An initial response to the announced closures at Port Talbot
The news that Tata Steel has taken the decision to close the facilities at Port Talbot is devastating for the workers at those facilities, for the local communities that are based around the steel industry, and for the climate.
We need to be clear that, despite the fig leaf of decarbonisation used to dress up these closures, this is NOT a plan for transforming the steel industry in a climate-oriented way. It does not offer a fully worked through pathway for the future of the industry. Nor does it give the protection that workers and communities need, and which would be forthcoming if such a plan were to be implemented. The decision is neither Just nor a genuine Transition.
The first and most immediate concern has to be with the workers affected. A projected 2,800 redundancies is an incalculable loss, to those workers, their families and the communities in which they live. It is also an appalling waste of precious human resources that could be deployed in good jobs aimed at decarbonising our society, and yet another example of this government’s abject servility to the market at the expense of any vision of a future for the country that would benefit its citizens.
The following motion of support has been written for urgent adoption by union branches, regions and trades councils:
This Branch/Trades Council believes that the 2,800 redundancies at Port Talbot are a warning of what can happen without a planned transition away from fossil fuels that protects workers impacted by the introduction of new technologies, including providing them with alternative jobs where necessary with no loss of pay and conditions.
The transition away from fossil fuels is urgent and inevitable, but the form it takes is not yet determined. Without trade union and Government intervention, employers’ decisions on transition will, like Tata Steel, be guided purely by commercial considerations regardless of its impact on workers.
Transition from fossil fuels does not need to lead redundancies or worse pay and conditions for workers. The IPPR Report From Missed Chances To Green Advances – The Case For A Green Industrial Strategy points out that transition could create another 1.6 million jobs and the UK is falling behind other countries in creating jobs in green industries. There is already a critical shortage of skilled electrical engineers and welders, and there will be a need for many more trained technical, engineering, and construction workers. These are skills that redundant steel workers could be re-trained for, but the jobs need to be created for them to take when they have re-trained.
There is an urgent need for a mass programme to insulate homes, upgrade the National Grid and build the necessary infrastructure for electric vehicles. That would create thousands of jobs but this is not happening
As trade unionists we cannot wait for employers and the Government to decide how and when transition takes place. Trade unions need to take the initiative and:
- Demand that Government and employers provide the investment to create these jobs.
- Campaign for a national plan to transition away from fossil fuels with a National Climate Service that takes control of key strategic industries. This must be drawn up with Government, employers and trade unions so that the interests of workers are fully protected.
- Demand the Government guarantee the wages and conditions of workers during any periods of closure/shutdown caused by transition.
The argument for a green steel industry, transformed throughout, is more complex, technical and nuanced than we can do justice to here. What can be sketched out, though, is the impact on workers and what needs to be done to mitigate that impact.
First, what we actually have is a closure of facilities and a promised conversion to Electric Arc Furnaces (EAFs) for recycling. The conversion is the decarbonisation fig leaf, promoting the myth that Tata are doing right by the climate emergency. This serves, dangerously, to reinforce the fake narrative that green policies are a cost to us, in terms of jobs (2,800 redundancies) and money (£500M from the government.)
While the addition of EAF capacity would be a good thing from a climate perspective, further stages need to be thought through and developed in the interests of workers, communities and planet:
- Production of green primary steel using Direct Reduction of Iron and green hydrogen (i.e. hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water using renewably produced electricity – not from fossil fuels.) This would retain a large proportion of the jobs in the industry currently being lost while maintaining production. It’s true that green steel would not require as many jobs as current practice, therefore some loss in job numbers in the industry would, after the construction phase, exist but not to nearly the same extent as what is currently on the table.
- Redeployment to other sectors to mobilise the workforce in support of decarbonisation. Country-wide, millions of jobs are required, if we had leadership, vision and political will, to do it. For local areas such as Port Talbot, built around steel production – and the transformation of how that steel is produced – there is a nexus of interconnected jobs that would be needed: those that directly support the industry, including green hydrogen production and electricity generation and distribution, and downstream manufacture of steel products (e.g. components for wind turbines.) We should also focus on the resourcing and expansion of public services, food production etc. in the local economy, which underpin collective and personal wellbeing yet are currently grossly undervalued and underpaid.
- Guaranteeing the pay and terms & conditions of workers during the transition, whether working or not. The transition to green steel will not happen overnight and steel workers should therefore be protected in that transitional period. We can’t be sure exactly who will do the job of constructing the EAF (nor the direct reduction facilities should a campaign for this be successful) – they may not all be local jobs, so retaining or temporarily redeploying the existing workforce, or a mix of the two, in the interim is essential.
GJA is well aware that there are differences of emphasis between the unions that represent the workers affected by the closure announcement. While these differences are a legitimate source of debate, we believe that the fundamental principles laid out above, both in terms of the immediate situation facing workers and the long-term prospects for the community, are essential underpinnings to the technical and technological choices that face the industry.
We would further argue that the level of coordination and planning required across numerous sectors is not achievable within the narrow context of a multinational corporation’s business plan and therefore implies public ownership of the industry. It is also essential that workers participate in and lead the development of a plan for the transformation required to enable the building of the workforce of the future.
GJA welcomes responses on this sensitive subject, including from workers in the industry and from those who have more than just a layperson’s understanding of the technical issues involved. Please contact us on email@example.com with any contributions to this important debate.