My chapter on industrial relations in the Port Talbot Steelworks can be found in a new collection of essays on Welsh Industrial History, published by University of Wales Press. Entitled The Affluent Striker: Industrial Disputers in the Port Talbot Steel, 1945-79, the chapter tries to understand why the Port Talbot Steelworkers, at that time Europe’s largest and most modern steel plant, acquired such a poor reputation for industrial relations. In doing so, it questions dominant historical interpretations of strikes at this time, which are almost exclusively seen as disputes between managers and workers. Also relevant to those with an interest in the history of Port Talbot’s steel industry is editor, Louise Miskell’s, chapter on the Steel Company of Wales’ global efforts to procure iron ore. Further details and purchase information can be found here: https://www.uwp.co.uk/book/new-perspectives-on-welsh-industrial-history/#:~:text=New%20Perspectives%20on%20Welsh%20Industrial%20History%20is%20a,It%20includes%20essays%20on%20the%20Welsh%20copper%E2%80%A6%20English
On 26 April I will be giving a talk for the Abergavenny Local History Society on ‘Men of Steel’: Historical Experience of Work in the Welsh Steel Industry. As the title suggests, the talk will consider what it was like to be a steelworker and what it meant to be a steelworker, based on the many interviews I conducted with current and former employees at the Port Talbot steelworks. More details are available at the society’s website (link here); it would be lovely to see you there!
In steeltowns your chances of getting a job (and keeping one) are inextricably entwined with the fortunes of local industry. This message was painfully brought home to the residents of Port Talbot this week where job cuts, numbering in the hundreds, have been announced at the steelworks by the owners, Tata Steel. Heavy industries have been the main source of work in Port Talbot for two hundred years but since the Second World War the state of the local labour market has been largely determined by a single workplace, the steelworks. What follows is a brief account of how the plant has shaped the local labour market and employment trends in Port Talbot, placing the present day crisis within an historical context.
The ‘Boom’ Years, 1945-61
Steel has been a significant employer in Port Talbot since the construction of the original Port Talbot steelworks in the first decade of the twentieth century. However, it was not until the arrival of the Abbey Works, after the Second World War, that the industry’s hegemonic control of the local labour market was fully realised. In 1945, the Port Talbot and Margam steelworks, owned by Guest Keen and Baldwins, employed fewer than 5,000 workers. With the construction of the new Abbey Works and the formation of the Steel Company of Wales, the demands of the local steel industry grew exponentially so that by 1961 the works employed over 18,000 workers. If contractors were included, the figure rose to over 20,000.
In contrast to the depression of the 1920s and 1930s, unemployment was largely eliminated in Port Talbot during the immediate post-war period. The senior managers of the Steel Company of Wales frequently complained of being unable to recruit workers in sufficient numbers and bemoaned the local shortage of labour. It was said in the 1950s that it was impossible to get a painter in Port Talbot because they had all gone to work in the steelworks; even local bakeries reported facing a staff ‘exodus’ as their employees accepted more attractive jobs at the steel plant! To combat the acute shortage of labour the Steel Company of Wales was forced to offer generous wages to its employees as well as a comprehensive range of leisure and welfare facilities. Some local residents still feared that the development of the Abbey Works posed risks, with the town ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’. For most, however, this was a halcyon era. Demand for steel was high and jobs were plentiful.
Years of Adjustment, 1961-79
The plant’s workforce peaked in 1961 with over 20,000 employees; it was the largest workplace in Wales. But some alleged that this vast army of workers was the product of wasteful ‘overmanning’ practices or ‘jobs for the boys’, as one steelworker put it. As the Steel Company of Wales faced a more competitive international market in the 1960s, the firm was keen to make labour savings in the interests of increased efficiency and productivity. In particular, managers blamed the plant’s trade unions for making exorbitant labour demands and insisting on the right to determine manning levels for particular jobs and machinery, many of which were deemed excessive. Overmanning, however, was also a product of managerial failings: a lack of clear foresight, flawed recruitment strategies and a tendency to hire more workers than was strictly necessary during periods of increased demand. The introduction of new technologies in the industry also made many work processes less labour intensive.
The result was a decrease in employment at the plant, in the region of 6,000 workers during the 1960s and 1970s. Hard redundancies were mostly avoided, however, with cuts being made through a gradual combination of early retirements and ‘natural wastage’. Nonetheless, it was made clear to local politicians and residents that the steel industry would no longer be able to meet the employment needs of the locality alone. Attempts to diversify the local economy produced some successes, such as the completion of the BP petrochemical plant at Baglan Bay and the regeneration of the Afan Valley, but, on the whole, these ventures failed to produce the number of jobs that the steel industry had once provided.
Crisis and Slimline, 1980-88
1980 was a watershed year for the steel industry and Port Talbot. The stringent fiscal policies introduced by the newly elected Conservative government forced the British Steel Corporation to drastically reduce its expenditure. Job cuts were an inevitable consequence of the government’s plan to return the loss making nationalised firm to profitability. Several formulas were tabled to bring about the reduction in employment levels necessary in south Wales. The first of which envisaged closing either the Port Talbot works or the Llanwern works, in Newport, entirely: a nightmare scenario for either community. The second, known as the ‘dogleg’ solution, proposed preserving Port Talbot’s blastfurnaces and steelmaking plant but closing its rolling and finishing operations. As part of this formula, steel made in Port Talbot would then be rolled in Llanwern, which would be exclusively devoted to finishing activities. The proposal which was eventually adopted, however, was the ‘slimline’ solution. Under ‘slimline’, both Port Talbot and Llanwern would keep their steelmaking and finishing plants but their output and workforces would be effectively halved. For Port Talbot, this meant a loss of around 6,000 jobs. It is little surprise, then, that the national steelworkers’ pay strike of 1980 escalated in south Wales into a dispute over survival and jobs.
