ENGLISH

This website was created on occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Britain Steel worker Strike

2nd of January, 1980

 

in German language

British steel workers strike
January-April 1980


(Collection of German articles of "ROTER MORGEN" and the RGO from the year 1980)

KPD/ML


 

 

17,000 of our British Steel workers downed tools

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arthur Scargill

 

 

"King Arthur"

leader of the working class

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The steel strike lasted nearly 14 weeks. After beginning in the nationalised sector, the stoppage gradually spread to the privatised steel works.

The plants reopened after the Lever inquiry recommended a package worth 16% in return for an agreement on working practices and productivity deals.

Later that summer, 17,000 of the 24,000 South Wales steel workers were put on short time and in September, the Consett works in County Durham was "peacefully" shut down with the loss of 3,400 jobs.

In Britain, steelworkers were historically among the highest paid skilled laborers. The British steel industry enjoyed a profitable and harmonious relationship between the management and the yellow union leaders until the 1970’s.

This began to change due to accelerating steel production in other countries and slowing global demand, forcing the management of the British Steel Corporation (BSC), a nationalized company, to adopt the Beswick plan of plant closures, reduced output, and improved productivity in 1975.

Steelworkers opposed the plant closings as well as reduced annual wage increases; steelworkers had fallen from third to eighteenth in wages relative to other British industrial workers. Relations between the unions and management began to deteriorate. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. She stated an intention not to intervene in labour and enterprise relations, "proposing" a manifesto to “reform” unions.

On 3 December 1979 the British Steel Corporation (BSC) announced to the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) Union of 90,000 steel workers that it could afford only a base raise of 0- 2% for the next year, and that workers could negotiate raises of up to 10% on a local plant-by-plant level depending on the plant’s productivity. This was a betrayal. The national inflation rate was 17%.

Then on 6 December, the management announced a reduced 1980 production target of 15.2 million tonnes, down from an estimated 18.3 million in 1979. This decrease in production led to the reduction of 52,000 employees in the work force of 160,000. On the following day, 7 December 1979, the ISTC called for a national strike beginning 2 January 1980.

The strike began, as planned, on 2 January 1980 when the 90,000 members of the ISTC and the 14,000 members of the National Union of Blastfurnacemen began picketing at local plants. The goal of the union leadership was to stop all movement of steel.

A smaller number of ”flying pickets” traveled throughout the country to ports, steel stockholders, steel producers, steel users, and the BSC headquarters. They gained allies from the National Union of Railwaymen who refused to transport steel on 24 January.

A nationally co-ordinated, united and organised strike of all the steel workers was thwarted by the yellow union leadership.

The union leadership did not organize the many local chapters of the union and decided to rely on mass pickets to wage the campaign. On 16 January they called ISTC members working at private plants to strike, with mass pickets starting 27 January.

On the day before the strike was to spread to private plants, a court injunction declared the strike illegal. The ISTC "complied", stopping the strike until the House of Lords later overturned the injunction.

The union leadership organized a mass picket at Hadfields on 12 February to prevent the workers from entering the plant. At 6:00 AM on the morning of the 12th, 350 pickets arrived at the plant gate for the 7:00 AM opening. The number rose to 620 pickets later in the day.

The police stopped the pickets’ attempts to obstruct the road, which allowed management to keep the plant open all day. Police arrested 64 pickets.

The following day 300 pickets went to Hadfields, but police again prevented them from closing the plant. Police arrested 10 more pickets.

The next day was the largest mass picket in the campaign: 2,000 pickets blocked the entrance to Hadfields. Workers in the plant voted to join the pickets, closing the plant. The successful mass picket became known locally as ”St. Valentine’s Massacre.”

Following the success of the picket, the union leadership hoped to continue their momentum, creating a list of plants to close by mass pickets. On 20 February, they planned to close Sheerness Steel in Kent with a mass picket. Locals met the pickets with hostility refusing them service at restaurants and bars, and the police blocked them from the plant, keeping it open.

On 11 March, the BSC offered a settlement of a 14.4% raise, including local productivity deals. The ISTC leadership stood by its slogan “20% - no strings.”

The mass-picketing campaign was losing momentum, and some members of the ISTC were returning to work. The union leadership called for a mass picket on 13 March at Hadfields in an attempt to repeat the February success and revive enthusiasm about the mass picketing campaign. However, they failed to disrupt plant operations. After the failed picket some unions, including the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Union, ended their participation in the strike.

The strike continued, but on 17 March the high court ordered the National Union of Railwaymen to release steel blockaded in their ports. On 21 March, the Liverpool Dockers Union voted to strike in support of the ISTC, but the Transport and General Workers Union refused to endorse the strike.

The campaign was winding down. The ISTC traitors resumed negotiations with the BSC and agreed to a 15.5% increase in wages: 11% through a basic increase and 4.5% through local deals. Including benefits and vacation, the total package value negotiated was a 17% increase. The thirteen-week-long strike ended on 3 April.

 

A union worker writes:

1980 saw the steelworkers become one of the first group of workers to take on the new Thatcher Tory government, which had been elected in 1979. A union member involved at the time looks back at the action which marked the start of the new decade.

Thirty years ago I woke up on the 2nd of January 1980 at 5am to go over to my picket line with trepidation in my heart. This was the first day of the 1980 steel strike. In amongst the New Year celebrations the local and national media had been pumping out the so-called fact that the strike had no support. This media hype reached its climax when a local radio station at 9pm on New Year’s Eve had a phone-in for those who did not want to go on strike. However this backfired as the vast majority of callers were in favour of the strike. 

