by Richie Venton
The timing could not have been more obscenely appropriate, as a symbol of the cold class warfare facing working class people under Tory rule, and indeed under the rule of capital over labour in general.
Hot on the heels of the destructive closure of SSI steel plant in Redcar, shedding 2,200 jobs, came the devastation of Tata Steel’s closure announcement, slashing 1,200 jobs in Scunthorpe, Motherwell and Cambuslang. These closures threaten the permanent end of the steel industry in Scotland.
In both cases, SSI and Tata owners blamed a flood of cheap Chinese steel on the world market for their decisions to wipe out livelihoods for whole communities.
Royal Banquets for Rich – the Bullet for Workers
Meanwhile, Cameron’s upper-class regime hosted and banqueted dictatorial Chinese President Xi Jinping at Buckingham Palace. Venison from the Queen’s Balmoral estate, west of Scotland Turbot, lobster mousse and 1977 vintage port were some of the items on the menu at the royal state banquet – with callous disregard for the thousands of steelworkers’ families who meantime face the prospect of not being able to put a meal on the family table if these closures are not resisted and defeated.
Steel Town – Not Ghost Town
Lanarkshire used to be one of the world centres of steel production, with highly skilled, proud workers, who fought through their unions to conquer relatively good conditions. Ravenscraig was once the biggest hot-strip steel producer in Europe. Now it does not exist. And plans to build a new town on its former site have been abandoned, but only after £230m was spent on the first phase!
The Dalzell Steel and Iron Works opened in Motherwell in 1872. Clydebridge steelworks in Cambuslang has been there since 1887, and produced steel plates for many of the Clyde-built ships of fame.
They were once part of the nationalised British Steel Corporation, which Thatcher’s government targeted in their early crusade to smash the unions and privatise public property for the benefit of the profiteering class. First Corus, then Indian-based Tata Steel took over the plants now facing closure. At their peak, 12,000 workers produced vital supplies and profits in the two plants; as one worker told journalists, they used to allow 15 minutes at either end of the shift to get to and from their place of work in the plant, such was the crowd. Now the remaining 270 have been given 45 days’ notice of closure.
A Desert in the Making[x_pullquote type=”right”]The SSP will do everything in our powers to combine with the unions and anyone else willing to fight to ‘save our steel’.[/x_pullquote]These workers and their families face the devastation of lost jobs, in an area turned into an industrial desert by the conscious destruction of manufacturing by Thatcher’s pro-finance capitalist regime, added to by this week’s announcement of 1,100 council job losses in North Lanarkshire. These two jobs slaughters combined threaten to double the numbers unemployed in the Motherwell district.
But the area, and indeed the whole of Scotland, also faces the danger of losing the accumulated skills of these workers, in a nation already suffering a skills shortage of monumental proportions. So it is crucial to the next generation – and this one – that a determined fight is waged to save every job, save the skills, and save production at the steelworks. The SSP will do everything in our powers to combine with the unions and anyone else willing to fight to ‘save our steel’.
Steel Glut – Crisis of Overproduction
The capitalist rich and their Tory puppets spout all the usual platitudes about sympathy for the workforces, whilst excusing the closures. Cameron took a break from banqueting the Chinese dictator to crush hopes of a UK government rescue by spelling out that there’s a world glut of steel production. According to the figures he used, the surplus global supply of steel is 50 times larger than the UK’s entire steel production.
That explains the catastrophic collapse of steel prices on the world market, to half their previous levels. And that of course is a central feature of the system Cameron and his likes defends to the hilt – capitalism. Because it’s a system based on competition between rival capitalist corporations battling for the biggest possible share of the market at the highest possible levels of profit for each of them, the system goes through a phase of massive production, until it goes beyond what can be sold. A crisis of overproduction.
The current steel crisis is a classic example of this rotten, unplanned system, where the private profits of a few owners comes first and always – whilst workers, families, communities and whole nations are thrown to the wolves.
Rigging the Market
Other specific factors have added to the catastrophe facing steelworkers in this country. The massive growth of the Chinese economy includes huge output of steel. As part of their drive to become the biggest economic world power, their steel corporations are quite prepared to dump dirt-cheap imports on competing nations, including at prices below production costs, so as to win greater world market domination.
And Chinese steel companies have pulled off tax-avoidance tricks by adding alloying elements to their steel reinforcement bar, such as boron and chromium, despite boron being notorious for causing severe welding failure, but providing no benefits to the rebar. Why do they do this? Because it earns these companies a tax rebate of 9-13% from the Chinese government.
Chinese Workers not to Blame
That of course is not the fault of Chinese workers. Chinese workers have as much right to jobs as anyone else on the planet. It’s the fault of the system. It’s the very nature of capitalism. It’s part of the DNA of profit-seeking, tax-dodging corporations the wide world over, not just in China. As is the ruthless exploitation of Chinese workers by their employers.
Additionally, the British state has done precious little to support its own steel industry, refusing for example to match the subsidies for energy costs issued to energy-intensive sectors by the governments of other European competitors. The steel union, Community, for example is demanding that the UK government fast-tracks the £220m per annum fund they have for this subsidy.
Tasks for Steel Task Force
The Scottish government has swiftly set up a Scottish Steel Task Force. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly pledged that the SNP administration “will leave no stone unturned” in their efforts to save Scottish steel, a phrase imitated in every comment by every SNP Minister since. The SNP government is focusing on finding “a new commercial owner”. As the STUC rightly said, it would be totally unacceptable if the Task Force was deployed to just find alternative jobs for redundant steel workers. It must instead pursue ways to save the industry and the skills of the workforce.