The 1980 steel strike was successful in extracting a national wage increase for steelworkers but this mattered little to the 6,000 workers who lost their jobs at Port Talbot. For the workers, their families and the community, the implementation of the ‘slimline’ formula was a disaster. Its effects were clearly felt in Port Talbot itself: supermarkets, cinemas and nightclubs all closed during the 1980s. Thirty years earlier, the Port Talbot steelworks had been nicknamed ‘Treasure Island’, owing to the large salaries and plentiful work it offered its employees, now the town achieved a degree of notoriety as ‘Gyro City’.
Local politicians and trade unionists often portrayed the cuts in the steel industry as apocalyptic; ‘Wales at the Abyss’ was the title of one report produced by the Wales Trade Union Congress in response to the crisis in steel and frequent allusions were made to a return to the 1930s. In reality, local unemployment did not regress to the worst levels of the inter-war period. Often, this was because many redundant steelworkers found themselves back working in the plant but in the guise of contractors employed by private agencies. Typically, however, contract work was less well paid and more insecure than the employment available through the steel company. Sociologist Ralph Fevre called it, ‘the quiet privatisation of British steel’.
Privatisation and Globalisation, 1988-Present
Since the privatisation of the British Steel Corporation in 1988, the Port Talbot works has undergone a number of changes in ownership with Tata Steel assuming responsibility for the plant in 2007. Job losses in recent years have not been on the scale of those made in the 1980s but global fluctuations in the demand for steel and the ever increasing encroachment of technology has resulted in further pruning of the plant’s workforce. From around 6,000 workers in 1981, there are now only 4,000 employed at the plant.
This figure, of course, will be drastically reduced by today’s announcement of 750 job losses. Tata Steel and some politicians have justified these redundancies as an inevitable product of the industry’s present crisis and a necessary step to ensure the plant’s future survival. The current storm facing the steel industry, however, is global and not primarily about staffing levels. Put simply, there are too many plants making steel and not enough people buying. Redundancies and job losses may, in the short term, help Tata balance their books (it is alleged that the Port Talbot works is losing £1 million a week), but it is not the answer to the industry’s chronic situation.
Bands just don’t write songs about the steel industry anymore (alright, maybe they never did…). But for a brief spell in the mid-1980s two British rocks bands released albums, both of which made the top-twenty in the United Kingdom, that featured songs about Britain’s steel industry and its sorry decline.
In 1984 the Scottish band, Big Country, released their second album, ‘Steeltown’, and the following year the Welsh band, The Alarm, also released their sophomore effort, ‘Strength’. The two bands had much in common; they played a similar brand of melodic post-punk; their members were peers and friends; and they came to be seen, alongside contemporaries U2, as part of a Celtic rock revival (a recurring source of ridicule in the music press). They also penned a track each about the steel industry.
The hard rock and punk scenes of the 1970s were a largely anglo- (or London-) centric affair. Scotland could boast Nazareth and Wales had Budgie (a band who remained largely overlooked until their track ‘Breadfan’ was covered by Metallica a decade later) but neither had much to say about the places they came from nor the societies they lived in.
By the 1980s, however, a new generation of rock bands from Wales and Scotland were beginning to make an impression, with The Alarm and Big Country at the forefront. Their charismatic lead vocalists and guitarists, Mike Peters and Stuart Adamson, were too young to be part of punk’s first wave but they inherited much of its fiery political radicalism and social conscience.
Peters and Adamson may have been inspired by the ethos of punk but their lyrics also took inspiration from the world immediately around them. Growing up in Wales and Scotland in the 1960s and 70s, the steel industry was a looming presence in the industrial working class cultures Peters and Adamson inhabited.
The track ‘Deeside’ by The Alarm was an ode to the closure of the Shotton steelworks in north Wales, which ceased steel production in 1980. ‘Steeltown’ by Big Country, meanwhile, documented the fortunes of the Scottish steelworkers who migrated to Corby in the 1930s to build a new steelworks only for the plant to close half a century later.
But why did they care? Mike Peters and Stuart Adamson grew up dreaming of being punk rockers, not steelworkers or coal miners. ‘I don’t want to die like I saw you die, in a dead end job in a dead end way,’ sang Peters on The Alarm track ‘Father to Son’. In defiance of his father’s wishes to get a steady job in an aerospace factory, Peters was determined to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician: ‘Today I can’t find nothing nowhere, Tomorrow I might find something somewhere.’
The whole ethos of punk (as loosely defined as it was) was about railing against your inherited culture and rejecting society’s established traditions and values. The Sex Pistol’s famously sang ‘no future’ but they arguably cared even less about the past. Stuart Adamson sang on the lead single from Big Country’s first album, ‘you can’t stay here when every single hope you had has shattered’, as though history was a burden on the present.
But perhaps by the 1980s punk had matured. Peters and Adamson clearly saw there was much to be cherished about the working class world they were born into – something that was brought into far clearer focus as it was slipping from view. ‘It’s a cruel world that kicks a man when he’s down,’ inveighed The Alarm’s ‘Deeside’, whilst Adamson lamented in ‘Steeltown’, ‘here was a future for hands of skill.’