Arriving at the one of the 5 steelplant gates at 5.45am I was amazed to see a crowd of pickets had already assembled across the entrance, I quickly rode my motorbike round all the gates at Redcar, Lackenby & Cargo Fleet to see if it would be necessary to relocate pickets to any gates where we were weak, but what I found was that each gate was heavily picketed and apart from senior managers no one had crossed the picket line. The strike was not only solid but the level of support on the picket lines was great than we had anticipated.  This was the case nationally with 150,000 steel workers out on strike. BSC was shut down and the furnaces across the country were all cooling down

With the complete closure of British steel it was now time to ensure that no steel was to be move from stockholders. With this in mind the strike committee was formed from not only branch officials but activists amongst the striking unions. 

Mobile Picket

The first decision was to set up a mobile picket which after a while was nicknamed the Nairobi Scouts due to its ability to seek out targets and the resources necessary for a picket to be successful. The mobile pickets went to the stockholders and created a picketing base, building a shelter, firing up braziers and supplying large quantities of coke. Once established other strikers would move in to maintain the secondary picket. To keep the element of surprise the flying picket would set up the picket lines at 2 in the morning and so by 6 it was established for the other pickets to join. By this method we would have at least a couple of hours before the police could establish a sizeable force.  In addition the mobile picket would reinforce secondary pickets.   

We said no steel was to be moved and that included razors. After a few weeks we all looked like down and outs with long beards and multiple layers of clothing. After all it was winter.  This attire led to one of our cleverer schemes. We informed the tramps and homeless that shelters of scaffold and tarpaulin with warm braziers were dotted around Middlesbrough’s industrial estates and that they were welcome to use these facilities and, as we looked no different from the tramps, it forced the police to maintain an all-day and all-night attendance at the steel stockholders picket lines whilst it allowed us to organise a roaming picket to turn up in numbers at a particular steel stockholder, a decision only made at 5am.  We always knew when an attempt to move a lorry was about to happen. The nice coppers who we had been playing football with and sharing mugs of tea would suddenly go off for a meal break and would be replaced by a group of baton wielding thugs. To get round this we had to develop new techniques. One such was at a picket which had some disused garages. Five or six of us with motorbikes would park our machines in the garages and when the police had forced a path through the pickets for the lorry to pass we would get on our bikes and wait till the lorry was about half a mile away so the police were relaxed. We quickly raced after the lorry and disabled it. 

The police found that steelworkers had skills that would challenge them such as our knowledge of metallurgy. For instance we found a piece of scrap steel bar around 50mm in diameter and a metre long. Soon we had one end glowing yellow hot in the brazier. With the use of scaffolding poles we bent this bar back on itself. Once cooled we heated up the other end, placed the scaffolding pole over the end and raced over to the stockholders main gate and hooked it through and then bent it back on itself so it now looked like a giant staple. With the vast quantities, of tea coffee and fizzy drinks consumed the staple was quench hardened with urine. The gate was locked.  Because of the hardened surface of the bar it was impossible to use a hacksaw. The only alternative was to use a gas axe but the accidental dropping of a red hot piece of metal on the oxygen rubber tube soon put a stop to that.

We even used the police against themselves. Half way through the strike the momentum was losing its initial strength so five us planned to get arrested for obstruction. With the resulting publicity generated locally the picket lines were returned to the initial strengths.

13 weeks out

This was a long strike of 13 weeks, debts mounted and with threats of evictions and repossessions the strain was falling hard on the families of the steelworkers, but through it all no one crossed the picket line, except for one guy. To the police’s amazement a steel worker walked up to the picket line. The workers shuffled to the side to allow this guy through. Some strikers greeted him but no one tried to stop him.   This panicked the police as the man  walked up to the gate with two white carrier bags. Was it sabotage? For about 30 minutes the police would not believe his story and did not let him in.  The striker had dispensation from the strike committee to go in to feed the feral cats that kept the rodents down on the steel plant floor!


When the strike was solid in Teesside pickets we were dispatched to the West Midlands to the large stockholders and car plants to stop the steel moving.  In ISTC, the main steel union, 10% of the membership was female so it was suggested that the pickets going to the West Midlands would be 10% female.  This tactic surprised one scab lorry driver at GKN in Wolverhampton.  During the war the workforce of Cargo Fleet was mainly female and this tradition carried on up the 1980’s. The operators would have to push backward and forward the massive hydraulic switches every thirty seconds for seven hours a day, resulting in powerful upper body strength, so when a lorry drives through the picket line of about 30 pickets a fist punches the cab door, denting it.  The furious driver from inside the compound exams the damage, grabs a crow bar and starts walking towards the pickets demanding to know who did the damage. Out steps a petite, young women who walked right up to the scab and said, “I did it. What are you going to do about it?” With a puzzled look on his face he returned to the safety of the compound.

The only people working were a few middle to senior managers at Steel House at Redcar and contract labour building the new blast furnace. As the road into the steel plant was directly off a main trunk road the police made a request that we did not picket here.  But after negotiations with the police it was decided that we would have a reverse picket and that the police would not intervene as long as we did not obstruct vehicles leaving we could talk to the drivers if they did mind. So at 4pm everyday pickets would come from all the other picket lines and participate in this strange picket. What the police did not take into account was the fact that the contract labour was paid until it left the site, it wasn’t long before we had the two lanes of the exit blocked as we talked to the contractors for hours. We did have a sweep on how long we could keep them in. The latest a manager left was 8.45pm swearing at us that he had missed his rehearsal for the Gilbert & Sullivan society production of the Pirates of Penzance. Our response was he should not be “A Scab of Steel House”
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Hard Times

 

Towards the end of the strike times were hard. We had no money and debts were mounting up. We had to do something. One of our methods was going directly to farmers and buying in bulk eggs and potatoes  and the workers at a local bakery persuaded management to let us have bread at  below cost price. So for most steel workers it was two boiled eggs with toast for breakfast, chip butty for lunch and egg & chips for tea.

