Corus ructions

Steve Cooke reports on steel job losses in Redcar

On Monday December 14, a meeting of trade union activists was held in Middlesbrough to discuss how to respond to the recently announced closure of Corus’s steel plant in Redcar, where 1,700 jobs are threatened, with potentially devastating effects for the area’s economy and the local community.

The meeting was advertised as organised by the North East Shop Stewards Network, but there was a furious, and quite embarrassing, exchange of emails in the days running up to the meeting about whether or not those who had called it were authorised to do so in NESSN’s name, and numerous accusations and counteraccusations regarding the conduct of the network’s former treasurer, Socialist Party in England and Wales member Hannah Walter. NESSN regional secretary Dave Harker denounced the activists involved from the Socialist Workers Party and SPEW for their “sad sectarianism” and said that “members of these two small groups appear to think that they ‘own’ the network, and can act unilaterally in its name”. Consequently, there has been a flurry of messages, also sent to everyone in the network, from people requesting to be removed from the email list.

The meeting was chaired by comrade Walter and attended by around 30 activists, along with Norma Stephenson, the vice-chair of the Labour Party’s national executive committee, Ray Mallon, the independent, directly elected mayor of Middlesbrough, and an assistant to Redcar MP Vera Baird.

Speaking from the platform, Heather Meldrum from Community, the steel workers’ union, told the meeting that the livelihoods of many more people than the 1,700 employed at the plant would be affected by the closure. She said that it was not the bosses at Corus who should be blamed, but rather the parent company, Tata Group, and the consortium that had pulled out of the plant’s major contract. She said that the furnaces must not to be allowed to shut down or the plant would be lost forever, but there was no indication that she had even considered the idea that workers themselves might need to ensure the furnaces were kept fired. Instead she appeared to place great faith in the government’s ability to negotiate a solution and urged people to keep the issue alive through letter-writing campaigns and such like.

Keith Gibson, a leader of the Lindsey oil refinery strike and SPEW member, argued for a class perspective. He said that Lindsey workers had to struggle against the trade union bureaucracy as much as the oil company. The main obstacle to the Corus workers’ campaign was New Labour, which had refused to consider nationalising the steel plant and generally failed to represent the interests of working class people. Instead, a new workers’ party was needed to fight for workers’ interests rather than protect the profits of big business.

RMT member Peter Pinkney, speaking in a personal capacity, also focused on the Labour Party’s betrayal of ordinary working people, pointing to the government’s failure to keep its promises to renationalise the railways or repeal anti-trade union laws.

Ray Mallon criticised the lacklustre response of local Labour MPs, suggesting that most were too fearful of business secretary Peter Mandelson to make any waves. He too called for a campaign to keep the plant open. As is his way, however, much of his speech appeared to be about himself, fuelling suspicions that he intends to launch a campaign as an independent in next year’s general election. Mallon denied that later on in the meeting, but he has previously stated his interest in becoming an MP. There was one particularly excruciating moment when, referring to comrade Pinkney, Mallon - a former police chief - said that he had “never met a militant before”, but “wouldn’t mind voting for someone like you” if Pinkney stood as his successor for mayor.

Contributors from the floor raised a variety of issues, although nearly every member of SPEW who spoke seemed determined to use the phrase ‘new workers’ party’ as many times as possible. Disturbingly, another representative from the steel workers’ union tried to play down the political dimension and, apparently resigned to the worst possible outcome, called for more resources to be put into providing mental health support to those affected by the Corus plant’s closure.

Apart from three Community union representatives, only one worker from the plant attended the meeting. A member of Unite, he criticised the trade union leaders for keeping the membership in the dark and holding negotiations behind closed doors.

At one point Norma Stephenson, vice-chair of Labour’s NEC, and her Labour Party colleagues threatened to walk out of the meeting due to the attacks being made on the government and local MPs, who, they argued, were doing all they could to save the plant.

The SWP’s Yunus Bakhsh made a forceful intervention. He said that talk of a new workers’ party was “jackshit” unless the workers at Corus got organised to resist the closure plans. We need to look at the issues involved in this particular dispute and what could be done to support the workers there, he said, pointing to the workplace occupations at Visteon and Vestas as examples of what could be achieved by militant action.

Comrade Bakhsh, who is a firm supporter of the SWP central committee in its faction fight against John Rees’s Left Platform, made no mention of the Tyneside district SWP’s public condemnation of Left Platform supporter Tony Dowling for his “bureaucratic conduct” as NESSN secretary. Bakhsh urged people to attend a ‘Stop the jobs massacre’ meeting being organised under the auspices of the SWP-led Right to Work campaign on Monday December 21 in Redcar.

Since then, however, Dave Harker has emailed network members denouncing both the SWP and SPEW for using NESSN’s name in connection with the Redcar event, although the flyer distributed at the Middlesbrough meeting made no reference to NESSN.