On the 2nd of February, Tata Steel announced that it would be starting the consultation process which is expected to result in nearly 3,000 redundancies at Port Talbot as it moves to close two of its blast furnaces and replace them with an electric arc furnace. Tata had claimed this was an effort to go green but it is almost certainly driven by the pursuit of profit. In doing this, Tata has largely ignored the proposals in the plan offered by GMB and Community, and Unite’s own plan (the one concession from Tata so far being agreement to keep the hot strip mill). 

On the 20th March, Tata Steel closed the coke ovens at Port Talbot, having only announced this intention two days prior. This has impacted 200 jobs and makes the UK more dependent on importing coke as it will no longer be able to produce it at Port Talbot. The legal minimum for the consultation over the blast furnace closures is 45 days; while this has been extended, it is not clear by how much, and union members have now been told what their redundancy conditions will be. 

Once the consultation has concluded, workers can be dismissed and be given payment in lieu of notice. If the restructure and redundancies go through then there is no turning the wheel back. Should this happen, many well-paying jobs with good conditions won through the hard efforts of collective bargaining will disappear. This is existential for not only the Port Talbot community, but, in the medium term, will also damage other areas such as Trostre and Llanwern whose steel works and fan and electrical works are intertwined with Port Talbot’s.

Previously, the union response was characterised by a degree of division, as GMB and Community used the consultancy firm Syndex to provide an alternative proposal (of which a small part has been agreed) and Unite chose to diverge and present its own plan. This resulted in a public war of words between Unite and Community. However, the impending redundancies means that there is less time for public disagreement and all three of the unions have informed Tata that a shared red line is keeping Blast Furnace 4 open until 2032. Unite, alongside building a public campaign, at local and national level, have moved to an industrial action ballot of members at Port Talbot that opened on the 8th of March and closes on the 9th of April, while Community have also confirmed their intention to ballot if they feel the latest round of talks do not yield a response. This is more than 45 days after the announcement of the consultation process and highlights how cumbersome the process for legal industrial action is.

An additional complication to industrial action is that it may accelerate the closure of the plant. However, Community and Unite are adamant that this industrial action will still cause a significant financial and reputational detriment to Tata, while GMB and Community have pointed out that they could ballot all of their members at the employer and not just steel workers at the Port Talbot site (Community have confirmed that their ballot would be disaggregated across each site); therefore, industrial action could also occur at the Llanwern, Trostre, and Shotton sites.

The most effective industrial action would probably require a joint effort by all three unions, as they tend to represent different parts of the workforce, as a result of being constituted from different legacy unions. Community, which has the most members at the site, represents workers in the production population, while GMB represent the welders and platers and in the craft population, while Unite represent the electricians and mechanical craft workers and some of the production population (due to restructuring and rationalising in the 1990s that merged some of the production and craft populations). 

The background to the closures is one of an absence of political leadership from the government and all three unions are confused as to why Tata will not wait a few months for the likely incoming Labour government to provide political leadership instead of modest investment. Labour’s commitment (reiterated after public and private pressure from Unite and Community) to put three billion pounds into the steel industry stands in complete contrast to the current government’s inaction. 

While GMB pointed out that the government did step in with a rescue package for British Steel in Scunthorpe in 2019, they agreed with Unite’s and Community’s assessment that there has been no strategic investment in the UK steel industry either financially or legally. It would appear to be this absenteeism that has encouraged Tata to declare they consider any revival effort to be doomed, even with Labour’s promised injection.

There are currently no incentives for any big infrastructure projects to use British steel and all three unions have been quick to contrast the government’s approach with that of many of its continental neighbours, including Germany and France. The lack of care and attention to the steel industry has been a slow-moving catastrophe, all three unions had joint discussions with Tata from November 2020 to 2022, but since then were frozen out of talks between Tata and the government.

Unions are adamant that there is another way, and that a transition to a green steel industry can happen. Community and Unite are in agreement that with the right investment, the UK steel industry could not just survive but thrive with a transition to green steel. In their Workers Plan for Steel, Unite has sketched out how they think Port Talbot could become a regional hub for economic activity around green industry. Equally, Community has stressed how important the capacity for a country to make its own steel, ‘in an uncertain world’, is going to be for the UK economy as it attempts to expand wind turbine and hydrogen projects. These aspirations should complement Labour’s, with its stated emphasis on security and proclaimed desire for targeted investment from both the public and private sector. However, right now, the main aim is survival, Community and GMB think it will be possible to get through the restructure with 700 voluntary redundancies, which ‘will be painful but doable’. 

Whether or not industrial and public actions forces Tata to listen remains to be seen; but events at Port Talbot reflect wider questions and movements in the British economy. The closure of blast furnaces and the movement to greener ways of producing steel is also happening at British Steel in Scunthorpe, which also poses the threat of 2,000 job losses. This in turn is indicative of the wider question of what does a ‘green transition’ look like? Is it one where good and secure jobs are created to replace those lost,or is it one where the word green is used to justify further outsourcing and profit at the expense of communities and national resilience? Furthermore, it puts to the test just what organised labour can or cannot achieve when faced with an existential challenge. Even though they will hear them first, the answers will not just impact the people of Port Talbot.