All of these activities showed that we were determined steel workers prepared to use anything at our resources, to call on all our organisational skills to win. A flavour of what workers are able to do when they have to. We stayed firm even when BSC distributed a ballot for acceptance of a meaningless pay offer.

We had been deliberately picked on by the new Tory Government. It was a confrontation which the unions were determined to avoid, and the government equally determined to provoke.  The 2% pay rise at the time of hyper inflation was a deliberate provocation to steelworkers, who were looked on as a soft option for Thatcher to practice her union busting tactics on, but it was the Iron Lady who was melted down and in the end capitulated with a compromised pay rise. The Tory government had to regroup to bring in the anti trade union laws which we still have to this day, before taking on the bigger battalions of labour.

This was a long strike of three tough months. We were lions but we had donkeys for leaders. The general secretary of the ISTC was Bill Sirs, a rabid reactionary, who undermined any activity. Such was the feeling towards the end of the strike amongst other workers such as car workers, miners, rail and dockers that there was in fact a mood amongst the rank and file that the TUC should start organising supportive secondary action. The dockers in Liverpool were discussing such action leading to the possibility of a general strike. Such was the mood. While elements in the TUC could be heard calling for a general strike, behind the scenes a bitter response was been planned for a compromise, a predictable TUC sell-out. Rather than challenge the system, like always, the over indulged full time officials sought an easy way out.

Lessons


Some will argue that the return to work was a defeat for the steelworkers, that the TUC had sold out again and that the closure program decimated the steel towns across Britain.  But what can be seen here is an enormous growth in class consciousness and a confidence by the steelworkers in struggle. In the ISTC conference in 1979 Price Charles was the main guest speaker. In 1980 it was Arthur Scargill who received a standing ovation. We did get a pay rise and we pushed back the Tory onslaught just enough so that the Tories would need another election victory in 1983 to give them a mandate to once again launch a vehement attack on organised labour. It could be argued that we were the vanguard of the labour movement in 1980 not a rearguard action holding back the Tory menace. But for the vacillations of the TUC hierarchy, the whole period of the Thatcher nightmare of 1983 onwards might never have taken place.  The steelworkers may have lost their jobs in the steelplants, but their experiences lives on. We have sown the seeds of class conscious workers across many industries who will be able to use that experience in the coming struggles.  All those young steelworkers in1980 on the picket line will become the mature class conscious workers now just requiring a spark to reignite their resolve.

On a side note the five arrested steelworkers charged with obstructing the highway got off on a technicality. Strangely enough no one owned the land we were arrested on, therefore you cannot be charged with obstruction!

 

The advance publicity given to the steel strike promised us yet another confrontation between the government and the trade unions. It was a confrontation which the unions were determined to avoid, and the government equally determined to provoke. With its obsolete political ideology, the Thatcher faction has convinced itself that the unions are unnecessary for the integration of the working class into the system of exploitation. The Left, unwilling to surrender the prize for senility without a struggle, descended on the picket lines to call for the defence of already discredited unions. This was the dual strategy of capitalism: where blue serge failed, blue denim stood ready to move in.

Both before and during the strike, union leaders emerged from their ‘patient negotiations’ to sound warning against the social unrest and economic chaos which would result from monetarist intransigence. Again and again they insisted that their aim was not to confront the Tories, but to collaborate in ensuring the viability of the steel industry. With considerable pride they pointed to their record of aiding in the restructuring of the industry while averting industrial action. Since 1965 the number of workers in British Steel Corporation (BSC) plants has dwindled from 817,000 to 184,000 last year, largely due to the introduction of new technology in the form of electric arc furnaces. These have not only brought a dramatic increase in productive capacity, but have also made the steel industry less dependent on coal, no doubt in preparation for the Bennite nuclear future. In short, the unions were willing to implement redundancies in exchange for state investment, while Labour governments were willing to invest in the knowledge that a steel industry in private hands did not have the financial resources to maintain production in periods of recession and so guarantee the supply of steel if and when markets expanded once more. Despite this touching faith in the future survival of capitalism, the Labour Party was unable to prevent stiffer competition from countries such as Korea, Japan, and Brazil. The result was that the BSC faced massive interest charges (currently running at £208 million a year), a redevelopment programme that was only half complete (and required a further 52,000 redundancies), a declining share of the world market, and a new government that was ideologically opposed to nationalised industries.

In insisting that the BSC should force the pace of plant closures and redundancies, the Tories were merely accelerating a process which had previously been masterminded by the Labour left. However, a confidential report submitted to a Tory policy group in 1978 had suggested that a future Conservative administration would be able to withstand a lengthy strike in the steel industry. Recent statements by Joseph have confirmed that a combination of plant closures and asset-stripping is to re-establish the profitability of the industry (while rewarding the private sector with an increased share of the market). As long as supplies of steel were readily available — and this was guaranteed when the unions dithered for six months before calling a strike - then industrial action by BSC workers could only serve to hasten the restructuring process. Confident that it had nothing to lose from the strike, the government imposed its cash limits and withdrew to await developments. Despite anguished pleas from union negotiators, the BSC went ahead with the rundown at Corby, insisted on a further 52,000 redundancies at least, and finally made its two percent pay offer. While the unions and the left squabbled about production statistics in an apparent attempt to prove that British steelworkers are more docile than any others, the BSC management carried out job reduction exercises and identified 2,300 ‘non-core’ jobs in the profitable Sheffield steelworks group alone. This points to a sustained campaign of informal resistance which has successfully lowered output and imposed manning levels decided on by the workers themselves. Others chose to opt for voluntary redundancy, a timely rejection of fraudulent appeals for ‘unity’ from careerist shop stewards with an eye to the supposed dignity of labour.

