UK: Steel's big chill. (3 of 3)

UK: Steel's big chill. (3 of 3) - If British Steel's management is reluctant to give forecasts, it has been quick to bite the bullet. Since the early '80s the future of the Ravenscraig strip mill has been in doubt, but any remaining optimism is cooling f

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If British Steel's management is reluctant to give forecasts, it has been quick to bite the bullet. Since the early '80s the future of the Ravenscraig strip mill has been in doubt, but any remaining optimism is cooling faster than one of the giant coils of steel visible from Madden's window. Slimmed down to one production line on short-time working, the end is now just a matter of time.

Elsewhere workers have been laid off in Scunthorpe and at Clydesdale and 5,000 managers are to be laid off. But this may still not be enough. Many analysts now think that another plant will have to close too. As Graham points out, the French-based Usinor Sacilor, the second largest producer in the world, produces 12 million tonnes of flat steel on three sites, while British Steel produces only six million on its three. Economies of scale suggest that production may be concentrated further, particularly in the current climate.

Workers are pessimistic too, but their manner is markedly different from past belligerence. Now shop stewards prefer to talk about golden days after the recession. Ken Williams, the assistant secretary to Slimline, believes that opportunities may lurk in the gloom. "We'll be better positioned to take advantage of an upturn in the market than anyone," he claims.

Sitting beside him, WO nods sagely. He commands the true reverence reserved in Wales for international rugby players (bigger in his case because he played in a team that beat the All Blacks in 1955 - "Sadly there's not many Welshmen that can say that," jokes Williams). But suddenly WO leans forward and says candidly: "We're not going to have a good year in Port Talbot and I won't put my hand on my heart and say we won't have short time."

Trade unionists say that any management plans to improve productivity will be met constructively. "If it's a question of survival we'll do it," says WO, and beside him Williams concedes that the board may use the economic climate to speed up its plans to concentrate production.

"The key to understanding Port Talbot's prospects is Ravenscraig - that's taken the brunt of falling production," says Williams. By dangling a sword of Damocles in the form of closure over the heads of the five major liquid steel producers, the board divided the plants. Williams and WO remain loyal to their union principles, but they say that their prime duty has to be to the Port Talbot workers.

For both of them, the effective death of Ravenscraig is worrying. Everyone who works in the industry knows the most basic fact of production - that furnaces need to operate as close to capacity as possible. Not only does this help with the economies of scale but it also greatly aids quality control. As demand plummets, and with Scotland no longer there to take the brunt of falling orders, it seems likely that another plant will contract a slow, but inevitably terminal, illness - might it be Port Talbot or Llanwern?

It was a possibility recognised long ago. As early as 1982, when Ian MacGregor was quizzed by a House of Commons select committee on how many of the company's three strip mill plants were surplus to requirements, his answer was characteristically blunt. "About two," he snapped.

Local worries in South Wales are a long way removed from the City. For steel shareholders the good news is that the leaps forward in productivity over the '80s can easily be continued. The future is less certain for the workers at Port Talbot. They turn for luck to the 12th century abbey wall, uncovered when the dunes were levelled. It stands fenced off with girders and almost dwarfed by a modern brick buttress. "They say that if it falls the plant will close," explains a worker. "As you can see, we're taking no chances."

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