A whole town united last Saturday in a fight for jobs. Around 5,000 people marched through Redcar in the north east of England in protest at Corus’s threat to close their steel plant.
More than 2,500 jobs are threatened immediately and thousands more could go because of the knock-on effects.
A community is in peril. But the mood wasn’t one of sombre resignation like it was during the marches against redundancies and closures in the 1980s.
Instead there was deep anger – not only at Corus and its parent company Tata, but also at New Labour and its failure to act to save jobs.
Redcar steel worker Mike Wilson said, “The bankers got billions, we get the dole. If the government can take over the banks why can’t it do the same at Corus?”
Rob Middlemass, a union convenor of the local Skinningrove works, received a big cheer during the rally when he described steel workers as the “innocent victims of greedy bankers”.
Redcar is a seaside town with a population of 35,000 and its future is utterly dependent on the steelworks. Almost every family in the area has someone working at the plant or one of its associated employers.
The only other major employer is the nearby Wilton chemical works, where multinationals Dow and Croda have just announced another 200 job cuts.
John Wakelin, a fitter and convenor of the Unite union at the Redcar plant, estimated that up to 10,000 ancillary jobs will go if the plant closes.
John is 54 years old and has two children to support. If Corus closes he may have to leave the area to find work.
People packed the pavements to cheer the march as it passed through the town. Alice Holt, who is 86 years old, told Socialist Worker, “I have lived in Redcar all my life. It used to be a really popular spot for holidays and day trips.
“But now that is almost all gone. If they close the steel it’s the end for Redcar. It will be a ghost town. I can’t march today but I’m with everyone who wants to fight.”
Everyone is worried about the young people in the area who face being pitched into a life of damaging unemployment or forced to move away.
Delegations of Corus workers from Corby, Llanwern, Port Talbort, Scunthorpe and Rotherham, who fear a similar fate, joined the march.
Alan, one of the 90 apprentices presently at the Redcar plant, said, “I was so pleased when I got a start at Corus. But now my future looks in doubt. This is the only workplace for young people to get a decent job locally.”
Redcar steelworkers are expected to pay the price for the global economic crisis.
Earlier this year four steel producers that were responsible for buying nearly 80 percent of steel from the plant announced they were tearing up their ten year contract with immediate effect.
The decision to close Corus was made despite the company having made more than £500 million in profit from the first four years of the deal.
The march on Saturday was a brilliant show of solidarity and unity. But the missing ingredient was a programme of resistance.
There are desperate hopes that a meeting scheduled for Thursday of this week between Corus and the companies that used to have the contracts to buy its products might bring some results.
But many fear that the best that could result is a delay in the closure or a small reduction in the redundancies.
Political backing has been limited to manoeuvres designed to find a “commercial solution” rather than active encouragement of workers to resist.
Vera Baird, Redcar’s Labour MP, was booed by a big
section of the audience when she spoke at the rally. Baird earns £126,000 a year as the solicitor general and still claimed expenses from the taxpayer for Christmas tree decorations.
She offered nothing more than negotiations with Corus bosses and a bit of government conscience money to pay for the retraining of redundant workers.
Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson was right when he said that, “It falls on the government to save the steelworks.”
But he failed to tell the steel workers about the lessons of success at both the Lindsey Oil Refinery and Ford-Visteon where rank and file unofficial action has won victories.
If the government really wants to help working people it is precisely in a crisis like this that ministers should act.
And if the unions want to head up a fight, it is precisely this sort of battle they should take up. If they wanted to win they would use any means necessary.
Steel workers need more protests, and strikes and occupations, to force Corus to guarantee their jobs. The workers need to demand that the government takes over the industry if Corus won’t do this.
Rank and file workers will need to organise themselves to make sure that Redcar does not go quietly.