The secret talks in which the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) saw its last hope of reasoning with management and hoodwinking the steelworkers foundered on demands for unconditional surrender. Not even the ISW could find any enthusiasm for the dismemberment of entire plants, particularly in view of its conviction that managerial ineptitude (the crisis of leadership!) was forcing the industry into irreversible decline. This has led the union leaderships, far-sighted in matters of preserving capitalism, to see themselves as its saviours until the return of a Labour government. Dismayed by the overt class hostility of the Tories, who are more interested in demonstrating their ability to rule like latter-day colonialists than in pandering to uppity workers or bailing out the nationalised steel industry, the unions moved in to rescue the situation. Their problem was how to do this without losing the already uncertain allegiance of their members, which they still need if they are to have a plausible claim to share in the functions of guiding and managing the economy as a whole.

Anxiety about the state of the economy turned to aggression as the bureaucrats found themselves squeezed between the intransigence of the government and the mounting anger of the steelworkers. Speaking at a Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstration, Murray reasserted the unions’ claim to be the ‘authentic voice’ of the working class and issued a raucous threat: ‘We are here to demonstrate our unity, and anyone or any organisation which in any way, whether by utterance, action or by seeking disruption, destroys that unity will have to answer to the working class of Britain.’ The belligerence of this statement was in marked contrast to the plaintive warnings about social unrest. With the mass pickets outside Hadfields and elsewhere taking on the character of workers’ assemblies, decisive action was necessary to re-establish control of the strike.

It was soon to become evident that the strike would have to pass beyond the control of the unions and into the hands of the steelworkers if it was to achieve more than the accelerated restructuring of the industry. In the first week the ISTC issued instructions that the private sector was not to be interfered with, and throughout the strike the various unions notably the NUM, TGWU, AEUW, and NUR took it in turns to order normal working.

The local strike committees, although sporadically more militant than headquarters, also demonstrated their concern for normality. Little more than juntas of shop stewards determined to maintain their managerial prerogatives, they issued orders and shunted pickets around the country with as little effort to consult and inform as they had shown previously when taking decisions behind the workers’ backs or negotiating redundancy agreements. The effect of this was to leave token pickets scattered about the country in isolated groups of three or four. Individual workers were able to discover what was happening only by courtesy of the media, as was shown by the ISTC’s use of newspaper advertisements to urge rejection of BSC pay offers.

Even so, the pickets took to using their own initiative when deciding which goods should or should not be allowed through. This deplorable disruption was ended either by withdrawing pickets entirely, as at the British Leyland plant at Bathgate, or by issuing specific instructions that only consignments of steel were to be turned back.

Where direct instructions failed, or where mass pickets converged, the unions made militant noises and sent vague appeals for solidarity through their bureaucratic channels. When it looked as if the strike might spread to miners in South Wales (whose jobs are also threatened), Murray stepped in to cool the situation and promised a day of token protest on 14 May, converting the threat of direct action into an ineffectual march against Tory policies. As one steelworker put it, ‘Len Murray and the TUC are only talking in support of us. That’s no good, we don’t need budgies, we need help on the picket line.’ Time and again the unions had to ward off justified suspicions that they were dragging their feet. Faced with a demand for action from Yorkshire miners, [NUM leader Arthur] Scargill was able to post himself at the head of a flying column and march on the police line outside Hadfields, where he was able to exchange pleasantries with his uniformed colleagues. There was little else to do, since the day shift had already started work a couple of hours before.

The hostility and cynicism aroused by the unions made it all the easier for managements to address appeals to the workers over the heads of union leaders. As at British Leyland, the workers were faced with an unenviable choice between two gangs of unresponsive rogues who were clearly in collusion with each other. When Sirs sat down to secret talks with the chairman of Hadfields and agreed that the firm should be given immunity because of its financial problems (as if the workers had none!), this merely reinforced the climate of anxiety and suspicion. ISTC officials at Firth Brown, another Sheffield firm, were later reprimanded by the managing director when they suggested that the company would collapse if there was not an immediate return to work.

This was only one of a series of comic-opera reversals during the strike. We saw the ‘right to work’ slogan being brandished by both sides, one eager to cash in on the opportunity afforded by the strike, the other seeking support (or meaningless and mystifying slogans, both convinced that an obedient involvement in unremitting production rand occasional reproduction) is the only right and proper activity for the working class. Flying pickets were dispatched to ISTC headquarters in London and Scargill’s command centre in Barnsley — at the request of Hadfields’ bosses. The BSC made reformist demands for more democracy in the unions and held its ballot about a ballot, the pinstripe (or should that be poloneck?) equivalent of the campaign being mounted by the Liaison Committee for Constitutional Reform(!), a ginger group within the ISTC. This time it was the government, not the unions, that was denounced for wrecking the economy, and Hadfields Chairman, Norton pranced and capered like any hysterical shop steward.

Aspiring state capitalists of the left persuasion would do well to note that their plans for ‘workers’ control’ are by no means assured of success, now that the shop stewards who are to control the workers have lost their monopoly of populist militancy and appear more and more in the guise of boilersuited bosses.

With the traditional labour movement reduced to muttering in dark corridors, it might appear that its authority is irretrievably lost and that the way is now open for the emergence of self-activity and self-organisation on the part of the workers themselves. But the appeals to outdated loyalties will continue, along with the oafish conduct that seeks to contain spontaneous activity within bureaucratic constraints. These pretensions will be enthusiastically supported by a left which has for years refused to recognise the elementary truth that the unions have become the major enemy of the working class.