This issue has a history in previous closure situations. For example, when Motorola shut down its West Lothian plant, instead of finding ways to integrate the expertise of these electronics workers in a government industrial strategy, they were instead ‘supported’ by a government-sponsored Task Force in pursuit of other job vacancies outwith electronics. As the SSP’s national co-spokesperson Colin Fox often tells me, the next time he met the Motorola workers’ representative (they didn’t have an actual trade union) he was sweeping the forecourt in Harthill service station.
Another Private Owner?
No socialist or trade unionist would hesitate to warmly welcome a new buyer for the Tata steelworks, provided they kept every worker in a job, with no loss of pay, terms and conditions. It has now emerged that in their desperation to hold onto their jobs, workers offered to accept pay cuts and reduced conditions to Tata Steel. But why should workers pay the price of a crisis in steel that is not of their making?
However, putting the entire focus of a rescue mission on attracting another capitalist firm is fraught with pitfalls, to put it mildly. If that’s all the Scottish government and its Task Force looked at for the remainder of the 45 days consultation period, it could end in a slow death for the industry and its skilled workers, if no such buyer steps forward.
This health warning is necessary, because such a buyer wouldn’t be investing in the steel plants as an act of charity; in keeping with every capitalist firm, they’d be doing so on the calculation of making a hefty profit. And if the world steel glut cuts off the path to such profiteering, what private sector buyer is likely to emerge? Already, Scottish billionaire Jim McColl, who took over Ferguson’s shipyard in Port Glasgow when it faced closure last year, has ruled out buying the steelworks. He made the point that if a major outfit like Tata Steel couldn’t make it work, he sees no scope for “smaller entrepreneurial Scottish involvement”.
The human, social and symbolic importance of saving the steelworks demands urgent, radical action by the government. Whilst pounding the Westminster cabal to save our steel is right to do, the unions and communities affected shouldn’t store much faith in that producing favourable action.
But in contrast to Cameron’s government of, by and for the rich, the Scottish government has a sweeping mandate to ‘stand up for Scotland’. When the First Minister promises to ‘leave no stone unturned’ there is one glaring exception so far: the option of the government stepping in and taking ownership of the Tata Steel plants is one ‘stone left unturned’, at least so far. Yet that is the key and most practical solution.
They did so with Prestwick airport in October 2013, buying it for £1 – but rejected keeping it in public control.
[x_blockquote cite=”Nicola Sturgeon” type=”left”]“Our hope and intention is to return a thriving Prestwick back into private sector ownership”[/x_blockquote]
If, as I heard one economist on the BBC object, Tata Steel wasn’t inclined to sell the Lanarkshire plants for the token sum of £1, so what! They’ve profited as a capitalist enterprise long enough, with virtually no publicity over the fact that in the quarter up to June 2015, Tata Steel Ltd doubled their profits compared to the same quarter in 2014 – to £76.6million. But now they want to up sticks and run, leaving an industrial desert behind in Lanarkshire.
So the Scottish government should take ownership of the steelworks, as a public asset, with public ownership rather than public funding of the profits of another profiteering capitalist ‘entrepreneur’ – even if one that is interested actually exists!
A Plan of Production
In turn that throws up the issue of how the steelworks could survive, as a public asset, if the globe is flooded with a glut of steel, a capitalist crisis of overproduction.
I don’t pretend to be a steel technologist! But surely the expertise of the workers involved, their trade union, plus industry experts could be urgently pulled together to devise a plan of production? Surely the Scottish government could use the Task Force to fully involve workers and unions in drafting a plan of what types of steel products the existing technology and skills set of the workforce could be used to link up with a wider industrial strategy?
Options for Socially Useful Production
For instance, to produce steel for a desperately needed public sector house-building programme, to tackle the crime of 157,000 families in Scotland being stuck on the housing waiting list? Or production of equipment for flood barriers? Or marine engineering equipment and wind turbines, as part of developing a huge public sector green industry? Or steel products to build the fleets and infrastructure for a vastly expanded public transport system?
Nationalisation of Scotland’s steel industry, with a plan of production for local, socially useful need, would help bypass the obstacles of the global glut of steel, created by a system that produces purely for maximum profit.
Wider questions also arise from this catastrophic situation, including the socialist case for democratic public ownership of not just steel, or the construction industry, or transport – but also the energy industry, renewables included. One of Tata Steel’s excuses for closure is high electricity prices – which in turn is largely caused by the profiteering of private capitalist ownership of energy supply. So the longer-term solutions to the human tragedy of workers being chucked on the scrapheap – when it suits the balance sheets of capitalist employers -would require democratic planning of industry, energy and services – something only possible with socialist democratic public ownership.
Solidarity and Socialism
We need to rally round the workers, their families and the communities faced with ruination by the threatened wipeout of an industry with over 150 years’ history in Scotland.
And the best contribution those of us not directly employed can make is to help popularise the rational alternative of nationalisation to save all steel jobs, skills and production – and put pressure on the elected government to wield the powers and authority they have been invested with by voters to carry out this measure before the furnaces cool and die.
Main Photo: Motherwell & Wishaw SSP.
Richie Venton is the national workplace organiser of the Scottish Socialist Party