At the end of March Tata Steel announced it was pulling out of all or part of its UK operations, threatening nearly 14,000 jobs and many thousands more in related industries.
It said its UK steel operations were losing money despite rising demand due to lower global steel prices. The biggest potential losses, unless buyers can be found for the plants, are in Scunthorpe (3,381 jobs) and Port Talbot (4,104 jobs). And right now the Tories are going to stand back and allow what might be the near destruction of steel making in the UK.
The answer to these closures is for the plants to be taken into public ownership, and for the jobs and pension funds to be guaranteed by government.
We should not argue for nationalisation as a short term measure or a fallback as Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has done. We should argue for public ownership as a way of taking key industries like steel â€” which underpin essential economic activities like construction out of the chaos and destructiveness of market forces and capitalism. We demand that workers in those industries and services have democratic control of them.
The Tories will not nationalise without a fight against this closure, a fight on a clear political basis and led by the unions and Labour. The Tories don't want nationalisation because it politically undermines their drive to privatise everywhere, including essential services like the health service.
In the 1970s the UK steel industry employed over 200,000 workers. Through the 70s, under Labour and then even more aggressively under Thatcher, UK steel works were closed. In Teeside, South Wales, Scotland, communities were left to deal with devastating effect of those closure. The Tories let steel sink under the pressure of competing steel industries in developing capitalist economies like South Korea, and the parallel destruction of shipbuilding and car-making in Britain.
The coal industry was feeling similar pressure. Miners fought back. But the steel union BISAKTA, later the ISTC and now Community, which organised the majority of steel workers let their industry decline without a fight.
The steel unions have always been on the right of the trade union movement. From 1975 to 1985 the General Secretary Bill Sirs brought disgrace on the trade union movement for having visited and had friendly relationship with the whites-only unions in South Africa.
Lower down in the bureaucracy, at many works the union had very powerful convenors, but there were few democratic structures beneath them. The Communist Party was strong in plants such as Ravenscraig in Scotland, but no other left wing organisation and no rank-and-file movement existed. In any case, for the Communist Party the rank-and-file always needed to be controlled and prevented from raising their voices in a way that might jeopardise the Communist Party's unprincipled alliances with union leaders, even right wingers.
The steel union leaders resorted to special pleading, trying to prove the potential profitability of a particular plant, implying that perhaps other plants should be closed instead. There was never a national campaign, or a national dispute over jobs.
Left-wing trade unionists, including supporters of the forerunners of Workers Liberty, campaigned against steel plant closures and redundancy deals. We argued that it was not the right of individual plants or union leaders to bargain away permanent jobs within their communities.
A meeting of a National Action Committee was called in the late 70s with a couple of representatives invited from each plant. It swapped notes, expressed anger but a proposal to create a wider shop steward group was blocked. One convenor argued that if he could save his plant at the expense of another, he would do so. That divisiveness and lack of militancy epitomised the politics of a layer of trade union bureaucrats.
Then as now, a political answer was needed to save the steel industry. It was necessary to bring together the workers in all of the industries that used steel, the car industry, shipbuilding, heavy engineering, all of where were being allowed to wither by Labour and then dismantled by the Tories. But such a political venture needed first for there to be a fight, for steel workers to be organised.
A Triple Alliance of steel, coal and rail unions was nominally in existence for much of this time. For most the time right wingers led all those unions: Bill Sirs, Sid Weighell in the NUR rail union and Joe Gormley in the NUM. The Alliance did absolutely nothing. When Scargill led the miners in a real dispute with the Tories, the Great Miners Strike of 1984-5, it effectively broke up as Bill Sirs reneged on promises made. The only serious national fight steel workers have had came in 1981, when they were on strike for three months, but then they struck for pay and pay alone.
The lack of industrial fight ensured the Labour Party would fail to provide a political lead, and worse. In the late 70s Michael Foot was heckled as a traitor at a mass meeting of steel workers when he defended the closure of the steel works in his own constituency, Ebbw Vale
The Labour leadership is very different now, but John McDonnell's call for Port Talbot to be nationalised and for a regeneration of manufacturing industries is not clear and strong enough. Nationalisation under workers control and investment in manufacturing and construction and other infrastructural industries is much clearer. And, just as in the past, an industrial fight is needed.
We also need to be clear it isn't a fight between Chinese and British steelworkers. It is a battle against capitalist competition and explotation in both countries. The Tory government blindly encouraged the import of cheap Chinese steel when they thought it would lead to higher profits in certain UK industries and the financial and capitalist penetration of China. The jobs and well-being of workers are the least of considerations for both the British and Chinese ruling classes.
Workers at Port Talbot and elsewhere need support from the labour movement. An occupation of the plant could protect the blast furnaces from decommissioning, but such campaigns can't be done unless workers can be given confidnce through a labour movement mobilisation with clear arguments for a nationalised steel industry.
Ralph Peters was an active trade unionist in the steel industry in the 1970s.
The plant is not short of orders
A worker at the Tata Port Talbot plant spoke to Solidarity.
There have been no communications whatsover by management about the future of the plant.
But I can't see a takeover [by Liberty House, reported on 4 April] happening. The sticking point will be the pension fund, it's worth billions. No one is going to take that on.
The unions were smashed years ago. They are too weak now to fight back.
The plant is not short of orders. The demand for steel is there. And someone somewhere in the company is making money for Tata. While management have been talking redundancies [initially the company said they would make 750 redundant at the plant] they are also bringing in new company cars for themselves! It doesn't add up.
Everyone is hiding behind the China situation. It's an excuse not to act.
This is going to devastate the town. But the Tories aren't going to nationalise. Why would they?
Places like this are Labour strongholds, so they don't care.