People lined Scunthorpe’s streets in solidarity yesterday, as hundreds of protesters marched through the town demonstrating against mass redundancies at a Tata Steel plant.
900 Tata jobs are to be axed in Scunthorpe, along with a further 270 in Scotland. The redundancies come at a time of unprecedented crisis for Britain’s steel industry, caused by the flooding of cut price Chinese steel onto the world’s markets, as well as high energy prices. More than 4000 steel industry jobs are at risk across Britain.
The potential effects for Scunthorpe, where steel production has been the major industry for 125 years, are devastating. Shop windows throughout the town centre are displaying “Save Our Steel” posters, as the community looks to a recalcitrant government for help.
Unite member Jessica Collinson was one of nearly a thousand marching to Scunthorpe’s Civic Centre to deliver a petition demanding politicians take action. The 20-year-old electrician, who has been at the steel works for nearly five years, was clear about what needs to happen.
“They need to stop the dumping of cheap Chinese steel, cut the business rates and reduce energy prices. It there’s no steelworks there’s no Scunthorpe,” she said.
Wall of light
It is evident that most of Scunthorpe believes the same. On Saturday Scunthorpe United, nick-named ‘The Iron’ after the abundance of iron ore in the area, dedicated their first round FA Cup game against Southend to the steel workers and their families. Players and coaching staff wore “Save Our Steel” t-shirts and fans created a “wall of light” in the crowd using their mobile phones.
The public also made their support clear yesterday as the marchers made their way up the town’s busy high street. People left their workplaces to applaud and cheer, while many of those caught in the stopped traffic provided a chorus of beeping horns.
“Everyone knows someone who’s worked, or is working, there,” said Unite member Laura Clark.
Laura, 22, joined the steelworks as an apprentice as soon as she left college. She has worked at Tata for six years, but the instrumentation technician now faces an uncertain future.
“University wasn’t a feasible option for me, because of the costs. When I first got the job it was amazing – everyone was really proud. My nana and great grandmother both worked at the steelwork offices,” Laura said.
“Now there’s a constant worry. If this goes there isn’t going to be very much left. The steelworks provide for a lot of people.”
Nor is it just about the economic devastation the closure of Tata Steel will reap. The industry is enmeshed in the town’s cultural identity. When 91-year-old former steelworker Bryan Birkett heard about the march he insisted on being taken along in his wheelchair. His son Edward said first and foremost Bryan was determined to show solidarity, but that it was also an opportunity for his father to enjoy the company of his fellow steelworkers again.
Sales assistant Emma Tune, 28, was marching for her family and understands all too well how important steel is to Scunthorpe’s history, as well as its future. Her father, grandfather and great grandfather were all steelworkers.
“It’s nice to see such a lot of people today,” Emma said. “But then the town’s only here because of the steelworks. Scunthorpe’s motto is ‘The Heavens Reflect Our Labours’. During the Second World War it’s said the smoke from the steelworks masked the town from the German planes and saved us from the bombs. But the fact is now that the government would rather spend money outside the country than inside it.”
Unite convenor for Scunthorpe steelworks, Martin Foster, also laid responsibility at the door of the politicians. He says that at present the “warm words” and “consideration” offered by local councillors, the government and the EU just aren’t enough.
“If the Scunthorpe works were to close, the town and local area would be devastated,” he said. “If anyone doubts that then just go and visit some of the coal mining towns, which are still trying to recover. Our industry has been through crisis before, especially in the early 80s, but we have always found a way through.”
“But this time the government, both locally and centrally, are the only people with the power to change this situation. In one direction lies help with energy costs, with business rates, with carbon taxes, with procurement and with restrictions on cheap imports, which give us a fighting chance at survival on a level playing field. The other direction is a dead end and we all know what happens then.”
It’s a dead end all of Britain’s 18,000 steelworkers are praying they’re not forced to go down.