Thursday, 5 January 2012

What's happening at Tata Steel in Scunthorpe?

This is an unpublished article - it was written for Unite works magazine in September 2011. 

Given the opportunity to retire at 60 on a generous final salary pension, as well as the added bonus of a lump sum, then most people would jump at it. Especially when it would bring to an end 37 years as a steelworker in one of Europe’s largest plants. Bill Gray, Unite works convenor at Tata Steel in Scunthorpe, is different.  Stung by having to deal with the loss of over a thousand jobs, a quarter of the workforce, he’s determined to help ensure a brighter future for those he represents and the local economy as a whole.

It means he’s willing to support plans for new products, involving moving out of low market value steel products, and into more valuable markets such as high grade plate, tyre cord and rail. “It’s a case of quality, rather than quantity, as lower wage levels in Eastern Europe, India and China means they can produce bulk steel considerably cheaper” says Bill realistically.

All of which has meant big losses. So with the construction industry still battered by the worldwide economic crisis brought on by irresponsible banking practices - not forgetting the subsequent austerity measures adopted by the likes of the UK government - then Bill doesn’t mind admitting he “feared that if the previous owners Corus hadn’t sold up to Tata we would now be moving towards closure.”  

So whilst he certainly wasn’t happy in May to be informed that cuts in Tata’s Long Products division was going to hit Scunthorpe particularly hard he was buoyed by news that the company was going to invest up to £400 million in it over the next five years. As part of this £4.2 million is being spent next year installing new fans, motors and drives to save energy and reduce emissions at Scunthorpe.

Meanwhile there have been no plans to reduce the number of new apprentices, with 65 set to start in September.

They’ll be studying to become fitters, welders, electricians, chemists and metallurgists and Bill is delighted saying; “We are going to need these skills as we move forward and seek new markets. We have an ageing workforce and we need to equip young people with some real skills during their three-year apprenticeships and then continue to update these through their working lives. Unite wants to see the skills levels on site increase and will push, and work with, management and other unions to ensure this happens.” 

Meanwhile though there’s the difficult problem of working through who might be losing their current jobs. Because most are on the process side then Unite members aren’t being hit as hard as those in Community. That’s no real consolation to Bill and all unions on site have worked together on convincing management - successfully he believes - that considerably fewer posts should be axed.

There’s a real determination to prevent compulsory redundancies, helped, in part by the fact that steelworkers can retire aged 60 with a pension that matches their final salary scale.

The unions will also negotiate a voluntary redundancy package for those who want to leave and have backed a local Task Force whose aims include helping find alternative employment or support to set up in business.

Meanwhile Bill is, after the Task Force met Prime Minister David Cameron, looking to see the Government “buy into the concept of wind energy” and as such build on the support it gave earlier this year to the construction by E.On of 77 wind turbines five miles off nearby Spurn Point. Once operational the Humber Gateway offshore wind farm should generate enough electricity to power 150,000 homes a year.

That though could be a drop in the ocean. In June 2008 the previous Government drew up plans to build up to 7,000 wind turbines at a cost of £80 billion, something business secretary Vince Cable was reminded of by local council’s when he visited Scunthorpe in July.

Bill Gray, and all Tata employees, are now hoping for further developments and he shares the views of Unite at a national level which is that the ‘wind energy sector has the potential to generate nearly quarter of a million UK ‘green’ jobs, helping lead the UK out of the recession and towards energy security.  Unite believes this vital green industry is in danger of being totally lost to countries which are doing more to support this emerging market.”

Thousands more wind turbines will mean much more high-grade steel will be needed. Steel, a refashioned Scunthorpe plant will be in a position to supply. Thus generating much needed profits that “can then be invested to help ensure a long-term sustainable future for the Scunthorpe plant when the construction industry begins its revival” said Bill anticipating a time when he will finally be able to enjoy his own retirement.    

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