In the last issue of Socialist Appeal (no. 98) in an article on worldwide steel production, we commented that:
"Steelworkers…will have to fight every inch of the way to defend jobs and incomes. Any spark could lead to a concerted fight back; we remain confident those workers in Britain and internationally will rise to the challenge."
Now Corus, the former BSC [British Steel Comporation] has thrown down the gauntlet with the announcement on February 11, 2002 that steelworkers are facing a year long pay freeze. Alan Johnston, Executive Director of Corus has told steel unions that the freeze was vital to the well-being of the company at a time when losses were reported to be running at £1 million a day. In a letter to the unions he continued:
"The current and forecast business climate shows no real sign of improvement in the short-term, particularly in the UK manufacturing sector and conservation of cash therefore continues to be the critical priority for the company to see us through this difficult period."
Steelworkers are entitled to ask where was conservation of money when £700 million was handed back to shareholders at the time of the merger with Dutch steel maker Hoogovens? In the mid 1990s massive profits were being made. Where has that money gone?
It's almost certain that as we go to press the main steel union, the ISTC, responding to pressure from below will have announced a national ballot for industrial action. Eddie Lynch, assistant general secretary of the ISTC said the decision had further demoralised the workforce, adding:
"We shall be consulting with our members on this issue. ISTC members of Corus know more than anyone [that] competition in the steel industry is intense. However the fact they have delivered year-on-year productivity improvements of 10% appears to have been ignored by the company."
He added that the decision by Corus to impose a pay freeze was a bitter blow for loyal employees who had endured a miserable 12 months following the announcement of plant closures and a further 6000 jobs to be axed by next year.
Steelworkers I spoke to were cautious about the prospects of industrial action, understandably so given the ISTC leadership. One steelworker told me "no pay rise, no job cuts".
The fact of the matter is that pay rises over the first few years have been dependent on job losses, hence the productivity gains. Numerous deals by the ISTC, including Japanese-style team working have been agreed over the heads of the membership, but we remain convinced that steelworkers would respond to a militant call to action despite the most Blairite leadership in the trade union movement. In our reports on the steel industry over the last few years we have consistently pointed out that the membership is far more militant than the leadership, and as in the last national steel strike in 1980 the Marxists were alone in pointing out that steelworkers would rise to the challenge. This was despite denunciations to the contrary by the local and national leadership of the ISTC and those in the Labour movement in general who mistook the conservatism of the leadership for the real mood developing amongst the rank and file.
In 1980 in one of the most bitter strikes since the Second World War, steelworkers fought valiantly for thirteen weeks not only against the Thatcher government and the employers but with one hand tied behind their backs as the leadership of the ISTC and other unions tried desperately to compromise. As Trotsky pointed out, "betrayal is inherent in reformism." The defeat of the steel strike despite the pay deal was to cost 150,000 jobs over the next 20 years but the history of the labour movement the world over shows that workers will not be cajoled despite many obstacles, always returning to the theatre of the class war. This also requires a political struggle to demand that the Labour government take back the steel industry into public ownership under democratic workers' control. The steel industry will in the future be at the centre of a socialist planned economy. The commanding heights of the economy must be taken into public ownership to allow us to plan the economy in the interests of working people. The steel industry in private hands has been decimated. We must draw a line in the sand; this far and no further.
- For all-out industrial action under the control of local strike committees with mass meetings to keep the membership informed.
- Open the books - let us see where the profits have gone.
- For international solidarity, no steel must move.
- If the bosses fail to retreat, occupy the plants.
- Re-nationalise steel under democratic workers control and management.
- For a wage claim democratically decided by the membership. No more job cuts.
- For a 32-hour week with no loss of pay. Retirement on full pension at 55.