In 1980 steel bosses announced a series of closures and job cuts to gut the industry. It was the newly elected Tory government’s first major confrontation with organised workers.
Bosses at the publicly-owned British Steel announced plans to cut half the workforce—75,000 jobs. There were many striking similarities to today.
They insisted that a “crisis” meant workers and their families had to pay.
It was not that what was being produced could not be used, it was that bosses couldn’t get the price they wanted for it.
The Tories were also preparing for a confrontation with workers and were driving new anti-union laws through parliament.
Inaction from union leaders to the first closure announcements only emboldened the bosses to go for more. But people got organised on the ground against individual closures.
The main steel union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC), had no tradition of struggle. Its leader Bill Sirs was one of the most right wing around at the time.
Then as now steel union leaders had prided themselves on partnership working with the employers. But as Socialist Worker put it at the time, “If you lick management’s boots it puts you in a perfect position for a kick in the teeth.”
The rhetoric of some of the union leaders finds echoes today too. Sirs once told workers that he was prepared to go to jail in defiance of the new laws. The next day he made it clear that he would work within the law.
Yet the strike that began on 2 January lasted for 13 weeks. It was the first national steel strike since 1926. Nobody expected workers to respond to the call in the way that they did.
And it started from small beginnings in places such as Corby, in Northamptonshire.
The Corby Action Committee, set up by trade unionists, called a march to save jobs.
Some 6,000 steel workers marched from the works to the town centre where they were joined by another 6,000 people from the town. Whole families came out to give their support.
On 1 November the TUC met with British Steel to decide on the fate of the Corby plant. The same day, 20,000 marched from the steel works, factories, shops and schools—boosted by coach loads of workers from across Britain.
The growing protest built pressure on the union leaders. The ISTC agreed to a one-day strike, a lobby of parliament, an overtime ban and selective strikes throughout the industry.
Yet the other unions on the TUC Steel Committee refused to back even these limited actions. Bosses and the Tories sensed weakness and upped the ante.
But the announcement in the same week in December 1979 of 75,000 job losses and a pay offer of just 2 percent was too much of an insult even for right wingers like Bill Sirs.
The strike was on. And the response by rank and file members was explosive.
Joint branch committees that had been tightly controlled by the officials quickly became local plant strike committees and a focus for rank and file organisation.
The enthusiasm for the strike took even steel industry militants by surprise. As one put it, “What has characterised the strike, not having any traditions, is pure enthusiasm.
“We’ve been battling away with our heads against a brick wall for rank and file organisation for a long time, and suddenly the response from the rank and file is unbelievable.”
But it was never matched by their leaders. They always sought surrender and in the end sold workers short, agreeing to a deal on pay that meant more job cuts and closures.
Yet the 1980 steel strike was the most militant and most active since the miners took on the Tories and beat them in 1972. The lesson for today is doing nothing is not an option—big things can start from small places.