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Personal Story: Last of the hearts of steel

Forty years ago this week, my dad and grandpa went on the 1980 National Steel Strike, the first of the Thatcher era. That strike is overshadowed by what later happened to the miners, but it set the template for the decade to come.

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I knew I was home when I saw the flames. They spewed from the mouths of gigantic iron men, heads engulfed in orange smoke, lined up against a milky-blue evening sky. I’d known this tableau all my life: Port Talbot’s steelworks were sulphurous and soothing, familiar and frightening. But on my train journeys back home in the early 2000s, they cast a different shadow.

My stepdad, Glyn, whom I have long called Dad, would pick me up at the town’s station after work. He had worked in south Wales’s steel and tinplate industry all his life, in sales and statistics across five different plants, around two crushing redundancies. Forty years ago, at the age of 25, he went on the 1980 National Steel Strike, the first of the Thatcher era. So did my maternal grandpa, Con Jones, then a 60-year-old tinning line operator born into a poor family outside Llanelli. That strike is suppressed in collective memory by what later happened to the miners, but it set the template for the decade to come. It started to pull apart the power of the unions and hardened the new Conservative government’s ideological resolve.

Abbey Works opened just south of Port Talbot’s Aberavon beach in July 1951, although there had been earlier works in the town, with iron and lead ores having first been extracted by Margam Abbey’s monks in the 13th century. Plans for the plant arrived in the wave of industrial optimism after the Second World War. It was fully operational by 1953 and by the time the industry was nationalised in 1967, it was the largest steelworks in Europe (and Wales’s biggest employer, with a workforce of 18,000).

Other tinplate plants were also built after the war, such as Trostre in Llanelli and Felindre, north of Swansea. My grandfather found a job in the latter after a fortune teller at a fair in Porthcawl told him he would be getting a job in the East. The reality was less mystical. For years he did shift work, often doubling down after nights to work in the day. He never missed a day’s work in his life apart from the strike, and he developed heart problems in his forties. After he retired, he’d tell me how I should do a job that made me happy, “and bugger the rest”. I knew that steel wasn’t a romantic life, but that tough work had been rewarded with security – until it wasn’t.

Dad was working in British Steel’s Swansea sales office when he took to the picket lines in 1980. He had also become a Labour councillor on 3 May 1979. “Just like Maggie,” he said the other day, waspishly. “My claim to fame.” There had been losses at British Steel after the mid-Seventies recession, although productivity was moving back up. But profitability was the new cabinet’s mantra. The then secretary of state for industry, Keith Joseph, said there would be no wage increases from New Year’s Day 1980. The strike began on the second.

The Hansard report of parliamentary debates from 17 January 1980 proves instructive. Newport’s Labour MP Roy Hughes rails against Joseph for failing to mention the proposed 11,400 redundancies at Port Talbot and Llanwern: “Friends from west Wales are all too well aware that alternative jobs are just not available… the secretary of state’s attitude was callous… for generations to come the name Joseph will stink in the nostrils.” Joseph’s Labour shadow, John Silkin, foresaw what was to come. “I suppose that next the government will refuse to continue the production of titanium if no profit is made so that we can rely on Russian titanium. Such an attitude is more than stupid.”

The government was “hell-bent” on killing the steel industry, “and that was clear very quickly after they came in,” my dad added. I asked if he had initially thought the strike would work. His answer surprised me. “No. Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t.”

The strike was about pay and the threat of plant closures; he wishes it had been about preserving jobs. At the time, Dad was still living at home with his father, Mostyn, who worked on the buses, and his mother, Mary. Both kept his head above water for the 92 days that the strike lasted (he could only claim £5 a week from his union’s strike fund). In many ways he was lucky; he had a roof over his head and family support. A neighbour of mine had three young sons and a mortgage he was struggling to pay. My best friend Jess’s dad lost his job and became a cockle-seller around local pubs. Jess’s mum helped set up Women’s Aid in the area and supported steel-worker families. Her work moved to the miners as the decade wore on.

The steel strike ended in April 1980, with a smaller pay rise and tough conditions agreed. In July, a savage rationalisation programme began, described by an anodyne two syllables: “slimline”. By the end of the year, Port Talbot and Llanwern had lost half of their employees (elsewhere in the country, Consett, Corby and Shotton closed completely). My father held on, and was moved to Felindre, staying in that ghost town until 1989, the year he married my mother and had my baby brother, James. Then he lost his job.

I still remember the feeling, the dread in the belly, on the day Felindre’s huge cooling tower was blown up. David Gentleman’s beautiful British Steel logo – an “S” formed of two smelted-together, modernist lines –  was no longer on our horizon. It felt like something inside had been atomised. My mother had gone back to her teaching job early, and Dad eventually found temporary work 60 miles away in Ebbw Vale, then permanently in Trostre, from which he got made redundant again when my elder brother and I were at university. He finally left steel in 2010 and now works part-time at a local council, where he’s happy.

Abbey Works is still there in Port Talbot, despite further redundancies, and new threats of closure recently from Tata Steel. It’s still projecting the drama of the many ordinary lives into the skies. The idea of it going is both inevitable and unthinkable, blazing in the wind. 

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran