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Port Talbot steelworkers vote to go on strike over planned job losses

11 Apr 2024 7 minute read
Photo Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Steelworkers have voted to strike in protest at planned job losses at Tata.

Unite said around 1,500 of its members based in Port Talbot and Llanwern in South Wales backed industrial action “decisively”.

The union is fighting Tata’s plans to shut down blast furnaces and replace them with more environmentally friendly electric arc furnaces.

Unite said it will be the first time in more than 40 years that Port Talbot steelworkers go on strike.

Unite said Tata has other choices after the union secured a commitment from Labour that it will invest £3 billion in UK steel, compared with the £500 million pledged by the current Government.

‘Historic’

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “This is an historic vote. Not since the 1980s have steel workers voted to strike in this way.

“This yes vote has happened despite Tata’s threats that if workers took strike action, enhanced redundancy packages would be withdrawn.

“Unite will be at the forefront of the fight to save steelmaking in Wales. We will support steel by all and every means.

“Other EU countries are transitioning their steel industries while retaining and growing their capacity because they know steel has a bright future – a 10-fold increase in demand is predicted in the coming years.

“In the UK, Tata’s plans and those of the Government reflect the short-term thinking of a clapped-out disinterested government marking time to a general election.

“In contrast Labour have done the right thing and committed £3 billion to UK steel following intense discussions with Unite.

“The average age of a Unite Port Talbot worker is 36. Workers and the communities of Port Talbot and Llanwern are looking to the years ahead.

“They know that with the right choices steelmaking capacity and jobs can be kept and the benefits of growing the industry grasped.

“In the crucial weeks to come, Tata’s workers and Unite will put up picket lines to prevent the company from taking this disastrous path.”

‘Maximum impact’

Unite said dates for strike action scheduled to cause “maximum impact” will be announced soon.

The union’s Wales regional secretary Peter Hughes said: “Tata has employed everything from bribes to threats to discourage our members from industrial action.

“They will not be intimidated into standing by while Tata attempts to carry out an act of devastating industrial vandalism against their jobs and communities, inflicting untold harm on the Welsh economy and the UK’s national interest.

“Our members have their union’s absolute support in striking to stop these cuts – Unite is backing them every step of the way.”

The Community union is currently balloting its members at Tata for industrial action.

The union said the company’s proposals for decarbonisation “on the cheap” would lead to the closure of blast furnace 4 at Port Talbot, the pausing of steel production for three years, the closure of Llanwern’s cold mill, and the building of an “untested“ electric arc furnace with no secured scrap supply.

General secretary Roy Rickhuss said: “Tata’s bad deal for steel would be a hammer blow for our steel industry. It would see vital skilled jobs lost, and dirty steel products imported from overseas.

“The loss of primary steelmaking capacity would make Britain an outlier on the G20, and would weaken national security in an increasingly uncertain world.

“That’s to say nothing of the devastation that would be wrought on communities built on steel in South Wales and beyond.

“Tata’s plan is bad for jobs, bad for the environment and bad for Britain. It’s unviable, undeliverable and unacceptable, and our members won’t be bullied or intimidated into accepting it.

“Industrial action is always a last resort for any worker, but our members know that we now have to fight to save our industry, and we must every tool at our disposal to apply pressure on Tata to change course.

“We are urging our members to vote ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes’ for industrial action, and we urge the company to look again at our multi-union plan – a credible alternative to Tata’s plan which safeguards primary steelmaking capacity and avoids compulsory redundancies.”

‘Take a stand’

Community’s national officer Alun Davies said: “Steelworkers now have a chance to be a part of history and to take a stand to protect our vital steel industry. No steel job is safe under Tata’s bad deal for steel, and it’s imperative that we all band together as one at this critical time.

“Future generations will ask what we did when our jobs and communities were threatened by Tata’s and the Government’s dirty and damaging deal, which leaves no steel job safe.

“We’ll be able to proudly answer them that we did not go gently into the night, that we stood up for our proud industry, and that we took action to forge a future for steel when it mattered most. That’s why we are asking our members to vote yes in the ballot.”

The Community ballot opens today and will run for a month.

Package 

A Tata Steel spokesperson said: “Following the announcement in January of the company’s plans to invest £1.25 billion and to restructure the UK business, we started a formal information-sharing and consultation process with our trades union colleagues, which continues in an open, collaborative and constructive fashion.

“On March 22, we put forward a significantly enhanced, comprehensive package of support for employees impacted by the proposed transformation.

“We are naturally disappointed that while consultation continues, Unite members at Port Talbot and Llanwern have indicated that they would be prepared to take industrial action up to and including strike action if an agreement cannot be reached on a way forward for the business and its employees.

“We have written to Unite twice during the ballot process to notify them of significant irregularities in the ballot process they have undertaken.”

The spokesperson added that while a £1.25 billion commitment with the Government will ensure a long-term viable future for low-CO2 steelmaking in the UK, Tata’s current business is unsustainable, reporting losses of more than £1 million a day.

They added: “This investment is critical as much of our existing iron and steelmaking operation in Port Talbot is at the end of its life, is unreliable and inefficient, and it was for this reason that we had to cease our coke-making operations on March 20.

“By restructuring our UK operations we will be able to sustain the business as we transition to new electric arc furnace technology.

“We believe we have a very exciting future ahead, providing the high-quality, low-CO2 steels that our customers in the UK and overseas are so desperate for.

“Furthermore, producing steel from scrap that already exists in significant quantities in the UK rather than importing iron ore and coal from across the world will be the foundation for more resilient UK manufacturing supply chains.

“Our ambition remains to move forward at pace with a just transition, and to become the centre of a future green sustainable industrial ecosystem in the UK.”

Support

Responding to the result of the strike ballot, Plaid Cymru MSs for South Wales West Luke Fletcher MS and Sioned Williams MS said: “Plaid Cymru stands in complete solidarity with all the workers at this time and we stand ready to support each and every worker who needs it.

“Strike action is the last thing that any worker wants to do, but it becomes necessary when faced with the alternative: the managed decline of a vital industry and a strategic resource by private interests.

“Tata has continually made decisions and intimated towards its intentions for the plant’s future despite its ongoing consultation period with the unions.

“The company’s threats to rescind crucial financial support should redundancies ever occur is especially deplorable and shows the company’s willingness to ride roughshod over worker democracy – the refusal by unions and workers to be intimidated and coerced by this is commendable.

They added: “UK Government support of £500 million for the Port Talbot steelworks falls woefully short of the investment that countries such as France and Germany are investing in decarbonisation, which sits in the billions.

“Plaid Cymru maintains that we must see the same levels of ambition here if we are serious about the future of green, domestic steel production.”


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