Through their lyrics, ‘Deeside’ and ‘Steeltown’ were clearly intended as a political shot at the Thatcher government and the destruction of Britain’s industrial economy. But they were also pensive and wistful. ‘Finally the dream is gone,’ sang Adamson in Steeltown as he mourned the passing of an industry and a way of life. ‘Steeltown’ and ‘Deeside’ may have been shamelessly nostalgic but they were also highly emotive and their resonance remains enduring.
During the 1980s the industrial world that had characterised much of British society since the eighteenth century was slowly disappearing but bands, like The Alarm and Big Country, were determined that its passing should not go unnoticed.
As someone more used to writing about the past than the present, it is with some caution that I approach the current – and as yet unresolved – disagreement between Tata Steel and the main steelworkers’ unions over the future of the British Steel Corporation pension scheme. Being neither a Tata Steel employee nor a trade union representative I can only reiterate the facts that have been made public. Earlier this year Tata Steel, owners of the majority of Britain’s steel industry including the country’s largest plants at Port Talbot and Scunthorpe, announced the decision to end the British Steel Corporation pension scheme, a scheme that has been in existence in something like its current guise since the 1970s. The company have declared the scheme to be financially unviable owing to the advancing age of its members and the declining number of the active workforce contributing to it.
In response to Tata Steel’s decision, Community (the largest union representing steelworkers) and most of the industry’s other unions (including Unite and GMB) have decided to ballot their members for strike action. A majority endorsement by steelworkers of the unions’ proposals would result in the first national strike in the industry since 1980 and only the second ever national strike in its entire history. The unions have stated that Tata Steel’s management have failed to undertake proper consultation over the pension scheme’s termination and question the company’s financial evaluation of its continued feasibility. Being privy to neither party in the argument, it is not my intention here to offer an opinion as to who is right or who is wrong. Instead, I want to place the current tensions in an historical context and consider why the pension issue has proved such a volatile concern and one which has taken the industry to the brink of its first national stoppage in thirty years.
The British steel industry looked rather different the last time it experienced a national strike. In 1980 there were around 100,000 people working in an industry that was mostly owned by the state. Up to 1980 the steel industry had been through a decade of financial uncertainty and contraction and the future looked bleaker still, with the Shotton steelworks earmarked for closure and massive redundancies announced for the Port Talbot and Llanwern plants. The 1980 steel strike, however, was not called over job cuts or plant closures but pay. Unlike closures and redundancies, the pay issue united the majority of steelworkers; it was a national issue that transcended the industry’s inter-regional factionalism and presented the only feasible grounds for collective action.
For the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (now Community), the decision to strike was a reluctant one. Since its inception in 1917, the union has prided itself on its political moderation and conciliatory approach to industrial relations. One historian described its politics as ‘well to the right of the trade union movement’. Throughout much of the post-war era, the union’s national executive had been quick to quash unofficial strike action by its members and eschewed the strident class rhetoric espoused by its counterparts in the National Union of Mineworkers and the Transport and General Workers Union. Management and steelworkers were not alligned against each other but mutually vested in the industry’s continued prosperity, so they maintained.
The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation’s approach to industrial relations, then, was overwhelmingly pragmatic: it wanted to get the best deal for its members and, for the most part, this meant the best wages and workplace benefits. Throughout much of the 1950s, 60s and 70s the union was incredibly successful in achieving these goals. Steelworkers were amongst the best paid industrial workers in Britain and their pension was widely regarded as one of the finest available to manual workers.
By 1980, however, steelworkers’ position within the upper tier of the labour aristocracy had been significantly undermined by a gradual decline in real earnings and widespread job losses. The decision by the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation to strike that year not only evidenced the genuine grievances of their members but also the union’s longstanding commitment to defend steelworkers’ privileged economic status. For the union, to accept the meagre two per cent pay award offered by the government of the day would have been to negate their raison d’etre. The unprecedented decision to call a national strike was the only option.
The industry has changed significantly since 1980 – most obviously there are far fewer plants and far fewer steelworkers – but there are some clear parallels with the current dispute. Once again it is a change to steelworkers’ material status and economic position (albeit their post-work settlement) that has acted as the catalyst for discontent. The pension scheme is also an issue that affects all steelworkers (or at least all Tata Steel employees) and as such has the potential to command national support.
The will of the unions to advocate the most powerful tool at their disposal is also insightful. In the three decades since 1980 the number of jobs lost in the industry has been vast and some of the country’s biggest plants, such as Ravenscraig and Ebbw Vale, have been closed. No national strike was called. The steel unions campaigned ardently against plant closures and sought to mitigate the worst effects of redundancies but, ultimately, the national strike threat was never sanctioned. The unions’ leadership knew it would be hard to galvanise national support for local or regional issues and it was difficult to intransigently resist job cuts whilst maintaining a commitment to support industrial modernisation and technological investment. Instead the unions focused their efforts on their core priorities: protecting the financial position of their remaining members and defending the workplace benefits they had already secured, with the pension being the most precious.
Amongst the former steelworkers I interviewed, their pensions remained one of the most prized assets of a career in the industry. For many it was a deserved reward for a lifetime spent working in a, sometimes, dangerous, demanding and physically exerting environment. The prospect of taking early retirement at fifty-five or sixty (a right it is claimed Tata Steel is seeking to revoke) was also highly valued. Some felt that the physicality of their work made early retirement a necessity rather than an additional benefit. The importance steelworkers attached to their pensions is clear in their oral testimonies; a few relevant sections of which are repeated below.
But the big bonus for anybody working in the steel industry is the retirement, the pension scheme – that is the carrot. You don’t think of it earlier on in your working career but later on you think how fortunate you are, if you’re lucky enough to survive, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
My father was a humble man, he had no pension – nothing. So I must have been an old or future looking man when I was young because I was looking for pension; at the age of 21 that’s a hell of a thing to do isn’t it?
The position that came up with the Steel Company of Wales was long term and most importantly, because of the position with my father who finished work with absolutely no pension, I thought my main aim is to get in somewhere where I’m going to work for the rest of my working days and finish work with a good pension at the end of it.
Undoubtedly the decision to end the British Steel Corporation pension scheme has been a source of considerable consternation and condemnation amongst the company’s employees; last Saturday’s march and demonstration in Port Talbot attracted hundreds of steelworkers in a scene reminiscent of 1980. Whether this public expression of opposition reflects a collective will to strike will be seen when the results of the strike ballot are returned over the coming weeks.
Last year I contributed three short articles for the Western Mail/Wales Online’s Welsh History Month, which was based on the theme ‘the history of Wales in 100 pictures’. I was invited to write a short commentary on three pictures relating to the metal industries in Wales, including a magnificent photograph of Port Talbot’s steelworks. The articles, which also included a piece on Merthyr Tydfil’s iron industry and the lower Swansea valley, are available online (follow the links below!).
In the wake of a year that saw an inordinately high number of well-publicised (and very worthy) anniversaries – from the First World War to Dylan Thomas and the miners’ strike – the thirty-fifth year since the beginning of the national steel strike is unlikely to receive much attention. Even comprehensive works of modern British history rarely give the strike much consideration. Where mentioned at all it is typically viewed as a lesser precursor to the miners’ strike four years later, a mere footnote in Britain’s industrial relations history. But the national steel strike is worth remembering. On 2 January 1980, 100,000 steelworkers in Britain struck in an unprecedented display of national unity and industrial defiance. Until the 1984/85 miners’ strike, it was ‘the largest strike in post-war history’, lasting over three months and amounting to the loss of 8.8 million working days.
As the first major industrial conflict of the Thatcher era, the strike invariably became inextricably associated with the stridently anti-union Conservative strategy of the 1980s. Unlike the subsequent miners’ strike, the steelworkers struck over pay but this too was seen as a test of the newly elected Thatcher government’s stringent fiscal policies and unbending treatment of the nationalised industries. At the time, the government publically refused to intervene in the strike, claiming it to be a row between the steel unions and their employer, the British Steel Corporation. Recently declassified government papers, however, show the government played a direct role in the strike’s conduct and clearly viewed it as a test of their new monetarist doctrine. In a confidential minute sent from Keith Joseph to Margaret Thatcher in the month before the strike, Joseph pressed the Prime Minister that,
The Government’s attitude will be regarded as a critical test of our determination to curb inflation and public expenditure, and to make nationalised industries stand on their own feet. I believe that we must back the Corporation in facing the risks and bringing home to the steel unions the harm which the consequences of a strike would do to their members. It will be of the greatest importance, in trying to avoid a strike or, if it comes to it, containing and defeating one, to win the support of public opinion.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is hard not to view the steel strike as a presage of even fiercer conflicts.
For the steelworkers involved, the strike was also a formative event. Their industry would never be the same after the dispute as plant closures and their consequent job losses drastically reduced the nation’s steel making capacity and fundamentally changed the economic and social landscape of entire regions. There are also thousands of personal narratives of the strikes; some are vivid accounts of the excitement of picketing and the solidarity of protest marches, whilst others are beset by the personal tragedy of financial and emotional hardship.
What follows is a largely unedited paper I gave at two postgraduate symposiums in 2013 on the steel strike in Wales. If nothing else, I hope it at least serves as a reminder of the struggle: of the steelworkers, their families and their communities who embarked on the biggest industrial dispute in the industry’s history thirty-five years ago today.
‘Let Thatcher Eat Steel!’ – Wales and the 1980 Steel Strike
In terms of its duration and the number of workers involved, the 1980 steel strike was one of the most significant industrial disputes in modern British history. As the first major industrial conflict of the Thatcher era, the steel strike set the template for a decade of tempestuous labour relations in Britain and had a profound effect on the way in which British trade unions faced the challenges of the 1980s. The strike’s salience was particularly felt in Wales where the British Steel Corporation commanded a central place within the nation’s economy. This was especially the case in South Wales where the BSC was one of the region’s largest employers. Yet despite this, it seems to me that the steel strike has been largely forgotten. During the press coverage that surrounded Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013 there was a headline in the Western Mail that read, ‘she was known globally as the Iron Lady, but the word that defines her legacy in Wales is coal.’ Now, that may have been the case if you lived in Glyneath or Tonypandy but for thousands of Welsh workers living in Newport, Ebbw Vale, Connah’s Quay, Port Talbot and their surrounding areas, Thatcher’s greatest legacy was steel and the strike of 1980 is central to that. Indeed, it is an often overlooked fact that the steel strike involved 40,000 Welsh steelworkers and lasted for four months. What I would like to do with this paper is offer a brief introduction to the steel strike in Wales, with particular reference to the personal experiences of the strike that I have gathered as part of my on-going PhD research on the history of Port Talbot’s steel industry since the Second World War. First, however, I want to examine the events that led to the strike’s declaration in December 1979 and explain the ways in which the strike acquired a uniquely Welsh dimension, through the involvement of the Wales TUC and the specific condition of the steel industry in Wales.