In the meantime, the unions face an additional complication in the impending laws on secondary picketing which will flush them even further into the open. Prior’s Employment Bill proposes to penalize those unions which fall in their attempts to curb effective industrial action. If it becomes law, it will mean more rigorous controls on local initiatives and spontaneous resistance, or overt collaboration with the police in removing troublesome pickets. Either way, the unions will not be able to avoid still more disaffection in the future, with a corresponding shift towards autonomous activity as traditional loyalties continue to disintegrate. And when workers come to confront these obstacles to their own emancipation, their actions will have to assume the character of a revolt if they are not to remain the victims of a luckless past.

We may leave the final word to Prior himself: ‘You can pass all the laws you like, but if you cannot get the consent of the people you cannot enforce these laws’.

P.S. (Sheffield)

 

 

 

1980 Keep the Candle Burning



Celebrations for the 30th anniversary of Corby as a New Town were muted with the demise of the steel industry.  This despite Corby Development Corporation handing power over to the Commission for the New Towns who over the next 12 years vowed to build new industrial estates and over 200 factory units. 

What was once a shining light in post war industrial Britain, a beacon of vitality and ambition, where men worked hard and played hard - crumbled with the closure and demolition of the vast iron and steelworks. Doom and despair had hung over the town like a heavy cloud since the last rites were administered by the government in November 1979. Corby was on Death Row, with no hope of a reprieve. A premature death for a community brought up with an expectancy of eternal employment and a high standard of living, which in the immediate post war years, seemed inconceivable. 

Back then, it was suggested; 'there was enough iron ore around here to last a 100 years!' Maybe there was, the only trouble was, it became too costly to excavate. When successive governments decided it was cheaper to import the core materials of ore and coal, the writing was on the wall.

Industrial Britain was at the crossroads, and about to take a turn for the worse. The traditional industries of steel, coal and shipbuilding were coming to the end of the line. Cars, shoes and textile industries would go the same way. By the time of the nineties, Britain would become the biggest warehouse in the world. Manufacturing little of consequence.


Britain had survived the austerity and transitional period of the fifties, enjoyed the freedom and wealth of the sixties, ploughed through the troublesome seventies. As we moved into the eighties, the cycle turned full circle, with Leslie Teeman, Chairman of the Confederation of British Industries East Midlands Regional Council warning; 'Britain faces a difficult and daunting year. There must be moderation in wage claims and an increase in productivity to improve the financial situation in the country. With high interest rates and a continuing world depression we can't afford to relax our struggle in the fight against inflation if we are to hold our position as a trading nation.' 

On January 2nd steel workers staged their first national strike for more than fifty years. Talks between the unions and management had broken down in December when the pay offer on the table was 2%. Management upped its offer to 6%, and proposed an additional 10% based on local productivity deals. The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, the biggest steel union with 90,000 members among the 150,000 staff employed by British Steel, demanded a 20% pay rise. BSC plants across the country were shut down; the strike was backed by the National Union of Blast Furnacemen, which had almost 13,000 members working for British Steel. ISTC leader, Bill Sirs, said: "We are being looked upon as the worst producing steel nation in Europe, and those facts are not strictly correct at all. The steel industry had improved productivity by 8% last year and 7% the year before and members are angered at having their pay rises linked to fresh productivity deals." 

As the strike gathered momentum, action group ROSAC wound down its operation at a meeting held in the Labour Club. A solemn George McCart, declared; “Appertaining to the current situation, whether we like it or not, we have lost the battle," before adding a classic line; "certain unfounded allegations have been made against us, it is imperative we find the alligators amongst us!"


Support for the steel strike from the doomed Corby Works, due to close in March was tepid. Many couldn't understand the logic in going on strike for a pay rise when they knew they were going to be out of a job in a matter of weeks. Despite the reluctance, flying pickets were organised to stop the movement of all steel in the area at transport depots, railway stations and docks. The blockade of east coast ports at Boston and Kings Lynn were targeted. 

Meanwhile, British Leyland boss Sir Michael Edwards was slamming Corby motorists for buying foreign cars in an article in The Times. In a plea to 'Buy British', he claimed jobs were lost every day in Britain when a foreign car is bought. 'Thousands of BSC jobs are axed at Corby, yet half the cars driven in the town are foreign'. The rant received a mixed response. Datsun owner and country & western star Ray Brett was unrepentant. "Foreign cars are more reliable and economical. I disagree with his comments. It’s nothing to do with steelworkers at BSC."

Geoff Peart of Clarke Road had a different view; "I agree with Edwards, if people did buy British our industries wouldn't be in the mess they are in now."

As the strike entered its tenth day, 200 steelworkers left Corby by coach and cars, 'to throw a network of barricades around vital supplies,' with a warning from Corby Works director Harry Ford that 'the steel strike could hit redundancy payments in Corby.' The statement was issued following rumours which had made workers doubtful about joining the strike. ISTC's John Cowling countered, "The statement is absolute rubbish. It is an absolute disgrace that such a statement was made. All men of Corby Works will get their severance pay. Its' an attempt by Ford to break the strike but it has been totally unsuccessful."

Help for striking steelworkers feeling the pinch and those facing the axe came from all quarters. The manager of Station Road Garage offered a 10% discount on fuel to all steelworkers. Various community centres around the town held collections and arranged events to help families struggling on the breadline, including a weekly Frozen Food Sale at Corby Boating Lake. 24 Beefburghers for £1, 5lb of streaky bacon for £2. More bizarre was a scheme launched at the Focus Cinema by manager Martin Parry who revealed plans to screen x rated sex films at 10 o'clock in the mornings.  "Shows are aimed at Corby's unemployed" Martin explained, "This is a new venture. We thought people might get fed up sitting around at home with nothing to do. The first films are Truck Stop Women and When Girls Undress. It'll be a £1 for the entertainment." 

