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Steelwork closures and the importance of class and place

In recent weeks, in my local neighbourhood in Teesside, I have been struck by something: increasing numbers of public conversations between middle aged men about their efforts to find work. These conversations are happening in the queue at the local shop, on the pavement outside the shops, in the car parks. These are middle-aged men who have been recently made redundant after the closure of the steel works up the road in Redcar. The conversations are invariably very similar, with the men recounting how they are ‘at a loose end’ or ‘completely bored’. They share information about possible job opportunities, trading names and numbers and talk with seemingly muted optimism of the hope that something will turn up. Some talk of industries they think are recruiting or might offer the best chances of employment if they retrain. Apparently sheet metal stripping might be on the up in the local area. These men talk about all the things you might expect from those who are out of work but would prefer to be in it.

Despite what the popular press and many politicians want us to believe, research with the unemployed repeatedly shows that people prefer to work. Yet, in Teesside decent lasting jobs are scarce and churning in and out of low paid jobs has long been the norm for many. This is a problem which is only likely to get worse as the numbers of unemployed swell and those with better skills (for example, many who lost work when the steel works closed) compete with those with less skills and qualifications for jobs which are scarce and all too often low paid and insecure.

Redcar is without question a working class town. Like many seaside towns on the edges of previously largely industrialised conurbations it has suffered over the years. For now, as for the last one hundred and seventy years, the landscape remains dominated by the works and the huge blast furnace. It is a sight that is both dramatic and eerily striking and one that is saturated in class heritage and class imagery.

The contrast between that image and some of the sharply dressed government Ministers who eventually found their way to Redcar (and who were usually interviewed outside of the works) was at times almost palpable. Minsters often looked - and quite likely felt - out of place. People of the social class background that make up much of this current government simply do not belong in places like Redcar. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it’s a truth all the same.

Chakraborrty highlights the stark differences between the efforts made to save the banking industry (from a crisis of their own making) in contrast to the dismal efforts made by David Cameron’s government in respect of trying to rescue the steel industry and raises the important and pertinent question about what sorts of people and places matter? It may well just be an unfortunate coincidence that the bankers share more class heritage with those in the government than the steel workers, but on the other hand it might not.

Discourses of value and worth are an increasingly important part of the political landscape. Despite what we are told – that we all in it together, that social class no longer matters - the truth is it matters a lot. It matters for what is happening in Redcar and it matters for what will happen in years to come. Lord Heseltine recently observed that there was probably no better time to lose your job given the ‘exciting’ state of the economy, yet even with the best will in the world it is unlikely that the redundant steel workers on Redcar will share either his optimism or his excitement.

The consequences of this closure will be dire, the only question being just how dire. It is nothing short of disingenuous to suggest otherwise. In describing the steel works as an industry of the past Heseltine deliberately evokes a sense of a community clinging to industries that are out dated. Such remarks are carefully crafted to feed a wider discourse that portrays certain people and certain places as losers, as somehow lagging behind or failing to move with the times.

This is an increasingly vociferous and unpleasant form of class prejudice that ultimately allows the disadvantaged to be blamed for their own predicament whilst at the same time giving governments the mandate to enact policies which make ordinary people suffer and which assault the very essence of working class lives. There is, at the moment at least, some sympathy for the steel workers who have lost their jobs, but it is unlikely to last. Heseltine’s ‘exciting’ economy is largely a fiction on Teesside but it is almost inevitable that sooner or later the conversation will turn to what the workers on Teesside struggling to find jobs lack, just as it always does.

So, as redundant steel workers march on parliament, the steel industry as a whole barely limps forward. It has been decimated on Teesside and in Scotland and hangs by an ever-dwindling thread in Scunthorpe. It seems, as with the coalmines under Margaret Thatcher the fight is all but lost. But on Teesside broader hope still remains, supported by a longstanding and resilient working class work ethic. Decent, hard-working, ordinary, people supported the dying days of the blast furnace in Redcar with no knowledge of if they would be paid and in the full knowledge that they were probably heading for the dole queue.

The massive steel plant still looms large on the landscape of the town but it will quite likely, before too long have to be demolished (assuming there is the investment to do it). This fact has not passed redundant workers by and perhaps it is right that sheet metal stripping will be the next big thing for Teesside, but if it is, it will be at the loss of an industry and its iconic towering structure that for one hundred and seventy years (for the most part) provided a decent livelihood for generations of workers on Teesside.