The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation
Unlike coal, steel has always been a multi-union industry and by far the largest trade union representing British steelworkers was the ISTC, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation. In 1979 the union was the fourth largest in Wales with close to 35,000 members. However, unlike other industrial unions, the ISTC eschewed militancy and had historically been deeply committed to moderation in matters of industrial diplomacy. One historian of the British steel industry described the union as standing ‘well to the right of the trade union movement.’ Indeed, the ISTC had not declared a national strike since the General Strike of 1926, and even then it had done so somewhat begrudgingly. The union therefore was an unlikely source of source of resistance to the newly elected Thatcher government and its decision to declare a general strike all the more remarkable. In accounting for the union’s growing militancy up to 1980 it is, then, necessary to consider the broader economic and industrial conditions impacting on the British and Welsh steel industries.
‘Wales at the Abyss’: Steel in the 1970s
Despite being one of the greatest success stories of Wales’ post-war industrial recovery, the fortunes of the Welsh steel industry were in a state of parlous decline by the turn of the 1970s. The reasons for British steel’s worsening profitability during this period have been intensely debated but lack of investment, poor management, government policy and successive global economic crises have all variously been blamed. In Wales, cuts to the steel industry were particularly deep. During the years 1975 – 1978, iron and steel making came to an end at the historic Ebbw Vale Works when the plant lost its coke ovens, blast furnaces and hot strip mill. This was soon followed by the East Moors Works in Cardiff, which faced total closure in 1978. By the end of the decade the state of Welsh steel had reached something of a crisis point. Come the closure of 1979, the implications of the demise of the Welsh steel industry appeared catastrophic. The total cessation of steel making at the Shotton works in North Wales was announced in the middle of that year and was quickly followed by proposed job cuts, numbering in their thousands, across the Port Talbot and Llanwern plants. In February 1981, a Wales TUC deputation to the European Parliament presented a memorandum entitled, ‘Wales at the Abyss’. The report painted a bleak picture of the future of the steel industry in Wales, noting a 27% decline in the number of people working in metal manufacture in Wales over the preceding six years. The report also highlighted the extent to which the Welsh economy was reliant on the success of the metal industries: ‘Even the simplest of comparisons with the UK shows the unholy dependence which Wales has on the fortunes of this industry [steel],’ it pessimistically concluded.
Amidst this demoralising backdrop of contractions and closures, the incoming Conservative government brought further discontent for Welsh steelworkers. The Thatcher government set the British Steel Corporation a target to balance its books by the end of the financial year 1980 – 1981; a target that many considered wholly unrealistic given the state of the industry’s finances. Events came to a head when the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation came to negotiate a new pay deal with the British Steel Corporation. Steelworkers’ wages, which had traditionally been regarded among the best for manual workers, had slowly fallen behind those of their counterparts in other industries. The ISTC’s demand of a twenty per cent pay increase was met with a counter-offer from the BSC of a mere two per cent rise; an offer that was seen as particularly antagonistic given the high rates of inflation at the time and the comparatively generous wage increases given to other public sector workers, such as the miners. The union’s Executive Council therefore took the decision to instigate a national strike in support of their pay-claim with effect from 2 January 1980. Their decision was soon supported by the other unions within the industry leading to a total national stoppage.
The Steel Strike in Wales
Although the official directive of the strike was a wage claim, in Wales – where mass redundancies had been announced and more were still being negotiated – the officially stated aims of the strike became immediately confused with the issue of plant closures and job losses. The national press did little to bring clarity to the situation. When the Western Mail published the news of the union’s decision to strike, it wrote ‘although the issue for the strike is a pay increase, the ISTC had threatened a national stoppage over corporation plans to close steel plants at Shotton and Corby… It appears that the stoppage, the first national strike in the industry since the general strike of 1926, is also a trial of strength over the BSC’s drastic job-cut plans.’ In reality, the official line from the union’s leadership was that the strike was solely in support of the wage increase – not closures or job losses. However, it was perhaps inevitable that in Wales the aims of the strike would be symbolically realigned against closures and cuts. This view comes across clearly in the interviews I have conducted with strike participants from the Port Talbot works. One former crane driver at the plant told me, in no uncertain terms, ‘it [the strike] was all about jobs.’
This view was even shared by some steelworkers who held senior positions within the union. One union member, who later became the ISTC’s National President, told me ‘we went on strike because it was supposed to be for jobs, then it turned turtle, then it went to money.’ However, when asked whether jobs were the primary reason for going out on strike, he replied, ‘Yes, that’s what we done it for.’ He did, however, hint that the union’s executive council’s stance on the subject was more hesitant: as far as the leadership was concerned, he said, ‘well it was mixed feelings.’ Not all workers, however, cited jobs and closures as the main reason for the strike – some did remember the 1980 dispute as being a conflict over pay – but there were numerous feelings evidenced on the subject. Some interviewees even remember the strike with a degree of ambivalence. When asked why he went out on strike, one former steelworker told me: ‘I can’t remember exactly what it was all about. Just that there was a strike call – that’s all. The unions called a strike and that was it, everybody was out… I can’t even remember.’
