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The announcement of Tata Steel at the end of March that it was seeking a buyer for its steel plants in Wales, Scotland and England, and that it had rejected a turnaround plan for its Port Talbot site, was a further devastating blow to the steel industry in Britain. The fight is on to prevent this steel industry being wiped out altogether on the altar of imperialist "free trade". Steel workers, with the support of many sections of working people, are rallying to this fight. They are becoming increasingly aware that "trade wars" bring nothing but disaster, and what is required to turn things around is the independent programme and action of the working class to bring about a human-centred economy from its present direction of serving monopoly right.
The fight to save the steel industry is in some ways reminiscent of the fight to safeguard the future of the health service. For many years the neo-liberal agenda has gained momentum. With the health service, successive governments have taken it through a series of watersheds which have been decried as the end of a health service serving the claims of the people for health care as of right. With the steel industry, its destruction, privatisation and abandonment began in earnest under Margaret Thatcher and Ian McGregor, with the mantras that the industry needed massive restructuring and cut-backs. Such was their success, the same team turned to the destruction of the coal industry. Since then there have been successive closures and take-overs in the steel industry, all under the banner of neo-liberal "free trade", "commercial decision-making", being "competitive in the global marketplace", "globalisation" and the like.
Various unions and other voices on behalf of working people have called for nationalisation or temporary nationalisation of the steel industry, and the government has so far refused. This, of course, is of marked contrast to the government's treatment of the banks at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. Two views on the economy have never been more marked.
There is a need for steel in all sectors of the economy, but the government does no more than pay lip-service at best to this requirement. The neo-liberal outlook takes no cognisance of what a balanced economy serving the people's needs should be like. Nor does it pay heed to the dignity of labour and the life of communities. If an industry cannot compete, let it go to the wall, accompanied by many crocodile tears and assertions that the government is doing all it can. The conception of a national sovereign economy serving the people's needs is itself thrown on the scrap-heap. Nor does it matter in terms of the neo-liberal outlook and programme that the workers have continued to make concession after concession in the name of keeping the steel industry producing and "competitive".
For decade after decade now, successive governments have been warned of the damage to the economies of Wales, Scotland and of Britain as a whole with the decimation of the steel industry. At the time of Thatcher, there was still the British Steel Corporation when Ian McGregor was appointed in 1980 as its chair. In the hey-day of the social welfare state, the British Steel Corporation had brought into state ownership 90% of British steel-making in 1967. Under McGregor, the industry was "restructured" and then privatised in order, it was claimed, for the industry to survive, and the workforce was more than halved from 268,500 to 130,000. This was not without a bitter battle by the steelworkers who fought against the dismantling of the industry with a 13-week national strike.
The inexorable process of mergers, take-overs and closures proceeded with the merger of British Steel and Hoogovens in October 1999 to become Corus, at the time Europe's biggest steel company and the world's third largest steel producer. Yet this meant 10,000 steel workers in Britain losing their jobs in the name of "terrific cost savings in overhead costs, purchase, logistics and adjusted best practices". But the results were plummeting stock market valuations, opposition from the steel workers to a pay-the-rich orientation and job losses and a drop in productivity.
Tata of India acquired the Corus Group in April 2007, which was named Tata Steel Europe in September 2010. At its formation, Corus operated primary steelmaking plants (blast furnaces) in Port Talbot, Wales, and Scunthorpe and Teesside in England, as well as IJmuiden in the Netherlands, with additional steelmaking facilities in Rotherham (electric arc furnace), as well as downstream steel production of both long and flat steel. The Teesside plant was mothballed and sold in 2009/2010. The long products division was offered for sale in 2015, with preliminary agreement reached with Greybull Capital in 2016 for acquisition of most of Tata Steel Europe's long product units.1
In this context, it can be seen that to lay the blame for Tata's decision on the "dumping" of Chinese steel is completely misguided. If the steel industry were run to serve the needs of the economy, then the issue would not be to ascertain where the cheapest steel could be bought from. If international trade were conducted not on the basis of neo-liberal imperialist "free trade", but from the motive of trade for mutual benefit and building a human-centred economy, then the cheapest steel on the international market would not be the decisive consideration. Nor would it be a question of imposing import tariffs, as if the economy could not be put under conscious control. Decisions are being taken on the steel industry in Britain which are not under the control of any public authority in this country. And the government claims it cannot intervene to rectify this situation. Decision-making must lie in the hands of a public authority here, whether that is for Wales, Scotland or the economy of Britain as a whole, and not in the hands of the monopolies of the European Union or anywhere else.
In terms of international trade, the alternative lies in affirming the sovereignty of each state's public authority over the direction of its economy and society as a whole. On that basis, the people of each country can develop their co-operation and unity which expresses their interests and not that of the monopolies; on that basis sovereign peoples can develop their own institutions of international mutual benefit.
The workers' movement must reject the call to direct their anger against China, and direct it instead against the ruling elite in Britain who are absolving themselves of any responsibility for the steel industry or the health of the economy, or indeed public services. They are demonstrating that they could not care less about these considerations. In particular, they could not care less about the fate of working people with their decisions. What matters to them is what is termed "commercial viability", obtaining the cheapest deals, worming their way into opportunities in the world market, and so on. And what has this outlook demonstrated since 1980? The complete wrecking of the economy, disregard of the claims of working people and unravelling of the social fabric. Particularly obnoxious in this respect are the chauvinist claims that the government is being dictated to by foreign interests, when the issue is actually that it is refusing to build a sovereign economy at home. Let working people here decide the direction of the steel industry and the economy as a whole, and let them give support to other countries making their own decisions and building their own sovereign economies! How many economies has Britain itself wrecked with its colonial and neo-colonial projects and its imperialist free trade! The "freedoms" it claims, for instance the "free movement of capital, goods, services and labour" are not to create jobs, spur investment and promote economic growth as neo-liberalism asserts, but to preserve the dominance of the global monopolies and the financial oligarchy.
Of concern also to the steel-workers is the talk about the "pension liabilities", which means that the government puts the rightful claims of the workers to their pensions to the bottom of its concerns. Business Secretary Sajid Javid has said that the government rules out taking responsibility for the workers' pensions, and the contravention of EU law has been cited as the reason. Indeed, EU competition law is firmly against any restructuring or rescue packages from governments that are aimed to support companies facing financial difficulties or collapse.
It is becoming increasingly glaring that the campaign to Save Our Steel means that the working class has to take an alternative, independent stand on these matters. Workers must not get into these squabbles for instance about whether Chinese steel or EU steel is better or is the cause of undermining the steel industry here. Workers must take the stand that what is required are sovereign economies, and a steel industry that serves the socialised economy. There are many projects, such as rail and construction which require a thriving steel industry. The government is and has been refusing to make the emergency and long-term investments which the industry needs. The working class must draw the conclusion that the social economy must be brought under the control of those who live, work and produce for it if it is going to be capable of uninterrupted extended reproduction, where more is put into the economy than is taken out and the people's wellbeing is put as the motive force of the economy.
A new direction is needed for the economy with a thriving steel industry at its centre. Public control is needed over the steel industry, control by the actual producers. The Workers' Opposition must fight for and create public opinion for this new direction. The working class as a whole must reject the neo-liberal agenda and take the stand that their fate is in their own hands.
Save Our Steel!
For a New Direction for the Economy!
1 "Tata Steel Europe", Wikipedia