Well intended or not, Martin's initiative soon attracted the wrath of Corby housewives. Mrs Allen of Chesil Walk; 'Men of Corby don't need or are inclined to patronise morning sex films. Men of this town have other hobbies. I can't believe they want this exotic entertainment.' Mrs Rae of Pages Walk; 'Alex can get wired into the garden if he's got nothin' to do! Never mind goin' to watch filth!' 

Corby stores were also suffering from the effects of the strike. 'Some will have to close if strike goes on for much longer', Corby Chamber of Commerce warned. "Things are really bad" said Jimmy Reid, manager of Franklins Furniture Store on Rockingham Road, "I used to sell about six suites a week but now its' down to one."

Morale was on the wane but given a boost when Scottish mineworker’s leader Mick McGahey pledged 'financial support of his members to steelworkers during a 'Back the steelmen' speech at Tresham College. McGahey, a life long Communist Party member, urged steelworkers; "support Labour and the trade union movement and stand together to fight for the future of your town. This is not a steel crisis. It is a crisis for every worker in British industry,"

Defending their right to picket, Denis McBlain, a machine operator in the Plug Mill spoke out at accusations of their heavy handed tactics. "Strikers are always cast as the villains, trouble makers, accused of idleness. BSC are no exception to the accusations. People shouldn't get the idea we enjoy the strike. Sure we have a laugh on the picket line. We are all in the same boat and it draws you closer together. The camaraderie is one of the best things to come out of being in a situation like this. But we want to go back to work as soon as possible.'

 Willie McCowatt, a mill operator in the EWSR tells of how he spent 18 hours on the picket line in Sheffield and all he received was a paltry £2.50p. "That was the last time. I remember Mick Skelton telling us to stand in the middle of the road to force Lorries to stop. So we did as Mick said, and then this big articulated lorry comes along, and made it clear he had no intention of stopping. We had to dive out of the way! Bollocks to this I thought."

Dennis Taylor, Fitter in the EWSR; "During the strike both myself and my dad were out on picket duty. At that time I had a van and I used to travel to picket sites taking a van full of pickets with me. While doing picket duty I would stop at a food manufacturing companies we would come across and would ask to see a manager, explaining who I was and asking them if they would contribute products or offer it at a lower price. If we were successful the food went towards the food parcels which were given to strikers and their families. I don't recall any of the companies who were approached refusing to help with donations of food. I remember I super glued the locks on the admin building at the Works and nobody was able to gain access for hours, causing disruption to those workers who ignored the picket. The worst hit were those families who had all the adults in the household out on strike. I would always double the food parcels I delivered to those households. The steelworks closure affected tens of thousands of people and I believe there are people today who have never recovered from it. Their fellow workers were their families, so socialising both in and out of work were the same people. Never again will this country see the rise and fall of integrated iron and steelworks all within the span of 50 years."


As the strike entered its eighth week, more and more families were plunged into financial hardship, sparking rumours that support seemed to be crumbling as some men were thinking about going back to work. John Cowling's, Corby's representative along with Peter Floody on the ISTC National executive, response was to demand £2 million from steel union’s funds to pay the steelworkers on strike.  

The reality of the situation kicked in, if it hadn't already, when the Glebe Coke Ovens closed on February 27th. 1500 redundancy notices went out.

Come the end of March, the steelworkers were offered another increase by BSC of 1% to take it to 15.5% which was enough for Bill Sirs, ISTC Chairman, to urge the men to go back to work. Mick Skelton was indignant; "I'm amazed at the offer of just another 1%. I personally haven't been out on strike all this time for another 1%." After fourteen weeks of strife, the steel strike was at an end, for Corby's steelworkers it was all over. With hindsight, many like Tom McConnachie, later to become Mayor of Corby, regretted the strike and called it; "all a waste of time, the plant was going to close anyway. There were complaints afterwards that people had lost money on their pensions." Train driver Edwin Andrews; "We had no money coming in for three months and we were all concerned about what we were going to do after the closure. I was broken hearted when it did close as I loved working there." Ex Blastfurnaceman Jimmy Kane; "People knew that regardless of what happened with the strike, they were going to be made redundant." Kelvin Glendenning, leader of Corby Council recalled; "It was very depressing because not only did the steelworks close but so did much of the surrounding subsidiary industries."  



Corby's hottest band Energy decision to 'give up the day job' just as the unemployment figures were set to rocket was a brave one, but who could blame them on taking the chance? For the four young lads, some far reaching horizons and exciting times were ahead of them, as well as their share of embarrassing moments, as guitarist Iain Wetherell admitted: " We played a venue in Peterborough and during the AC/DC number Whole Lotta Rosie, Boz our bass player jumped up in the air too much on the one spot and eventually the boards on the stage gave way, and he went straight through it! Corby Civic Centre was yet another cringe maker. Flapper (Steve Fulton) did his usual routine of jumping off the stage and running around the hall, singing and whipping up the fever. He then ran back to the stage and couldn't get back up! The Civic stage was a bit higher than most of the others. He had to sheepishly walk to the side and get back on via the stairs. Everybody took the pee out of him as you'd expect in Corby! We used to have an intro, the Thunderbirds 54321 tune, till one day we decided to change it to an air siren. Unfortunately, the first time we used it, at an air base, it caused a panic and they thought it was an air raid! A red alert! They weren't amused."