The Wales TUC
Whilst the ISTC may have sought to rally its membership around the issue of wages, other organisations saw the Welsh steel issue in different terms. By the late 1970s, the Wales TUC was becoming increasingly concerned with the future of the steel industry in Wales and was beginning to militate for action against further closures and cuts. In 1979 the Wales TUC passed a motion at its annual conference in Tenby that there should be, ‘no further reduction in steel-making capacity in Wales’ and called on ‘the British Steel Corporation to increase investment in all parts of Wales.’ By December of that year the Wales TUC General Council had moved to implement a Wales-wide general strike, to take effect on 21 January 1980, if the British Steel Corporation failed to instigate the congress’ programme for Welsh steel. Amongst other things, the programme stridently called for the immediate suspension of the British Steel Corporation’s managing board and the immediate halt of all planned cut-backs in Wales. However, the Wales TUC’s Welsh general strike never materialised. Instead, on 21 January the Wales TUC resigned itself to organising a one day stoppage, a Day of Action, in defence of all Welsh public sector jobs. Of course, with the ISTC’s own strike ongoing, the attention was very much on steel. Any hope for a Welsh general strike in support of Welsh steel jobs was abruptly halted when the South Wales miners voted against striking in support of the steelworkers in February 1980. The aims of the ISTC’s own strike were, then, often conflated with the goals of the Wales TUC. In this way, the steel strike in Wales came to adopt an agenda of its own, with the strike acting as a means for steelworkers’ to vent their anger and frustration at job cuts and closures as well as the stipulated wage claim.
On the Frontline
The confusion arising from the dual, and sometimes conflicting, messages promulgated by the ISTC and the Wales TUC, were partially responsible for the mixed reaction with which the strike call was met in Wales. Although the ISTC’s leaders could boast of near-100 per cent solidarity and universal support for the strike amongst its members, personal responses to the strike varied considerably. In the run up to the strike The Times printed an article entitled, ‘Split Over Strike as Bubble Bursts Near.’ From the interviews I have been conducting with former steelworkers, it is clear that, over thirty-years later, the strike still remains contentious and belies a single congruent response. Some steelworkers disagreed with the strike from its outset and played little active part in it. Their objections typically tended to be a mix of ideological and economic reasons and they all tended to agree that the strike had little chance of achieving its goals.
Curiously perhaps, some of the most vocal objections to the strike in Wales came from senior ISTC officials. In an interview I conducted with one of the union’s full-time south Wales officers, he told me that he was unequivocally against the strike. During the interview, I asked him:
Q: ‘Were you in favour of going on strike in 1980?’
Q: ‘Why’s that?’
A: ‘I had covered this area for twenty years, never been involved in a strike, and this was forced on me, and I tell you the ones who did it; the Scots and the people from the North East coast and a bit of the Sheffield area – they had done it. We weren’t in favour of it.
This view, he said, was also shared by the union’s South West Wales officer. As a matter of fact he said, ‘No one in South Wales was in favour of it.’ An ISTC branch officer expressed similar remarks. He told me, ‘‘it was the most stupid strike we ever went on. It was straight after Christmas, everybody was broke. Nobody had money.’ Although Welsh ISTC officials had no choice but to obey the strike call and publically lent their support to it, their grave personal reservations reveal the extent to which the strike divided opinion.
The tensions amongst the union’s leadership, however, were never publically revealed and the strike succeeded in gaining considerable support from the Welsh rank and file. Even steelworkers at the Shotton works in North Wales, the closure of which had already been agreed, diligently joined the strike. As their divisional union officer, George Cooper put it, ‘It’s a tribute to our members today that they are going on strike for a rise which they may never receive.’ Many of the steelworkers I spoke to who were young men when the strike took place remember it as an exciting time and the first weeks of the strike were, for some, a positively thrilling experience. A steelworker, working in the Port Talbot cold mill, told me, ‘initially it was an exhilarating experience, picketing. I was a young man then, I was only 26… 25, yea 25…’ ‘I remember the first day of the strike… I think it was January 2nd 1980… and we marched down to the main road there, over the bridge, main gates, and we were singing “what do we want? 20 per cent!”.’ The strike also found support among older workers who sympathised with it aims, although sometimes not with its methods. A former works crane driver, for example, told me how he passionately agreed with the decision to strike but strongly rejected some of the methods used by the strikers. He remembered, ‘‘I refused to… my opinion, I d’ave always been, that if you can’t win the argument for them to come out on strike – don’t picket. And I never did picket. I didn’t believe in trying to coerce other groups to join our strike.’
As well as picketing all the Welsh steelworks, the steelworkers’ strike committees soon mobilised gangs of flying pickets who were dispatched to ports, steel stockholders and manufactures to halt the movement of steel. Having learnt from the miners strikes of the early 1970s, Welsh steelworkers were involved in picketing throughout the country. One steel worker remembers picketing:
‘All over. I went up to the midlands to Derby… I went down to… there was a place we stayed for five days and we were picketing steel stockholders down there. Lots of places down west in Gowerton, Gorseinon, Swansea.’
‘There were coaches organised to go to these places as far as Swansea Gorseinon Gowerton, Pembroke Dock. Went up to somewhere in the midlands, it was in between Derby and Nottingham. We had coaches taking us up there as well.’ ‘It was an exciting, exhilarating experience, spending time on the picketing line.’ ‘There were hundreds of police there.’
As well as the daily routine of picketing, the other focal points of the strike were the demonstrations that were held in its support, most notably in Port Talbot, Newport and Cardiff. A mass rally held in Port Talbot on 6 February attracted thousands of people and the demonstration was a whole community affair, receiving support from steelworkers’ families and friends. Perhaps the most memorable event of the strike in Wales, however, was the Day of Action and its accompanying march and rally in Cardiff on January 21. Although organised by the Wales TUC, the rally in Cardiff was publically linked with the steel strike and Bill Sirs, the ISTC’s General Secretary, gave one of the most memorable and moving speeches of the day.
