‘Hand of history is on our shoulders'

Hundreds attend Unite’s Rally for Steel

Reading time: 7 min

“We can fight. And yes, we can win!” These were the rousing words of Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham yesterday, February 17, as she addressed the hundreds-strong Port Talbot steel community who’d come to listen, as she spoke out on the closure of the blast furnaces.

The town had gathered behind their steel workers in their hundreds gathering at a rally in front of the Civic Centre, followed by a march through the town.

Walking through Port Talbot before the rally the level of support was clear as shop fronts and businesses displayed posters for Unites “Rally for Steel”. 

Hayley Cooper’s hairdressers, Directors, has posters in the window and flyers and stickers throughout the shop. Hayley’s dad used to work at the steelworks and she is concerned about the impact the cuts will have on the town.

Hayley said (pictured above), “This will affect all the businesses in Port Talbot, not just the steel workers. I’ve friends and family working there as well as lots of clients and their husbands.”

“I hope there is a good turnout today.”

Further up the high street Cafe Fresco was also showing its support, and outside retired friends Jeanette Shoesmith and Carol Rock (pictured below) were meeting for a coffee. 

Jeanette said, “All my family have worked there at some point. This is just terrible news for Port Talbot.”

Carol, whose husband worked at the steelworks agreed with her friend, adding; “This is just terrible for the town, particularly young families. Shops are closing already – this will be the death of Port Talbot.”

Outside the Civic Centre was already filling up with steel workers, their families and supporters from across South Wales and beyond.

Unite Rep Gareth Hillan was at the front with his granddaughter (pictured below). Gareth works at the plant’s hot mill, the same as his son, and was impressed by the turnout, saying, “This is brilliant, it’s nice to see the local community here, there are so many people. We have members from Ebbw Vale and Swansea that work there as well, so it’s not just going to hit Port Talbot, but the whole region.”

This view was echoed by Peter Ross, a former steelworker and Vice Chair of the Port Talbot and District Trades Council. Peter was also at the front with trades council colleagues David Bowyers and Stephanie Grimshaw.

Peter (pictured below) said, “This will be devastating for the area. If this goes ahead it will be devastating for South Wales, not just Port Talbot. The service industry that supports the site employs at least twice as many people as the plant itself, and then there’s the impact on local shops.”

“The Trades Council is here to show its solidarity. We will be at rallies, and we will help coordinate between the different unions and other organisations to build support and get behind our workers.”

Stephanie (pictured below with Peter), also an Aberavon councillor, added how pleased she was to see so many people, saying: “This is all the town has been talking about, and I’m really impressed with the turnout today.”

As well as Port Talbot, other Trades Councils were present from Swansea, Cardiff and Bristol.

Gareth Bromhill, Secretary of Swansea and District Trades Council, said it was important to attend. Gareth (pictured below) said, “This is the most important campaign happening in the area at the moment, and we are working with Unite branches to attend events and support the campaign. This will hit communities across the region in Swansea and Bridgend as well as Port Talbot.”  

As Bruce Springsteen’s song about the devastation caused to a steel community in Youngstown, Ohio echoed around the square, speakers gathered to address the crowd.

Vaughan Gething MS,and Minister for Economy, at the Welsh Parliament said that this was a “fight for the future of our industry”.

“I have been privileged to meet unions and reps across the sector to understand their concerns, for their future and for their communities.”

“The Welsh government will stand with unions in the steel sector. We want to see a blast furnace continue while we transition. This is not a just transition.”

Vaughan then called on the Prime Minister to actually come to Port Talbot to meet with and listen to experts himself, and understand why there is an economic benefit to “making steel on your own doorstep.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, who had been earlier talking to steelworkers and Unite members as they gathered, passionately told the crowd,

‘Last stand for UK steel’

“Friends, make no mistake we stand here today in this proud town of Port Talbot – a town drenched in workers’ history – making the very last stand for UK steel.

“The hand of history is truly on our shoulders. And friends, how have we arrived at this point? Because of a programme of job cuts and unrelenting industrial vandalism.”

“For years and years, politicians and profiteers have delivered cut after cut to UK steel.”

Sharon went on to highlight the massive profits that TATA are currently making and how they are treating workers in other countries differently – calling out the company’s lies that mass steel making has no future in the UK.

Sharon said that there should be a bright future for UK steel, and called on the government to “Invest in UK Steel. Invest in the future. For Port Talbot, Llanwern and all the others throughout Britain.” 

Highlighting that instead of job cuts, new jobs could be made by increasing steelmaking capacity and building production to match demand.

Sharon then announced that Unite will be balloting for industrial action from 1st March and called on members to; “Vote yes in the ballot. Vote yes for a future for you and your families. Vote yes for a future for your community. For those that came before and all those that will follow you.”

To resounding cheers, shouts and applause Sharon finished saying, 

“Friends, let’s stand together, let’s fight together, let’s win together. Victory to our steel workers! Solidarity to you all!”

Following the speeches the rally took the message of solidarity with their steelworkers to the streets of Port Talbot – marching through the town centre carrying banners and flags, drawing support from shoppers and shopkeepers as they passed – and telling TATA in no uncertain terms that “UK Steel is here to stay!”

By Keith Hatch

Pics by Mark Thomas