Original article with pictures:
Seven-hundred-and-fifty jobs are being cut at the UK’s largest steelworks – but Port Talbot is not alone. Stephen Evans has covered the steel industry in several countries, and when the British announcement was made, he was in Hangzhou in China where the city’s steel plant has just closed.
There is something particularly poignant about the closure of a steelworks. Wherever it happens, the sentiments are the same – the same sense of dazed fear in the faces of redundant steelworkers, the same helplessness in the face of economic forces which have blasted in like a hurricane and demolished their futures.
I have seen it in south Wales, in Gary, Indiana in the United States and now in Hangzhou in China. They always say the same thing: “I’ve got a family to support – what on Earth am I going to do?”
I’m sure you could put the redundant workers from China in the same room as those from Port Talbot and they’d talk the same language. They compete with each other in a brutal global market but I think they share the same outlook.
I went round the derelict works in Hangzhou and it could have been the plant in Port Talbot where I worked in the holidays when I was a student – the dark cavern of the rolling mill, the blast furnace, the smell of sulphur even though the Chinese works has been closed for a month.
When the last shift there ended, the men clearly just got up and left, never to return. Helmets with visors and thick asbestos steelworkers’ gloves lay where they were dropped.
Wherever you go, when steelworkers lose their jobs towns wither. I witnessed the poverty in Gary, Indiana when redundancy and closure was relentlessly cutting jobs in its huge steel mill from the 30,000 employees of the heyday down to the current 5,000. The town was desperate, with the highest murder rate in the United States.
Port Talbot in South Wales, in the UK, depends on steel but with far fewer workers these days. Even though the blast furnaces spewed out smoke so acrid it burned the mountain behind the town bare and barren, there was prosperity when I worked there. People had new cars. Fences had fresh paint. It sounds sentimental but people were proud of their ugly town.
Later, I worked on the local paper and covered the steel strike in 1981. Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s industry minister, came to visit and steelworkers decided they would greet him. Before he arrived, pickets and police chatted amicably. They had been to the same rugby match the Saturday before. I remember one worker saying to another with a policeman looking on: “How’s your wife for eggs, Dai,” and then handing the other worker a carton of eggs.
Sir Keith duly arrived in the ministerial car and – amazing though it now seems – got out and greeted the horny-handed sons of toil. There was then a lot of jostling between police and pickets. Eggs were thrown to no effect. Sir Keith scuttled back into the black car which reversed away at speed. Interruption over, the police and pickets resumed their conversation about the fortunes – or lack of them – of Aberavon Rugby Football Club.
In its heyday in the 60s, there were nearly 20,000 people working in the steelworks in Port Talbot. Today there are 4,000. Lots clearly had to change. There was a class system, with seven grades of canteen, up to the directors’ canteen which I imagine had wooden-panelled walls. I ate in the lowest place. Students working their summers were the lowest of the low. There was a blast furnaceman who used to delight in ordering me to follow him through clouds of choking gas, I imagine as punishment for being able to escape to soft-skinned book-learning.
Port Talbot and Gary, Indiana are different from Hangzhou in one significant way: they both have trade unions representing steelworkers. None of the men I talked to in China expected anything from their union – why would they? In communist China, official unions are puppets of the state.
I wonder what Deng Xiaoping would think. He was the great Chinese leader who ducked and dived his way through the madness of Maoism to emerge and overthrow it. Deng asked in 1990: “Why do the people support us? Because our economy has been developing,” he said, answering his own question. “If the economy stagnated, that would be a political problem.”
Deng would be worried about the closure of the steelworks in Hangzhou. He might wonder if China’s workers would ever turn on China’s comrades – something to think about in the leadership’s compound in Beijing in these days of unruly capitalism.