As the strike drew on, however, into March and April of 1980, any initial enthusiasm in Wales began to wane. In an article exploring the human consequences of the steel strike, the Western Mail noted that ‘none of the 40,000 BSC workers now on strike is entitled to state benefits and more than 25,000 do not qualify for cash help for their dependents because they are single, have a partner who is working, or have a large sum of money saved.’ One letter sent to the Port Talbot strike committee towards the end of the third month of the strike reveals the tragic extent of the poverty that some of those on strike were forced to endure:
‘I am a member of the Avon General Office Staff Branch and would like to apply for Hardship as I am having difficulty paying rent, buying food etc. I live with my eleven year old son at the above address. Both my parents are out on strike and I have no other family who can give me assistance. At present I receive £5 picket money and £6.50 family allowance which is my total income. We have no food in the house and I am desperate for help. I should be obliged if you could deal with my appeal as soon as possible, as I am an unmarried parent. P.S. The only food I now have at home is 3 tins of beans.’
Although not all Welsh steelworkers and their families experienced impoverishment to this extent, enthusiasm for the strike evidently dissipated as the months progressed. In an interview with me, one steelworker encapsulated the changing mood of the strikers: ‘we had numerous meetings throughout that three month period… I do remember the last meeting we had, it was down the Avon Lido and the mood had changed dramatically, a lot of people were saying enough’s enough, we have to go back, we can’t afford this, I can’t afford that. By about the eleventh or twelfth week I think people had had enough financially, they broke us.’
The ISTC’s national executive announced the return to work at the beginning of April 1980, having obtained a sixteen per cent pay increase. Although it was not quite the twenty per cent increase the union had initially demanded, the ISTC’s General Secretary, Bill Sirs, quickly declared the strike a victory. In Wales, however, celebrations were muted. Shortly after the return to work, the British Steel Corporation came to an agreement with union representatives at Llanwern and Port Talbot, Wales’ two largest plants, to drastically cut production and the plant’s workforce. The agreement, which became known as the ‘slimline’ agreement, saw 11,000 jobs lost across both plants – almost fifty per cent of their respective employees. The resentment felt by some Welsh steelworkers in the wake of the strike is perhaps, therefore, understandable. In a letter to Bill Sirs held in the ISTC archives, one Port Talbot steelworker wrote:
‘And now I come to the question of the [slimline] agreement which has been signed on our behalf. In regards to the nature of the agreement, with all the ramifications emanating from it, in respect of the working practices, and the job losses. I am obliged to ask myself, what were the demonstrations, speeches, and the strike all about. It all has a hollow ring about it, and I believe that the majority of members in the Port Talbot area, feel a sense of humiliation, and outrage at what has been signed.’
If the strike had been divisive in Wales at its outset, its legacy would be even more so.
Of all the occupational hazards and discomforts associated with working in the steel industry rodent infestation may not be the first thing that comes to mind. In September 1950, however, the ‘alarming increase in the number of Rats in all three [Port Talbot] works,’ forced the plant’s managers to take the unprecedented step of employing ‘a qualified rat catcher’ to deal with the problem.
This pronouncement is taken from The Steel Company of Wales Bulletin, a company newsletter that ran from 1948 to 1955 (in that year it was superseded by the company’s first comprehensive newspaper, The Dragon).
Covering most aspects of working life relating to the Port Talbot Works (as well as the Trostre and Mellingriffith tinplate works), The Bulletin came into being due to, ‘a demand for a Regular News Bulletin in the Company, the aim of which should be to try to assist everyone in the Works to know what is going on.’
Although limited to a single information sheet, The Bulletin can offer a revealing insight into the workplace culture of the Port Talbot steelworks during a crucial period in its history.
As the mouthpiece of the plant’s employers, it also evidences contemporary managerial concerns and goals and the ways they sought to negotiate them with their employees. Celebrations of production achievements and sporting results are, therefore, accompanied with condemnations of workplace vandalism and exhortations for greater cleanliness.
Most strikingly, however, The Bulletin provides vivid evidence of the varied social and sporting life that developed around the Port Talbot Works and thrived in the immediate post-war era. This was, no doubt, significantly due to the company’s own welfare initiatives, which were pursued with a renewed zeal after the Second World War.
The November 1952 issue of The Bulletin was mostly given over to celebrating the opening of the Steel Company of Wales’ new club house at Margam: ‘there can be few Works Sports Club-Houses which can compete with it.’ Other issues feature notices of annual departmental dances and outings as well as congratulatory appraisals of new welfare facilities; a new canteen at the Margam works, for example, was described as ‘steam heated and extremely light and airy’ and ‘ample evidence that the employees at Margam are not being overlooked in the important matter of modern Welfare facilities.’
Company newspapers and magazines are often overlooked as historical sources but, as The Bulletin demonstrates, they have much to offer historians interested in the history of British welfare, workplace culture and industry more generally.
Like most researchers who set out to use oral history methods, one of the first hurdles I encountered was finding people to interview. The task of seeking interviewees raised two immediate issues, one theoretical and one practical; the former related to deciding who to interview whilst the latter concerned how to go about finding them. My next blog will deal with how I found people to interview for my PhD study but initially I thought it might be useful to consider the process of how I went about choosing who I should interview.
