The Socialist 19 July 2002 |
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Steel Jobs Massacre
TO MARK the end of two centuries of iron and steelmaking at Ebbw Vale in South Wales, BBC Wales started a series Hearts of Steel, dealing with the aftermath of the job cull in the steel industry last year.
The programme was in the form of a video diary showing how a number of Corus (formerly British Steel) workers and their families dealt with the closures of Ebbw Vale and Llanwern 'heavy end' (actual steelmaking) plants. Other plants in South Wales were affected, notably Bryngwyn, outside Swansea, which was closed.
The first programme showed how the families reacted to the decision and reflected their feelings of shock, anger and insecurity.
Many workers could identify with their fear of the future when they realised how their lives would have to change after losing relatively well-paid jobs.
One of the mothers asked how they were going to be able to support their daughter who was starting university in a few months time. Others started to think about moving from the area but of course, where to?
The impact on Ebbw Vale in particular was heartbreaking. Workers there faced the same bleak prospect experienced by the miners after 1985, another valley with no industry, jobs or hope.
The most interesting part of the programme was the thoughts of a Llanwern shop steward who was also an ex-miner. The defeat of the miners' strike was used by right-wing trade union leaders, like those of the steel union ISTC, to tarnish the idea of militant trade unionism. Their strategy of compliance in the steel industry has seen a gradual worsening of conditions and leakage of jobs.
The last few years have seen management emboldened by and dismissive of the union, launch a major offensive against conditions, including seniority, in steel plants.
The closure and redundancy programme was the ultimate proof that weak trade unionism cannot protect workers' jobs.
The programme showed that there is no automatic resistance from workers. Years of the 'dented shield' approach effectively disarmed the workers in the steel industry. As in many industries, the right-wing leaders became divorced from the membership who had no confidence in their ability to lead a serious fight against Corus.
No-one would argue that any union leadership would have guaranteed a victory or belittle the task facing the workers but the shop steward himself contrasted the reaction of the ISTC with that of the NUM in 1984 to the Tory-sponsored pit closure programme: "What we haven't got is a Scargill figure."
More importantly, what was lacking was a well-organised trade union, able to keep its members informed and actively involved over a whole period before and during the dispute. Corus workers had to find out information from snippets on the news rather than at mass meetings or from union sources. Inevitably, any mood to resist was dissipated.
The programme also highlighted the role of New Labour, who complained about the decisions of big business, rather than having any sort of programme to even contemplate re-nationalisation.
In fact, as we now know, a few hundred thousand pounds donation from one steel entrepreneur meant more to New Labour than the working-class communities facing devastation.
Hearts of Steel is a must-see for workers and their families, particularly in South Wales.
It is a visual text-book of the reality of the decisions of big business and their effects on workers and their families.
If it makes people angry and determined that our class should avoid further meek surrenders in the future, then some good would have come out of it.
ISTC members in a Tredegar factory started a 'work to rule' in a dispute over changes in their pensions just two days after the programme was aired.
Kent Steel Jobs Threatened
ASW, THE steel works on the Isle of Sheppey, is in receivership, a situation which has been building up for over two years.
330 people stand to lose their jobs, which will have a big effect on Sheerness and the surrounding area.
When I asked an official from the steel union ISTC if they were going to do anything to fight the sell-off or closure of the steel mill, he said in a posh accent: "I'm not going to give you anything you could use to incite our members!"
But I know workers are angry that the situation has got so bad at the mill.