04/09/2010 - Redcar: A steeltown again?

IN FEBRUARY we reported on the ‘temporary’ closure of the Corus steelworks on Teesside.  Around 1,500 jobs were axed – and another 8,000 associated jobs were under threat in the area.

At the time Corus - who own the Teesside Cast Products site in Redcar – blamed the closure on the sudden loss of a ten-year supply contract.  However, union officials believed that there may have been another agenda:

“The decision to mothball the plant suggests that Corus did not really want to keep it open or sell it to another steel company.  The decision is bad for Britain and for our manufacturing industry and our members will now be asked to respond.”

At the time, it was seen as the death knell of the steel industry in the area – TCP was the last remaining steelworks.  It really looked like the end of an era.  Steel has been produced on the banks of the River Tees for around 170 years.  Once over 100 furnaces worked around the clock.  Around 40,000 workers produced the "best steel in the world."  It was exported all over the world.

As soon as Solidarity heard the news that Corus – owned by India’s Tata Steel – was under threat, we called for the Government to act immediately.  We didn’t feel that Gordon Brown (remember him?) should sit around and wait for the workforce to strike to save their jobs.  He should have immediately nationalized TCP.  At least this would have kept the whole Teesside area will on an even keel.

At the time, Pat Harrington the General Secretary of Solidarity asked "If the Government can find the money to prop up the banks - and bail out the fat cats - why can’t they help ordinary British workers?"

In the event, Brown & Co. did nothing.  The steelworks was partially mothballed, with only 700 workers being retained.

New, however, it looks like Teesside might have a brighter future.  It may become a steeltown again.

Although it’s early days, it looks like the firm SSI – the biggest steel producer in Thailand - may buy the plant for £322 Million.  According to the Daily Mail (28/08/2010) the prospective new owners have pledged to restore “the site to its former glories by producing 3.5 Million tones of steel slab – which is processed into other steel products – each year from early 2011.”

President of SSI, Win Virlyaprapalkit, hopes to have a deal done and dusted by the end of this year.  But we shouldn’t get our hopes up yet.  According to the Mail any deal “could hinge on the level of support offered by the Government.”  

However, if Labour weren’t prepared to step in and help workers in Teesside, can anyone see this Con-Dem Government doing it?

Another problem is – according to Channel 4 News – the likelihood of workers having to opt out of the British Steel Pension Scheme.  This means that those intending to retire early may not be able to draw on their pension until at least 65.  Nor is it clear if the Bangkok-based SSI will impose new terms and conditions.  As one worker noted “we are worried that somewhere in the small print we will lose out. We feel like we could be stitched up.”

There’s also the unanswered question of why – according to the Mail report – an international “consortium of four companies with a contract to buy 80pc of Redcar’s production walked away from the legally binding deal in 2009.

The controversial decision came just months after two of the firms – Italy’s Marcgaglia and South Korea’s Dongkuk – offered to buy the plant in a deal that eventually fell through.”

Despite all this, Solidarity’s General Secretary has given a cautious welcome to the SSI take-over.  Pat Harrington said:

“The main thing here is that work - hopefully – is coming back to Teesside.  Ideally this should have been provided by the British Government and not a foreign company.  However, we have to face facts.  Labour should have nationalized Teesside Cast Products as soon as it got into difficulties.  But it did nothing.

As a nationalist trade unionist, I am opposed to capitalism.  If at all possible, those who work at the plant should also own it.  The decisions affecting Redcar should not be taken thousands of miles away in Bangkok.  

But I have to be realistic.  David Cameron and Nick Clegg are not going to bring work to the area - Win Virlyaprapalkit may well do so. 

I look forward to the day when any future SSI-owned plant can be nationalized – with the Thais being adequately compensated – and then returned to its workforce.”