The process of identifying my potential interviewee group seemed, initially at least, to be axiomatic – the working title of my PhD, Port Talbot and its Steelworkers: 1951 – 1988, is fairly explicit. However, the task of picking a sample that accurately represented this heterogeneous group of workers across a forty-year period presented considerable difficulties. In the first instance, I had to consider who was and was not a steelworker? Automated productive methods had already made the popular image of a steelworker (spectacled men rolling ingots) something of an anachronism by the beginning of my study period. Although many employees at the Port Talbot works were still directly involved in the physical process of making steel (the ‘production workers’ or ‘operatives’), the running of the plant also necessitated a host of subsidiary and ancillary services: typists, laboratory technicians, draughtsmen, cleaners, drivers, timekeepers, to name but a few. Were steelworkers, then, those employees who worked exclusively on production or did this categorisation extent to anyone who found employment within the plant? In order to further explore this idea of workplace identification I decided to adopt a broad approach, interviewing any person whose employer was the steel company regardless of their occupation. This inclusive policy also allowed me to approach employees of differing rank and status. By interviewing all grades of workers, from temporary labourers to managers, I hoped to gain a sense of the social relationships that existed within the workplace and the underlying power structures that supported them.
I also felt it was important to try and locate steelworkers from across age groups. Two, if not three, generations of workers passed through the Port Talbot works during my study period and this appeared to offer the opportunity to assess changing attitudes towards the nature of work, workplace relationships etc. during a period of salient change in Britain’s traditional industries. Furthermore, I hoped this approach would allow me to compare different age groups’ perspectives of key events in the plant’s history. It seemed possible, for example, that a worker who was twenty at the time of the 1980 steel strike would remember the dispute differently to an employee who was fifty at the same time.
It would also be wrong to ignore the contribution of female workers to the working life of the Port Talbot steelworks. Although not directly involved in production until the very end of my study period, the number of female workers employed by the plant increased dramatically after the Second World War. Indeed, they comprised a majority of the workforce in certain clerical and catering departments. Their experience of working life in a traditionally masculine industry, such as steel, evidently warrants further exploration. Moreover, the increased number of opportunities available to women within the productive side of the steel industry, particularly by the 1980s, reflects broader changes in the composition of Britain’s industrial workforce that have largely gone uncommented on by historians.
As an ideal sample group, then, my interviewees would encompass both older and younger workers, men and women, manual and staff grades, craft and process workers, militants and moderates. However, oral history is not entirely free from the practical constraints that affect most historical sources. The disparity between the sources we would like to consult and the sources that are available can still make itself manifest. These practical considerations concerned with finding interviewees will be the subject of my next ‘Gathering Oral Histories’ blog.
It was clear from the outset of my current research that oral history would be a prominent component of my PhD (the clue was in Swansea University’s proposed research title – ‘Port Talbot and its Steelworkers: An Oral History’.) Indeed, the strong emphasis placed on the use of oral history as a methodological approach was one of the reasons I was so attracted to the project in the first place. After two terms of poring over the existing secondary literature and documentary sources I was, therefore, excited to commence with this phase of my research – not least, as a welcome change from the inherently solitary process of archival research! I conducted my first interview in September of last year and over the next four months up to Christmas conducted around thirty interviews with former (and some current) employees of the Port Talbot steelworks, which will comprise the majority of my oral testimonies. In total I now have over forty hours of recorded interviews on my hard drive; the dauntingly nerve-shattering process of transcribing which I have only just begun…
The interviews themselves were designed to explore a number of aspects dealing with the social history of the town’s steel industry. As well as focusing on the interviewees’ experiences in work, including the culture and organisation of the workplace, the interviews also sought to explore the effect that industry had on their communities, families and personal lives. In these respects, and many more, the interviews were uniquely illuminating. Throughout all of the interviews I conducted people’s memories of work, community and kinship created a vivid and vibrant account of life in the steel industry, both at work and at home. This was, in no small part due to the extraordinary personalities and memories of the interviewees, rather than any great skill as an interviewer on my part. The interview process itself was certainly one of the most enjoyable and rewarding pieces of historical research I have had the opportunity to undertake and the temptation to carry on amassing oral testimonies is incredibly tempting as a result.
As a complete oral history novice at the outset of this experience, however, the prospect of collecting and recording interviews could also be a daunting one. The majority of sources we encounter as historians are inanimate and passive. Whilst we may critically engage with them, we interpret rather than produce them. The uniqueness of oral history is that the researcher has the opportunity to be an active agent in the creation of his source material. By determining the questions and even moderating the tone and emphasis of the dialogue, the historian is consciously shaping the ‘evidence’ produced. The potential in adopting such an approach is, of course, vast – it is rare when historians put a question to the past that the past has an opportunity to answer back – but it also carries additional responsibility. How does the historian guide the interview in such a way as to produce information relevant to his/her study without suggestively influencing the character of the response? There are also ethical concerns to be considered: issues of privacy, sensitivity and human empathy all have to be observed. Moreover, there is the burden of accountability; historians are used to being judged on the strength of an argument or an interpretation but are typically removed from any responsibility for the inherent limitations of their sources. Conducting oral history then requires a distinct set of skills, some of which are more broadly applicable to the practice of history as a whole and others that are, perhaps, more specific.
Over my next few blog posts I intend to share some observations from the interviews I have conducted thus far, along with some description of the methods I used and the successes and limitations thereof. The first post in this series (to follow soon) will begin with a brief look at how I went about finding interviewees.