Port Talbot is a town reeling from the news that Indian multinational steel company, Tata, intends to close its two existing blast furnaces with the loss of around 2,800 jobs. Not only is this devastating for those directly affected but it has been estimated that a further 12,000 jobs could be affected for those involved in the supply chain to the steel industry.
Jackie Grunsell, Socialist Alternative West Yorkshire
Tata plans to close the furnaces whilst it builds a replacement electric arc furnace (EAF), making use of recycled scrap steel, which is not due to open until 2027. This process of steel production reduces CO2 emissions compared to the method currently in use, but requires less workers to operate.
Whilst we would support a transition to green steel production, in the time between the closure of the blast furnaces and the EAF being up and running, steel will have to be imported into the UK with all the associated carbon footprint. Tata’s plans also totally disregard the impact on steel workers’ lives, their families and a community that remembers the damage inflicted by pit closures in the past.
Workers and unions have been warning for years about a crisis in British steel production due to the government allowing the short-sighted mismanagement by private companies. Tata claims to have been losing £1.7 million a day for three months at Port Talbot, yet managed to pay its shareholders £1.4 billion worth of dividends between 2019 and 2023. We demand that Tata open their accounts to the scrutiny of the workers movement to see the real situation.
The unions representing workers at the plant are putting forward an alternative transition from blast furnaces to EAF. But even if Tata accepted this, can they really be trusted to implement such a transition in a way that protects workers and the environment? Their track record says the opposite.
Government subsidies to pay shareholders
The government is already giving Tata a grant of £500 billion of taxpayers money to add to Tata’s £750 billion investment in order to build the EAF. Far better if that money were spent on an industry that was nationalised and run in our interests rather than lining Tata shareholders pockets.
Meanwhile it’s also clear the Tories are blindly continuing a policy of deindustrialisation in Britain pursued since Thatcherism in the 1980s. Mines, shipyards, mills and engineering plants have been steadily shut down by successive governments in favour of the development of the finance and service sector, many of which are low-skilled and low paid jobs.
Getting rid of dirty heavy industry might not seem like such a bad thing when faced with an existential climate catastrophe. A recent report by McKinsey estimates that global demand for green steel will rise tenfold by 2030, to 200m tonnes. But the production of green steel is a key question. With rumours that the only other blast furnace in Britain is set to also close, green steel production is now at a crossroads; either seek to import green steel (with the associated carbon footprint), or fight for a mass programme of jobs in green production, not just of steel, but other industries at the same time.
Socialised plan of workers control and management
However, we would say workers in these industries alongside our communities who rely on them, already have the knowledge and skills to know the best way to undertake transitions to greener methods of production which put those communities at the heart of the plans. Nationalisation has to be done on the basis of democratic workers control, with working class people owning, planning and carrying out the plan for the benefit of society without causing environmental destruction.
It may be that green steel production at Port Talbot requires less workers than now. In the 1970s workers at Lucas Aerospace, threatened with job losses, developed the ‘Lucas Plan’. They proposed they had the workers and skills, along with the materials and resources at the plant, to put to good use manufacturing other socially beneficial products. A similar plan at Part Talbot is only possible under public ownership and management.
The union representing workers at Tata, Unite, have called for more subsidies from the government, rather than a call for nationalising green steel production, and whilst the union had been promising a ‘major campaign in the steel towns/, this does not appear to be apparent at this point. Socialist Alternative would welcome the launch of this campaign by the union, and would also call for a conference of the steel shop stewards across South Wales, and beyond, to create a huge, well-funded, grassroots campaign for nationalisation under workers control and management. Solidarity with Port Talbot workers needs to be organised urgently, with protests needed to show the strength of the community. No doubt workers will be considering all their options including the possibility of industrial action to defend their jobs. If this happens it’s essential action from the rest of the trade union movement is organised in support.