the middle of the third millennium BC.
Now in the first quarter of the 21st century we stand a good chance of losing any significant iron and steel production, marking a stage in the deindustrialisation of Britain that has been going on more or less since the second world war.
This deindustrialisation has been part and parcel of a process that has been supported, if not directly encouraged, by successive governments regardless of whether they have been Labour or Conservative and has seen the loss of large swathes of engineering and shipbuilding, along with the complete destruction of mining.
This destruction of manufacturing capacity has been as a result of political decisions that saw the future of work in Britain as involving a highly paid finance sector, at least in its upper echelons, and a low-paid service sector covering both local government provision and large areas of distribution, accompanied by insecure work, zero-hours contracts, casualisation and minimal pension provision, ensuring that increasing numbers of workers live in or close to the poverty line. This is what steel bosses have in mind and what Tata Steel has actually done in its plants in India.
The present government has made it quite clear that it has no intention of implementing any kind of industrial strategy, and in this it is following in the footsteps of New Labour politicians who, when Rover went into administration in 2005 (as a result of its finances being plundered by its owners), simply shrugged their shoulders and walked away.
It is within this context that we see the latest assault on what remains of our basic manufacturing industry — steel. In 1970, prior to privatisation, the steel industry employed more than 200,000 workers.
Last year it was estimated to employ around 20,000. This in itself is a dramatic indication of the decline of the industry.
These figures do not take into account the thousands who work in the supply chains associated with the industry whose jobs and futures are just as at risk as those directly employed in production.
The privatisation of the industry in 1982 created the circumstances which are now coming to fruition, circumstances that elevate the pursuit of profit over the needs of the community as a whole and of course the workforce itself.
As with Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the 1970s, successive governments’ positions have been that there can be no government subsidies for industry.
In fact, such support has been characterised as a misuse of public money, and this line has been assiduously peddled by a slavish print and broadcast media and has no doubt lodged itself as a “truth” in the minds of many whose objective interests lie elsewhere. The Morning Star has stood out as the sole daily counter to these policies.
The whole thrust of the privatisation of publicly owned enterprises — enterprises that are vital for the prosperity and wellbeing of the majority of the population — has been used as a transmission belt to siphon off public funds into private pockets and when the profits are no longer enough then the enterprises are unceremoniously dumped.
This is what is happening to our steel industry and the structure of its current ownership speeds the process.
In this regard it is worth looking a little more closely at Tata, which is at the forefront of layoffs in the industry.
In 1999 the privatised British Steel formed a joint enterprise with Koninklijke Hoogovens to create the Corus Group. Between then and 2001 Corus shed a massive 10,500 jobs, mainly in Wales but also in other parts of Britain.
In 2007 Corus began a process of transferring its operation to Tata which culminated in 2010 when Corus announced a change of name to Tata Steel.
This was followed in 2012 by Tata laying off a further 900 workers. In 2011 Tata sold the Teesside Steelworks at Redcar to SSI which closed the plant this year.
This left Tata with Integrated steel plants at Port Talbot, Scunthorpe and Ijmuiden and in addition it has nine rolling mills in the UK, two of which are in immediate danger of closure (Motherwell and Cambuslang) and tube mills at Corby, Stockton and Hartlepool.
Whatever the situation with Chinese steel, there has to be the suspicion that Tata will make up for the drop in steel production in Britain by increasing its imports from its plants worldwide at prices that the remains of the British steel industry will struggle to compete with.
In addition to this, Tata’s recent announcement that it is looking for a 30 per cent price reduction from its supply chain signals further assaults on the pay, terms and conditions of thousands of British workers.
By far the largest importer of steel into Britain is China but, according to data from the International Steel Statistics Bureau, the levels of imported steel from all sources have increased dramatically over the recent period fuelled by a downturn in profitability of the steel industry here and a strong pound, which makes exports of steel expensive and imports cheaper.
Ironically, China is doing with its steel industry precisely what is being argued for here — they are supporting it.
The flooding of the British market with imported steel, combined with the almost criminal indifference of the present government, is creating the circumstances in which thousands of workers stand to lose their jobs and a strategically vital industry faces annihilation.
There can be little doubt that this is the logical outcome of the neoliberal agenda for Britain — the total freedom of the bosses to do as they like — pursued by both Labour and Conservative governments over the past 30-odd years, which has seen the almost terminal decline of manufacturing industry here.
The loss of the steel industry would constitute the final nail in the coffin.
The unions that represent workers in the steel industry — Community, Unite and GMB — along with the TUC have conducted a vibrant campaign of marches and rallies to highlight the crisis facing the steel industry and the ever-growing threat to the livelihoods of those who work in the industry.
A major success in the campaign was to haul Business Secretary Sajid Javid up to Rotherham for a steel summit at which he and his government demonstrated their total uselessness when faced with the destruction of the British steel industry.
In fact the only “positive” move the government has made is to send Michael Heseltine up to north-east England to deal with the tragedy of SSI’s closure of its steelworks in Redcar.
It is unlikely that the people on Teesside will be holding street parties to welcome the butcher of the British coal industry when he comes to “save” them.
In pursuit of the Tory agenda, Javid simply holds up his hands and says there’s nothing that the government can do, since to intervene would be against EU rules.
This is simply untrue. The government could ensure that its procurement policy for major infrastructure projects used steel produced in Britain.
It could use British-produced steel in the construction of the latest naval ships that are being built instead of importing it from Sweden, and is there any real justification for buying US steel for use in the upgrading of the Trident missile system, should that happen?
The government could take action over the hoarding of imported steel from China by speculators who are simply waiting for the price to rise before releasing it onto the “market.”
A better deal could be sought over energy costs to the industry, as has been demanded by unions and management alike.
All of these things could be done by the government without contravening any EU rules.
An additional blow to the industry has been delivered by Mark Carney at the Bank of England who has signalled a rise in interest rates by the end of the year.
This will have the moneylenders licking their chops at the thought of increased profits but has had the immediate effect of damaging the British export market and its consequent effect on steel production on Britain.
The effect of the demolition of the steel industry, which is now in progress, will further unbalance the British economy and even the IMF has pointed out that this makes it increasingly vulnerable to any further crises in the world economy, which is ever more reliant on arms production and finance with precious little else of any significance.
With its telescope firmly applied to its blind eye and its ears firmly closed, there is no sign that the government is going to respond to the demands of the steel unions or indeed management in the industry.
Marches, demonstrations, rallies and lobbies of Parliament are indispensable actions in raising the morale of workers threatened with the loss of their livelihoods and the consequent blow to their communities.
They are also an indispensable tool for raising public awareness and support and understanding about the short, medium and long-term consequences of losing such a strategically important foundation industry.
As the crisis grinds on and in the absence of any meaningful action from Javid — who seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth in these last few weeks — is it time to look at forms of direct action to save our steel industry? Once a steelworks is closed and the furnaces allowed to go cold, the chances of restarting them are slim.
Workers in the steel industry face a similar situation to that which confronted shipyard workers on the Clyde in the early 1970s.
There, faced with government indifference to the closure of the yards, the workers took them over and, with widespread support from the rest of the movement, kept on working.
In the face of this the government was forced both to listen to the workforce and come up with the necessary action to prevent the destruction of the industry. There is still shipbuilding on the Clyde.
Is it time for a similar response from workers in the steel industry?
The future of steelmaking in Britain hangs in the balance. In 2002 one of the largest steelworks in the US closed, that at Bethlehem Pennsylvania.
The site was reopened in 2009 as a casino and much of the steel that was used in its construction had to be imported. We should not let this happen to our steel industry in Britain.