Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 51 Number 19, June 19, 2021 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

The steel crisis

A Matter of Serious Concern for the Workers

The British steel sector and its supply chains were debated in Westminster Hall on June 9. The debate was introduced by Shadow Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Stephen Kinnock. That the subject was raised reflected the ongoing crisis in the steel industry, the latest events being the near collapse of Liberty Steel and its recent decision to sell off a number of its plants [1]. It is clear that workers in the steel industry are facing further wrecking of steel production.

The steel industry is a key component of the socialised economy. Steel is a commodity of fundamental importance, required in all sectors of the economy and day to day life. Its manufacture has become increasingly spoken of as a foundation industry by those who recognise it as necessary and seek to defend it, with the meaning that it underpins the socialised economy, and without it the economy is built on sand.

Destruction of foundation industries is akin to the destruction of the means of production. From the perspective of the workers, who have the project to build society and an economy aimed at the well-being of all, this is unconscionable and they need to be defended. Further, a degree of self-reliance is needed in foundation industries to protect such an economy from the vagaries of markets under the sway of the global oligarchs, which act at will without a moment's thought for the local economies where they operate, and which shift production around the world as suits them. It is the workers who have an interest in the future of society and they will not see the steel industry being wiped out altogether.

Though the need to safeguard the future of steel production has been raised in parliament (and even then, marginalised to a Westminster Hall debate), the question has to be asked: where is the voice of the workers? Where are the mechanisms whereby the workers can discuss these matters of serious concern from their own independent standpoint, and where that voice becomes an agency for change?

Workers are the actual producers and they actually live in society and depend critically on the socialised economy. Without their voice, the discussion is directed along lines that are set by the cartel party system and their prevailing capital-centred, neoliberal outlook.

It is exactly this outlook that has been facilitating the gradual death of the steel industry. Its destruction, privatisation and abandonment began in earnest under Margaret Thatcher. Since then, there have been successive closures and take-overs in the steel industry, all under the banner of neoliberal "free trade", "commercial decision-making", "being competitive in the global marketplace", "globalisation", and so on.

This outlook pays no attention to what an economy serving the people's needs should be like and the role of foundation industries. 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 British steel industry is going through a crisis that threatens its very existence. Rather than take either practical emergency measures or make longer term plans to safeguard the present and future of this essential part of the socialised economy, the government is essentially claiming that nothing can be done. The government, and much of the media, are promoting the view that the British steel industry is struggling to be "competitive" against "cheap imports" of steel. On this view, the decision by steel monopolies to sell off or close plants in Britain is simply business, a commercial decision. The problem is that the market is not a level playing field, so goes the argument. The blame is then laid with market conditions, or the "costs" of production in Britain. It is conveniently forgotten that the workers have continued to make concession after concession in the name of keeping the steel industry producing and "competitive".

Furthermore, the ruling outlook is manifestly chauvinistic and connected to British empire-building aims. Not only is the blame laid with "foreign" imports, but the necessity for steel is connected with the militarisation of the economy. Kinnock went as far as calling for a "patriotic procurement policy", bemoaning the Ministry of Defence contract to buy Type 26 frigates for the Royal Navy built with Swedish steel.

In general, the whole debate was framed by both Labour's Kinnock and Holly Mumby-Croft, Conservative MP for Scunthorpe, in terms of "British steelmakers" and "their competitors" (specifically French and German), calling for the retention of protective tariffs, and what would "provide a better competitive environment for UK steelmakers". Kinnock also called for a government-industry "partnership" to "rebuild our manufacturing base".

The aim of the workers is independent of the terms of this debate. Their demand is for a steel industry that serves the socialised economy, an economy directed to the public well-being. Workers need to take up an independent programme to build a socialised economy, and as part of that, defend its vital components such as steel production.

Rejecting the fraud of international competition and the militarisation of the economy, the working class with its independent programme has the project of becoming the decision-making power and building such an economy that has the aim of well-being at its heart. Such a pro-social economy requires international trade for mutual benefit rather than competition. If public well-being is not put at the centre of considerations of the economy, then what is the aim of the economy? A new direction would be to plan for an economy that produces for people's needs, which entails increasing the manufacturing base. Steel manufacturing is a vital part of the economy and should be maintained. For a steel industry that serves the socialised economy!

1. For coverage and analysis of the crisis at Liberty Steel, see:
"Liberty Steel in Crisis: Need for an Outcome that Favours Communities and the Socialised Economy", Workers' Weekly, April 3, 2021

For Your Information: Response of the Trade Unions

In May, it had been announced that Liberty Steel Group intends to sell Stocksbridge and its downstream plants, the narrow strip mill at Brinsworth and Performance Steels at West Bromwich.

The Community trade union joined Unite the Union and GMB on May 20 to call for Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss to intervene and extend steel safeguards.

The Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate (part of the Department for International Trade) had on May 19 recommended to the government that the measures on half of all steel products should be terminated in June. There will now be a short period of consultation with industry, and between Government Departments before a final decision is made by the Secretary of State for International Trade.

Responding to the decision, Alasdair McDiarmid, Operations Director of the steelworkers' union Community, said:

"This is the first test of the Government's commitment to our steel industry post-Brexit and they're failing it. The Government must reconsider this appalling decision which threatens jobs and puts the future of our industry at risk.

"This Government has had plenty of warm words for steelworkers but now it's come to the crunch we're being left exposed to a catastrophic surge of cheap foreign imports. Many steelworkers put their trust in the Tories but this announcement betrays them and makes a complete mockery of the levelling up agenda."

Shadow Business Minister Seema Malhotra on June 8 joined representatives from Liberty Steel and the trade unions Community and Unite on a virtual visit to the Stocksbridge steelworks.

Alun Davies, Community National Organiser, said:

"Stocksbridge and its downstream plants are strategically important businesses vital to our country's defence, energy and aerospace sectors. The future for these businesses must be secured, and all jobs must be protected.

"We know that with the right framework of support the steel industry has a bright future at the core of a low carbon economy. But achieving this is going to require decisive action in areas like electricity prices and public procurement, so our steelworkers can compete on a level playing field with European steelmakers.

"As we leave the EU, invest billions in infrastructure, and host COP26, this is the year we must see major game-changing interventions unlocking the potential of our industry. Steelmakers like Liberty Steel Stocksbridge are vital businesses that provide good jobs in parts of the country that really need them."


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