I was born within spitting distance (well, not quite) of a steel works furnace and was brought up thinking the sky was actually orange at night and the earth hummed naturally while I slept. I remember being completely shattered when this proved not to be true! My first visit to the countryside knocked me back. It was silent… nearly. All I could hear was them stupid white animals (that crapped everywhere) baa-ing, and at night it was pitch black when the moon wasn’t out.
As I got older and travelled around more and saw other places I realised that I lived next to a massive steel-producing complex. It didn’t matter about the noise, pollution and accidents – it just went on and on doing the same, not stopping even on New Year’s Day. I grew up in a community of shift workers. We knew whose houses not to play in front of if the curtains were shut and there was murder in your own house if you made a noise upstairs where your dad was sleeping after a night shift… and if you rang a door bell – well, you had to be careful! You often heard of accidents – many people told stories of hot cables through jaws and of burnt bodies; lots of workers had small burns on their hands from splashing bits of molten steel. Safety was, and still is, a total joke with everything sacrificed for production – a mill never stops. In accidents what happens if you were working against the rule – but then nobody works to the rule. The employers have you in the catch 22 they want – want to settle out of court?
The steel towns have seen a change – employment in the mills dropped from 15,000 to less than 4,000 in under 4 years. And does the workload drop? Does the mill ever slow down? Never! Towns were decimated and mills closed down and cleared like they never existed. Has this all been rational? The Northern Economic Review criticises the need for closing mills on Teesside, but then economics doesn’t make sense or take into account the needs of people and communities. Consett only ever survived on steel – now its mills have disappeared. The decimation has gone on with towns and communities suffering and dying. To walk through an empty useless industrial wasteland is frightening. Its affect on those who must continue on in its wake can be catastrophic; with often no way forward and no escape.
British Steel is about to be privatised. To counteract the image of its miserable and murderous past it has commissioned clever adverts. Remember the man getting fit and trimming down to be in “shape for things to come”? All I can say is think of the countless steel workers and families who have been sacrificed. Think of the countless injured recovering, trying to get fit after another accident. This is how British Steel’s “health” has been achieved – the fitness fanatic carries dark secrets – decimation. Viability of plants is being questioned again – will Ravenscraig remain open? As a question of balance sheets it’s quite academic – being in the red means the threat of closure. Communities watch and wait while unease spreads. Privatisation means jobs hived off, re-negotiated or redesignated with only the communities around to suffer. After lifetimes of appalling conditions, poisoning, burning and killing the privatisation of British Steel is ominous and frightening.
It’s up to the communities and workers to take it into their own hands. After all, as the current advert says “we all need steel” and it most definitely has to be the workers’ right to decide at what price.
From: Direct Action #50, p5. July/August 1988.