Connecting communities through steel

Unite’s steel campaign reconnects a city with itself

Reading time: 6 min

A quiet November Saturday afternoon in Sheffield. The steel-grey sky hangs heavy over the Sheffield United FC club house on Bramall Lane, home to the famed local team, the ‘Blades’.

A line forms outside the building. Men, women, children, jostle for position. The crowd is excited, the mood is good. Nothing unusual here you may think. But the Blades aren’t playing at home today. The crowd has not come for football. So why are they here?

They are here for an amateur boxing match – sponsored by Unite. The even marks a significant stride in connecting the city’s communities with the Unite Support UK Steel campaign.

Brendan Warburton MBE, founder, and head coach of the Sheffield City Boxing Club hosted the event.

Brendan, a trade unionist and former postie, has been an integral part of the boxing community in and around Yorkshire after establishing his club in 2010, and later his amateur boxing events in 2020.

Brendan was keen to partner with Unite the Union, acknowledging the importance of Unite and the Support UK Steel campaign to Sheffield and it’s wider community.

“I am a big supporter of unions, after working in the post office for 23 years,” he told UNITElive.

“My dad was also a bricklayer in the furnaces in the steel industry. He’s now retired in his 80s.”

Brendan discussed the impacts of further job losses on his local community.

“I look at Sheffield it’s always been known, as a ‘Steel City’. There’s very little steel left in Sheffield now and I explained that to our younger boxers, who probably don’t realise why Sheffield is called the Steel City.”

He also emphasised the importance of Unite’s support for the non-profit community club. “I appreciate Unite coming and supporting our event as well, as we are a non-profit community club. All the money raised from this event goes back into our club, which is very welcome. We work with 300-400 members from all groups of the community.”

Unite’s Support UK Steel campaign has been approaching communities and businesses, like Brendan’s, in and around Sheffield with the view of delivering the message to the government that, “with investment and commitment from the government and our local politicians, UK steel could have a bright future as a European leader in green steel production.”

The event drew attention not only from boxing enthusiasts but also from local figures deeply rooted in the community. Nighat Basharat, the Labour Councillor for Sharrow and Nether Edge, attended the event in solidarity with Brendan.

“I’ve known Brendan through Sheffield Boxing Club after engaging vulnerable young people to explore a different form of exercise for their well-being,” he said.

“I found him to be a passionate and humble person who provided opportunities to help struggling organisations and young people and that’s what connected me to the club.”

Their connection, built over time, has positively impacted young people in Sharrow’s community, showcasing the wider reach of initiatives that bridge sports and community engagement.

Nighat Basharat went on to commit to the Support UK Steel campaign, signing the petition and expressing concern over job losses in the industry and the impact that may have on her community.

Among the attendees was Scott Rafferty, Club leader for Trinity ABC Ilkeston Derby, who shared the profound impact of job losses on his community.

“I’ve seen people losing houses, I’ve seen relationships struggling,” he said.

Scott’s grandfather was also reported to have worked for the Stanton and Staveley works which primarily dealt in coal and iron which were later incorporated into British Steel and ultimately sold off in the nationalisation of the industry in the 80s.

By 2007 most of the former Stanton and Staveley works had been shut down and cleared.

A retired volunteer for the match, Claire Green, also added a personal touch to the narrative, recounting how her family’s roots run deep in the steel industry.

“Both my grandfathers worked in steel, as well as my dad along with my uncles who both experienced lay-off in the ’80s and my aunty even worked in the offices. I only have one cousin left working in the industry now.”

The evening marked a triumph for both Brendan and his club members, securing an impressive seven wins against five losses, with John ‘Dino’ Rodgers (below) securing the coveted 67kg Yorkshire belt.

Jono 'Dino' Rodgers supporting Unite Steel campaign

Brendan reflected on the success, stating, “It was a really good show and I’m very proud of all our team, no matter the result. There was a good crowd in who I’m sure were impressed by the efforts of all the team.”

The effects of Sheffield’s diminished steel industry seem to reach far beyond economic considerations, touching aspects of community life and the city’s overall culture, and identity.

The city has been undergoing a generational transformation of its industrial landscape, and residents are constantly adapting to the challenges and changes this brings to their way of life.

Unite members left the event with a staggering 60 plus new signatures for the petition and four more clubs signing their names to the ever-growing list of members on the Unite campaign’s open letter.

Support from the community has only expanded and community outreach, the boxing match not only became a platform for sporting achievements but also a testament to the strength of community connections and the collective determination to address the challenges faced by Sheffield, in the ever-evolving landscape of its steel industry.

By Lucy Lee

Photos by Mark Harvey