Teesside People’s Assembly activists Geoff Kerr-Morgan and Steve Cooke report
The recent closure of the SSI Redcar steelworks, with the loss of nearly 2,200 jobs, came as a sudden shock to the workers and public across Teesside. The wider community responded fantastically, with two thousand, including People's Assembly activists, turning out at 24 hours' notice to support an evening protest organised by Redcar's Labour MP Anna Turley.
No sooner had it been declared that the plant was to be mothballed, it was announced the plant would be permanently closed and SSI went into liquidation. Within a few weeks, came news of further devastating redundancies across the steel industry at Scunthorpe, Motherwell, Clydebank and other towns.
As the heart is ripped out of the local community, the bosses have been able to use limited liability to absolve themselves of any consequences or responsibilities toward the workers who have given their all for this industry. A recruitment agency providing subcontractors for the plant declared itself unable to pay workers, went into liquidation and then its owner opened a new agency within days.
Perhaps newly empowered by a leadership that refuses to fetishise the free market, local Labour MPs have responded well and Unite the union has raised the profile of the campaign. But blaming cheap imports from China, as some have done, is not the answer. The workers there are being exploited too.
Capitalism is in crisis, so there is currently a problem of overproduction of steel, which has depressed its market value. As we have seen in many other industries, market conditions fluctuate and prices can revive again, but Redcar will have permanently lost the capacity to return to steelmaking should demand pick up in the future.
Teesside People's Assembly demands that the government intervenes to save this vital industrial asset and nationalise the plant. If the bankers could be saved, then so should the steelworkers.
A workers' occupation of the plant might have been a viable tactic, at least to delay closure while campaigning to force the government to respond more positively - especially if the Labour Party leadership had backed the workers' action. Sadly, there has been little enthusiasm for a serious campaign or resistance from the dominant union at the Redcar plant, Community, which is closely associated with the New Labour project and has seemed interested only in negotiating the terms of workers' severance rather than saving their livelihood.
Not that it even got a good deal there: the £80m package of support promised by the government has turned out to include the workers' redundancy payments and very little of it is 'new money'. Many redundant workers not living in Redcar itself have found themselves ineligible for much of what is left of that support package.
The Tories have therefore felt able to ignore calls for intervention. Teesside's only Tory MP, James Wharton in Stockton South, is also Minister for the so-called Northern PowerHouse, but has said steel policy is not his responsibility and refused to visit the plant. When an emergency debate on the Redcar steel crisis was being held in parliament, he chose to attend a dinner instead. Perhaps he should be rebranded 'Minister for the Northern Poor House'.
On Saturday 24 October, Teesside People's Assembly will be supporting a procession to Eston Nab, near Redcar, a torchlit show of solidarity for Teesside steelworkers and a tribute to all the generations of steelworkers whose labour powered the industry for 175 years. The procession starts from Eston Square at 5pm.
Further details are available on the Facebook event page at www.facebook.com/events/190282407971564.