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Nationalise now to save the steel industry

Reports from Wales and Scotland by Alex Thraves and Matt Dobson

According to some commentators, the multinational Tata Group has a reputation of being a paternalistic and caring corporation that takes into consideration the wellbeing of its workforce. Try telling that to the 4,000 steelworkers in Port Talbot and the tens of thousands across the rest of England, Wales and Scotland who either work for Tata Steel or depend on it. They face the prospect of being sold down the river by Tata’s decision to sell off its UK steel operations.

Welsh trade union leaders, Assembly ministers and the local MP, Stephen Kinnock, have spent months grovelling at the feet of Tata’s directors. They were deluded in their hope that the Tata board would accept the continuing losses of £1 million a day from its Port Talbot plant on the basis of the unions’ ‘turnaround’ proposals. These would still have seen another 750 jobs lost in the steelworks.

Like all multinational companies, whether UK or foreign owned, Tata’s only concern is about making money, not steel. The company’s decision to sell off its UK steel assets reflects the cold, calculating brutality of these capitalist multinationals.

At the same time it exposes the weakness and naivety of those labour and trade union leaders who claimed ‘there are no differences between us and Tata’! This is also a warning to the thousands of car workers in Jaguar Land Rover who have also been taken over by Tata.

The demand for nationalisation, consistently put forward by the Socialist Party over the past few months as the only guarantee of saving jobs and communities, is now firmly back on the agenda. Even some of those who mocked the idea are becoming latter day advocates of at least partial or temporary nationalisation.

Alongside the numerous formats of nationalisation or part-public ownership there are suggestions of private sector buy-outs and even a management/worker takeover.

What private sector company will be prepared to buy out a £1 million a day loss-making steel plant? None. What type of management/worker takeover would be able to take on those losses as well as putting in an estimated £500 million needed investment? None.

Yet it is an entirely feasible price for the government to bear when such a fundamental economic asset is on the line, as well as the social costs of massive job losses. That is why it has been reported that even the Tories haven’t ruled out nationalisation – albeit as a temporary measure.

If the fight to save Port Talbot and all their other steel plants across the country is to succeed, both the Westminster and Welsh governments need to nationalise Tata Steel now.

Trade unions across Tata Steel should urgently convene a national meeting of shop stewards to organise this campaign for nationalisation, with compensation only on the basis of proven need, linking up with the tens of thousands in the communities indirectly affected by these potential job losses. It should also demand the nationalisation of the steel distribution network and for the procurement of steel from a nationalised company for public sector projects like Crossrail, HS2, power projects etc.

We call on the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to join the call for permanent nationalisation of Tata’s steel plants. This would heap huge pressure on the Tories to act. Scandalously, Labour Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones continues to be non-committal about taking this step.

Our Socialist Party leaflet, which has been widely distributed in Port Talbot over the past few months, concluded with the statement: “We cannot rely on Tata’s board of directors in India to secure the future of the Port Talbot works. That task is down to the workforce and community campaigning for nationalisation of steel now!”

Now is the time to act and secure the future of steel in Port Talbot and across the UK.

The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is calling a public rally on 2 April in Port Talbot to launch our campaign for nationalisation. It will be at 12pm outside the Post Office on Station Road, Port Talbot.

Scotland 

SNP ministers are lauding the “deal” which sees the sale of Scotland’s Dalzell and Cambuslang steel plants from Tata to the Scottish Government, for a day, and then on to Liberty House.

However, this package sees private buyer Liberty House benefiting from a subsidy deal from the Scottish government that could see the plants acquired by Liberty for as little as £1. It also raises all the risks of asset stripping, attacks on current workers’ terms and conditions including pensions, and no return for many of those who’ve already lost their jobs.

In January 2016, the SNP Scottish government gave a £195,000 subsidy to the Tata plants, keeping on a skeleton workforce but making the majority of the 270 Lanarkshire workforce redundant.

This was their preferred option, to subsidise Tata’s profits rather than meet the demand of nationalisation and protecting the jobs and terms and conditions of the workforce. The demand for nationalisation was hugley popular in the Lanarkshire community. Socialist Party Scotland campaigned on this from the start of the crisis and nearly 3,000 people signed our petition calling for nationalisation. 700 people also marched through Motherwell in December 2015 demanding the plants be saved.  

Liberty House, who own a similar sized steel capacity in Newport, South Wales, have now come in to buy the plants for virtually nothing and promises of subsidies. Liberty, however, have given no assurances that workers terms and conditions will be protected or that the full workforce will be taken back on. A Liberty House insider has told the Sunday Times “it was “doubtful” many of those who lost their jobs will be taken on again in the short term, but once reopened, the steel mills will “gradually” take on staff.”

Under Liberty ownership the nature of the product at the Scottish plants will change.

An industry expert quoted in the Financial Times said of Liberty owner Gupta “He wants to buy old plants that once made steel from raw materials and convert them to recycle scrap steel into products for use by engineering businesses. In line with its end to end strategy Liberty House ‎hopes to produce steel slabs from domestic scrap at its Newport site, to supply Dalzell for rolling into plates.

This shoddy deal once again shows the pro big business nature of the supposed “anti-austerity” SNP. It also shows, unfortunately, that the strategy of the majority steel industry trade union, Community, has been a failure. There has been no attempt to mobilise working-class communities behind a mass campaign for nationalisation and industrial action.

Incredibly, Roy Rickhuss, the general secretary of Community, stated in a press statement after a meeting with the Dutch plant trade union on the 23rd March “The turnaround plan (which is being discussed by Tata for Port Talbot), which included over 1,000 job losses, has been tough to accept, but we are determined to make it work for the future of our industry.” This has proved to be an utter failure. 

Trade unions at all steel plants, and in the steel industry beyond, should convene an emergency meeting of shop stewards to organise a mass campaign drawing in support from communities for nationalisation.