'Dark day for steel'

Unite vows to defend steel workers and industry as Tata steel announces Port Talbot job losses

Reading time: 6 min

Tata Steel on Friday (January 19) confirmed plans to close the Port Talbot steelworks’ two blast furnaces, with the proposed loss of more than 2,500 direct jobs.

The announcement comes despite the government providing £500m in funding to the company to make the transition to green steel by building electric arc furnaces, which make steel from scrap metal.

The company rejected out of hand union proposals to save the blast furnaces while pursuing a just and more sustainable transition to green steel, and Unite said the government has failed to invest in British industry and workers and their communities.

The closure of the blast furnaces will mean the UK is the only country in the G20 not able to produce its own steel from raw materials.

Unite said it will continue to defend its workers to the hilt.

Commenting, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “Unite is ready to use everything in its armoury to defend steel workers and our steel industry. We have detailed research demonstrating how and why Tata should be expanding UK steel production in line with growing demand, not slashing its workforce. We have secured funding from a future Labour government that could do this. Tata’s plan to close the blast furnaces is simply industrial vandalism on a grand scale.”

 “The government needs to invest in British industry in order to defend workers and communities as well as our industrial base and our national security,” she added. “Instead, they are giving Tata hundreds of millions of pounds to fund their plan to cut jobs, cut capacity and give more business to their plants in other countries, like India and the Netherlands. How is that acceptable?”

UniteLive caught up with Unite Port Talbot steelworks site convenor Ian Williams, who said steel workers were in “shock and disbelief”.

“Our members are first of all angry that the company didn’t consider our solutions, and then to learn of the news in the media before being formally told by the company – it was very disappointing,” he said.

 Ian said that the solutions Unite had put forward would have saved thousands of jobs and provided a better future for the company and the wider industry as well.

“Instead, they went with the nuclear option, which not only destroys the directly employed workforce but thousands more jobs in the wider supply chain,” he pointed out. “It’s not only about the present either – it devastates the future of our communities, the future of our young people who are being robbed of the opportunity for highly skilled jobs. We are, after all, only the custodians of these jobs.”

Ian described plans to build electric arc furnaces as “pie in the sky” at the moment because there are as yet no concrete proposals set out by the company. He highlighted the agony faced by members who have been left in the dark.

“Everyone is wondering, how is this going to affect me? When am I going to be made redundant? Things will hopefully be clearer in the coming days once the consultation begins but right now there’s just so much uncertainty.”

Ian emphasised that steelworkers completely understand and embrace the need to transition to a green future, but he added that the company’s approach is totally wrong and not environmentally sustainable.

“The electric arc furnaces won’t be built for another four years at least,” he explained. “Instead of maintaining our own blast furnaces in that four-year period and protecting jobs – which gives more time for workers to transition to green jobs — they’ve decided to immediately shut the blast furnaces and produce steel in India, which will be made in the same way and then shipped halfway around the world over here, which will be even worse for the environment. How is that a green transition?”

Ian added that although today was a ‘dark day’ for Port Talbot and the wider British steel industry, he said he still held out hope.

“One blast furnace will close in the coming months but if we can keep the second blast furnace open until the next general election then we have some hope with a change in government,” Ian noted. “Labour has already said it would commit to investing £3bn in the steel industry so that could put us in a very different position than where we are today.”

UniteLive also spoke to Unite national organiser Joe Rollin, who is working on Unite’s Workers’ Plan for Steel campaign, which brings together workers, communities and local businesses and organisations to defend the UK’s steel industry.

Joe called on the government to step up to the plate on steel.

“The prime minister is always telling us how patriotic he is – he should prove his patriotic credentials by backing British industry and well-paid union jobs,” Joe said. “The UK steel industry is hanging by a thread at a time when the demand for steel is growing globally. It’s nothing short of industrial vandalism to cut capacity and cut jobs when the demand for steel is skyrocketing.”

Joe noted that the Workers’ Plan for Steel campaign is “going full steam ahead”.

“The support for the campaign in our steel towns is only growing, not diminishing,” he added. “An announcement like this will further focus people’s attention and Unite will do everything in its power to hold politicians feet to the fire over the coming months, especially in an election year. Voters won’t forgive politicians of any party unless they act now to protect steel jobs.”

You can find out more about Unite’s steel campaign on our webpage here.

By Hajera Blagg