Iain; "We secured a publishing deal with Nigel Gray, who had seen us play at the Ad Lib Club, London. Nigel was the producer of the first three Police albums and Message In A Bottle, Roxanne. We demoed all our songs in the same studios the Police had used which had a big impact on me as I was even then, interested in the recording and producing side of the business. A showcase was arranged for us at the famous Marquee Club in Wardour Street, home of the British blues in the 60's. It was a great experience but it was a shithole! Three coach loads of our fans traveled down to support us. Unfortunately, none of the invited Record Companies bothered to turn up. This soured our relationship with Nigel. We were disappointed and disillusioned but later on we realised it was just typical, it wasn't particularly Nigel's fault, it's just the MUSIC BUSINESS!!"


A highlight of the summer was the appearance of punk band The Stranglers, along with a band called The Baldheads, at Corby Festival Hall on July 23rd, recalled here by Stuart Allen; "The show was part of the 'Who Wants the World' Tour, though it was advertised as a 'Benefit for Steel Workers' gig. It was 35p to get in, at a time where normally tickets were around £2 or £3. They ran out of 'proper' tickets on the night and I was given one that had Corby Swimming Pool on it!! After a couple of numbers they stopped playing as some Punks down the front were spitting at them. Corby kids thought that's what punks did but the band said they were going to quit if the spitting carried on. The show eventually got moving again and the spitting stopped, though fights broke out with a mob from Northampton. The security got heavy handed when one of them was given a 'Corby welcome'. I remember Ricky Berry getting a bloody nose in all the chaos. Afterwards the Northampton mob was chased into Woollies car park and had their faces and bus windows 're-arranged'."

Problems also occurred at Corby Stardust Centre during a Wrestling Night when local wrestler Tony Rowney was fighting Rushden's Ken Joyce. Steelworker Rowney kneed Joyce in a delicate area and was disqualified, and left the ring to a chorus of boos, pursued by angry wrestling fans, including the obligatory 'granny', who belted him over the head with her walking stick! Before she could repeat the act she was bundled away by stewards. She then complained afterwards that she had lost the rubber from the end of her stick. Arthur Pitcher was bemused by the incident; "We usually get some crowd trouble, but this is a first! In a few weeks we have Japanese wrestler Yasi Fuji here - and the last time he was here he poked a spectator in the eye. We will have to have another look at our public liability insurance policy before that event."

Kettering was gaining its share of adverse publicity also following a Radio One Roadshow at Wicksteed Park presented by DJ Peter Powell. Thousands turned out for the show which was broadcast live and nationwide, bringing the town to a standstill at one stage. It was afterwards when trouble flared up with gangs running riot, ripping fencing up and fighting each other. Thirty youths from Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough were arrested by the police. A double decker bus in Kettering Bus station was also held up by police and the occupants arrested for questioning after a chocolate machine was vandalised. 


Many felt it was just the beginning; that the danger signs were there, the whole of Corby Works would die in the 1980s. 

Patrick Foynes (Rolling Mills), who lost £1700 through the strike said; "It's alright for the tubeworkers, they've got a job to go back to. But I'm finished and that is that."

Pickets were sickened by a three fold setback. First was the announcement in the Budget that strikers' families were to have their social security entitlement slashed by £12 a week. Second was the news that BSC chiefs were to get rises of £340 a week and the third was that the Lever Inquiry would only recommend a rise for workers of 15.5%

There was strong resentment against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's 'terror tactics', complaints that the original offer of 2% wage rise was deliberate strike provocation so why they should victimise young families by cutting down on social security payments? 'It just shifts power into the hands of the bosses who can force strikes when they feel like it and make us suffer.'

BSC claimed they were saving £13 million a week in wages while the strike was on - yet were still losing £18 million a week. The ISTC estimated the strike cost BSC £500 million whereas the dispute would have been avoided for less than £50 million.

A kick in the teeth for long term workers came with the news of a loophole in redundancy payments. Men with 40 years service taking home £3000 instead of the £15,000 they were expecting. BSC claimed that men and women who reached retirement age by March 31st 1982 were excluded from lucrative severance pay packets. This only came to light when men from the Coke Ovens and Minerals collected their 'golden handshakes'. Loco driver Jack Langley couldn't believe it; "We've been led to believe we'd collect a lot more than the £2226 I received." Unions demanded action for the BSC to pay up. Corby MP Bill Homewood called for an adjournment debate in the House of Commons as support for the 600 workers grew. Any hope was dashed by Charles deVilliers; "It would cost the company many thousands of pounds." 

A temporary reprieve for the Corby Works came on April 2nd when workers agreed to go back to work to help BSC out of a crisis though 'trouble was expected' with steelworkers refusing to work with lorry drivers who had crossed the picket lines during the long strike. On April 21st the last iron was tapped from No. 4 blast furnace and the next day, the last steel was produced at the BOS plant.

 

 

 

 

 

The Curse of Thatcher - 25,000 Jobs Threatened By British Steel Collapse

- The Logical Conclusion of the Defeat of the 1980 Strike - 23 May 2019

Nearly 5,000 steelworkers’ jobs and another 20,000 in supply industries could be wiped out after Tuesday’s announcement that British Steel is insolvent.

