Socialist Worker

Steel crisis - we need urgent action to save tens of thousands of jobs

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2497

Steel workers and supporters marching to save jobs in Scunthorpe last November

Steel workers and supporters marching to save jobs in Scunthorpe last November (Pic: Neil Terry)

Tens of thousands of jobs in steel plants and linked industries are at risk after Tata put its 14 British plants up for sale. Some 15,000 jobs are directly affected. An estimated 25,000 more are under threat.

The biggest plant is Port Talbot, which employs nearly 4,000.

The government is set to meet tomorrow to discuss the crisis. Tory business minister Anna Soubry told the BBC today, Wednesday, the government could temporarily “hold” open Port Talbot while a private buyer is sought. She insisted that this would not amount to state ownership. “I don’t know whether ‘own’ would be the right word,” she said.

The Tories don’t care about ordinary people or the future of their children. Only struggle can save all the jobs.

Unions should immediately call demonstrations, protests and strikes to win nationalisation without any compensation to the bosses. And it must be on a permanent basis, not a vague stay of execution. A succession of private firms have utterly failed workers. Tata has cut around 5,000 jobs since October.

There was unlimited money for the banks when the crisis hit in 2008. Why not for steel?

The unions should encourage workers to occupy to save jobs. They should push for a great surge of solidarity with the steel workers.

This is an issue for the whole trade union movement, for the Labour Party and everyone who hates the Tories.

The Welsh assembly will meet on Monday for a special session. It should see a big lobby demanding action now.

Some say the Welsh government cannot legally give state aid to privately owned steel companies. But it could take them into full or partial public ownership to save jobs. And if any regulations get in the way, they should be ignored.

Jeremy Corbyn has rightly called for the recall of parliament to discuss the crisis. It’s also welcome that he was heading for Port Talbot this afternoon. But, together with the unions, Labour should also organise demonstrations in all the areas affected.

A call for action from Corbyn would have a big echo.


Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey said, “We are now in the grip of an industrial crisis. Decisions taken in the days to come will determine not just the futures of 19,000 workers and their families, across 14 sites, but the very success of this government’s own economic programme.

“This is the time for the government to say categorically, without hesitation, that these assets will be taken into safe-keeping by the nation because without them our economy will not flourish. We are already seeing jobs going in the supply chain because of the uncertainty over Tata’s future.”

Saving the jobs will mean breaking from the way unions have acted so far. They have worked in alliance with the bosses in an effort to out-do competitors, blame foreign firms, and boost profits.

Such methods have failed again and again. But resistance can win.

The Tories are divided. Their economic policies are in tatters. Iain Duncan Smith—the butcher of welfare—resigned saying the Tories favoured the rich. And half of Tory MPs oppose David Cameron over the EU referendum.

The government cannot ride out any serious opposition. It had to retreat over tax credit cuts and cuts to Personal Independence Payments for disabled people. It even had to say it would not force through any more welfare cuts.

Junior doctors are striking and teachers are preparing for a fightback. The Tories can be beaten. But there is also a deeper issue. We need to break from the logic of profit and the market.

The capitalist system fails in Britain, and it fails globally. A month before the Tata announcement, the Financial Times reported, “Almost two million Chinese coal and steel workers will lose their jobs because of government policies to cut overcapacity.”

In that same week 1,400 workers at the Carrier furnace factory on the edge of Indianapolis in the United States, were told they would lose their jobs as the plant’s work would be moved to Mexico.

The only people benefiting from this brutal competition are the bosses.

Workers must fight for every job and for full nationalisation under democratic social control. But the whole issue underlines the need for an alternative to the priorities of capitalism.

The Tories don't give a shit about us—steel worker speaks out 

Peter Ross, a Unite union member and engineer at Port Talbot steel works, spoke to Socialist Worker. 

“Our biggest fear isn’t just the impact on employment—although that would be devastating if Port Talbot closed. We’re a real mix of people and all that will go from the town if it closes.

“We’re bigger than the other sites, it would be on the same scale as the devastating closures in the 1980s—Port Talbot will die.

“It won’t just affect us either. When Ebbw Vale closed, men came to work in Port Talbot. When Newport closed, men came to work in Port Talbot. What’s going to happen to them? And if we close, so will the Llawern and Trostre works.

“The Tories don’t give a shit about us—we’re just cannon fodder to them. We don’t pay their way in life like the banks, who make sure they remain as fat cats.

“What’s our business secretary doing in Australia—he should have been here all along!”

“This isn’t just a problem with trading. You can’t really blame China for trying to sell steel and they’ve got their own horrendous layoffs.

“Our home grown management just haven’t delivered on their promises year after year. If we’re working our bollocks off management is happy, but that’s not the same as working effectively.

“Under British Steel management knew that if engineering is busy something’s going wrong. If production is busy and engineering is waiting for breakdowns, that’s when you’re making steel. If you’re not producing anything, you’re on a hiding to nothing.

“But then new management came in from university with the idea that everyone had to work hard around the clock.

“They’d see engineering sitting around, sweeping the sheds or just tinkering and they’d think, ‘They’re lazy’. What they didn’t see is us at 11 o’clock at night jumping to fix a fault and get the plant back up and running.

“So they put engineers on the line with the production guys. When a fault needed to be fixed there wasn’t anyone to do it. It just didn’t work, so we went back, but by that time we were so behind on the maintenance.

“All they ever did was try to save pennies, save pennies all the time and fall millions behind in maintenance—everything is backward.

“In ten years only management have got a pay rise, but since 2008 I’ve been losing £14,000 a year. Pretty soon it will be minimum wage—you can get a house here for £50,000 but that’s still not enough to live off.”

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.