The 1980 Steel Strike: Thirty-Five Years On

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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.

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‘Let Thatcher Eat Steel!’ – Wales and the 1980 Steel Strike

Introduction

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.

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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?’
A: ‘No.’
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.’

Aftermath

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.

2 thoughts on “The 1980 Steel Strike: Thirty-Five Years On

  1. We were a bunch of flying Pickets from Sheffield and Barnsley
    We spent most of the strike in East Anglia preventing steel coming in through the non union ports in Essex & Suffolk etc
    We stayed on the campus of Essex University in Colchester and were treated as celebrities by the mostly left wing students.
    We enjoyed their company so much we didn’t want to go back when the Strike was over.
    It is true we were used as a trial run by Thatchers Government as a precursor to the miners strike but we were less fractured than the mining unions – therefore the Strike ended much sooner.
    The Plant where I worked for 30 yrs closed in 2008 and will soon be an Aldi
    Malc…

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