The company, owned by “vulture fund” Greybull Capital, is the second largest steel producer in the UK after Tata. Its main plant is in the town of Scunthorpe in the Northeast of England where steel production goes back 150 years and where more than 3,000 workers are employed. Other jobs are threatened at the company’s plants in Skinningrove, north Yorkshire and at Blaydon, in Gateshead. The firm also has a research and development facility in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

British Steel was declared insolvent after talks with the Conservative government broke down Tuesday evening over an emergency state loan of around £30 million. The High Court ordered the “compulsory liquidation” of British Steel, appointing the Official Receiver to oversee the process along with the accountancy firm EY. Steelworks at Scunthorpe [Credit: Ashley Lightfoot]

Every job lost will be a tragedy for workers and their families in the areas of the country, long blighted by deindustrialisation, joblessness and low-paid work. Scunthorpe, with a population of just 83,000, is heavily reliant on employment at the plant. Unemployment in North Lincolnshire stands at 4.8 percent and would almost double to 8.4 percent (twice the national average) with the closure of the Scunthorpe plant. Workers at present earn around £36,000 ($45,528), compared to the average wage in Scunthorpe of just over £22,000 ($27,827).

Employees turning up for work on Wednesday were uncertain whether they would still be in work in 24 hours. Those who spoke to the media said they were being kept in the dark about what was happening. A 19-year-old employee expressed the fears of many, “It's going to be terrible for the town, everyone in Scunthorpe has a family member who works here so the effect will be huge.”

One of British Steel’s main suppliers, Hargreaves Services, a logistics firm based in the northeast of England, said that 170 jobs could be impacted if British Steel closes.

The Scunthorpe mill is one of only two integrated steel producers in the UK, the other being Tata’s plant in Port Talbot, South Wales that employs more than 4,000 workers.

British Steel’s insolvency threatens to be a virtual coup de grâce against a once powerful section of the working class. The steel industry was nationalised by the post-World War II Labour government and then renationalised by Labour in 1967, after the 1953 Tory Churchill government took it back into private hands. In 1967, the nationalised British Steel Corporation employed a workforce of 268,000, with steel producing plants such as Consett, Corby and Ravenscraig becoming household names. Sheffield was once world famous as “Steel City,” with 150,000 workers employed there in the industry.

The death knell of the steel industry was sounded by the Thatcher Conservative government that privatised it in 1988, followed by one plant closing after another. The Tories and steel corporations could not have decimated thousands of jobs were it not for the defeat of the workers in the 1980 national steel strike.

According to the GMB trade union, more than 150,000 steel jobs have been lost in the UK since the 1980s. In 1981, steel still employed 186,000 workers. Only 32,000 remain today. Entire regions were economically and socially devastated by steel plant shutdowns and the parallel closure of the coal industry—following the defeat of the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85.

In the nearly four decades since the steel strike, 40,000 steelworkers lost their jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber alone and 25,800 in the West Midlands.

The short sighted labour union misleaders have insisted for decades that workers cannot oppose demands for redundancies, pay and pension cuts and productivity hikes because sacrifices are needed to keep “our” UK steel industry afloat in a cutthroat global steel market. The union misleaders think like capitalists, and wish they were capitalists.

The union bureaucratic misleaders have repeated the mantra on behalf of the few capitalist parasites who run Tata and Greybull to this day, even with virtually no industry left to save. When Greybull bought Tata’s Long Products division in 2016, including the Scunthorpe plant, the Community union general secretary, Roy Rickhuss, dubbed the formation of British Steel as a “new chapter in the course of the UK steel industry.” All can see how this chapter ends.

Greybull initially returned a profit, but only after collaborating with Community and the other steel unions in imposing a restructuring programme involving a cut in pay and pensions.

Last autumn, British Steel cut 400 managerial, professional and administrative jobs across its operations in the UK, Ireland, France and the Netherlands. In response, Community declared that the firm’s decision, having just reported first quarter profits of £21 million, “will come as a body-blow to the workforce who have already made huge sacrifices to make the business sustainable.” Nevertheless, it declared, the job losses came during "challenging times for UK steelmakers" and the union misleaders only implored the government to step in to “Save our Steel.”

Greybull executives hailed their intimate relationship with the union misleaders in a statement on the insolvency, declaring, “The workforce, the trade unions and the management team have worked closely together in their determination to strengthen the business”.

What the union misleaders were defending was an asset-stripping operation by individuals previously involved in the collapse of two other firms employing thousands of workers, Monarch Airlines and Comet. Their collapse led to the taxpayers footing bills running into tens of millions of pounds.

Greybull was able, with the support of the union misleaders, to receive grants and loans of hundreds of millions of pounds from the public purse, utilising the name of “British Steel” to justify self-enrichment by a handful of multimillionaires. The last loan, handed over by the government only a few weeks ago, was worth £120 million. It was made necessary as a result of British Steel losing vast sums through a gamble involving the selling of additional carbon emission credits and will likely never be paid back.

After presiding over a disaster threatening the livelihoods of British Steel workers, the union misleaders and Labour Party now demand—again in the “national interest”—that Prime Minister Theresa May’s crisis-ridden government take temporary control of what remains of Greybull’s operations, before organising its sale to yet another private corporation. Under conditions of a raging trade war, with the US levelling tariffs against the world’s largest steel producer, China, a glut of steel on the world market and a fall in demand, the only company that would even consider taking on the Scunthorpe plant would be a Greybull Mark 2!

The union misleaders and Labour’s strategy chimes almost word for word with that of the Financial Times, which editorialised, “If both of the remaining large furnaces close, Britain’s defence industry will become almost entirely dependent on foreign producers or smaller outfits that buy raw steel from elsewhere.” It advised, “The government should keep the assets running, and consider injecting further capital itself. Then a well-planned sale into private hands will be needed….”

British Steel workers should reject the reactionary nationalist programme of the pro-capitalist union misleaders and Labour Party of relying on the good graces of the Tories and another profiteering outfit to save their jobs.

 

Rotherham South Yorkshire British Steel Strike 1980 - YouTube