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Proletarian issue 69 (December 2015)
Industry matters: Steel industry in terminal decline
Around one sixth of Britain’s remaining steel industry workers have lost their jobs this year, with no sign of any slowing in the decay of the industry. Indeed, it shows every sign of being in terminal decline.

Thousands of steel workers’ jobs have been axed across the country. First, the liquidation of Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI) UK led to the closure of the company’s site in Redcar, Teeside, with the devastating loss of 2,200 jobs. The Redcar plant had been operating for 98 years. (See SSI Redcar steelworks to be shut, BBC News, 12 October 2015)

Soon after, Caparo went into administration, announcing over 300 job losses in the West Midlands in addition to more cuts in Hartlepool and at its Welsh sites. (See Caparo steel goes into partial administration, BBC News, 19 October 2015)

Then Tata Steel announced 1,200 job cuts in Scunthorpe and Lanarkshire. (See Tata Steel announces 1,200 job cuts, BBC News, 20 October 2015)

The current prospect of the complete demise of steel production in Britain threatens the livelihood of some 30,000 families, most of whom live in areas of already high unemployment .

The Labour party and the trade-union misleaders, along with the imperialist mass media, are seeking to pin the blame for this on China, citing the low cost of Chinese steel exports. However, the real cause of the collapse of Britain’s steel industry, along with mining and other former economic mainstays, lies in the policies pursued by successive British governments, both Conservative and Labour, over decades.

In 1965, the number of workers in the plants of the then British Steel Corporation (BSC) stood at 817,000. In January 1980, steelworkers began a bitter 13-week strike as the privatisation and wage-cutting agenda of the Thatcher government, elected the previous year, started to kick in.

This strike was, predictably, betrayed by the Labour and trade-union leaderships. Mass steel production in Scotland effectively ended with the closure of the Ravenscraig plant in 1992, despite a protracted struggle by the workers and their local communities. So vital had the plant been to local life that the town of Motherwell had been popularly nicknamed Steelopolis.

This wilful destruction of a once-thriving steel industry by a parasitic imperialist ruling class occurred long before China, or any other developing country, was a significant steel exporter. When the likes of Jeremy Corbyn attempt to outflank the Tories from the right, demanding that the government “stand up to China” on the steel issue, they not only fuel reactionary and social-chauvinist attacks on a developing socialist country that was once the plaything of British imperialism; they also prevent the class struggle of the British working class from even getting off the ground by presenting friends (the socialist countries and workers in other countries generally) as enemies and enemies (the British ruling class, the EU and imperialism generally) as friends.

Such indeed has been the time-dishonoured role of social democracy – at the very least since its respective parties led the working classes of Europe into the charnel houses of the trenches under the deceptive slogan of “defence of the fatherland”.

The only way to save the steel industry in Britain is to fight class against class with the strategic objective of establishing the rule of working people. We will then be able to create a planned socialist economy geared to serving the interests of all workers – not only in this country, but throughout the world.

Kohler workers’ strike in the US

US manufacturing conglomerate the Kohler Company last month faced the fourth major strike in its 140-year history as workers backed by the United Auto Workers (UAW) trade union brought proceedings to a halt on 15 November. Their action followed years of wage inequality, imposed on 400 new staff since 2010.

Kohler, famous for its production of bathroom and kitchen units, plumbing supplies and a whole host of other products, also owns a string of hotels. The company has given its name to the village it founded in Wisconsin in 1900 to house its employees. The company is still the major employer in the village.

Back in 2010, workers at Kohler were pushed into accepting a concessionary contract. The terms of the contract were a pay freeze for five years, an increase in healthcare premiums, and the creation of a two-tier wage and benefit system, whereby existing employees were protected (for the time being) from the 65 percent lower wage packets that new employees were being offered.

In addition, the ‘limited’ use of temporary employees was accepted by the workers, both in continuing to cut back numbers of permanent employees and in creating the conditions whereby scab labour would be available in the event of strikes.

While most Kohler workers hired before 2010 make around $25 an hour, workers employed post-2010 have had that basic rate almost halved – capped at $13 hourly irrespective of the individual’s skill or experience. Additionally, healthcare costs since 2010 have been raised by 800 percent, from around $35 to over $280 per month.

Unsurprisingly, since the imposition of the concessionary contract and its slashing of workers’ pay (forced under familiar threat that the recession made such drastic measures necessary to keep the company afloat), the Kohler family’s wealth has increased from an already somewhat impressive $2.2bn to an astronomical $7.4bn. Clearly, the lack of profitability originally cited by the company as the reason for its draconian cuts to wages and conditions was merely a deceptive cloak for a further assault by Kohler on workers’ rights and livelihoods to quench an unquenchable thirst for profits.

Kohler workers have now demanded the abolition of the two-tier system, the raising of wages of post-2010 employees to the benchmark of pre-2010 staff, asking merely for equality among all its workers.

In a truly insincere response, Kohler made its ‘final offer’ of a pay increase that, after three years’ employment, would amount to an incremental rise of 8 cents an hour. But Kohler workers dismissed this shameful offer and its sweetener of a bonus of $1,200 – which would barely cancel out proposed further increases in healthcare costs!

One worker, who has been employed by the company for 15 years, said: “It’s a billion-dollar company haggling over pennies.” Since the strike started, the UAW has stated that it has had no response from management about returning to negotiations.

But, as uncertain as the unfolding of this particular struggle may appear, one thing that is certain is that the workers at Kohler have a long history of standing united and strong against their mistreatment by corporate management. In July 1934, Kohler workers went on strike after demands made by the American Federation of Labour (AFL) for a 62.5 percent wage increase and a 25 percent reduction in hours resulted in second-generation Walter Kohler closing the plant.

Kohler called in armed thugs, relying on tear gas and guns to respond to attacks on company property, which resulted in more than 40 demonstrators being injured and two killed. Two hundred and fifty National Guard were even called out against the protestors, who, during this time, had confined Mr Kohler to the boundaries of his own building.

In September that year, Kohler workers finally won their first major battle, as a ‘union shop’ was legally secured through Congress at the company.

Then, in 1954, began the longest strike in US history after Kohler Company again refused to meet a number of workers’ demands over salary, insurance, pensions and union security. Over 80 percent of the workforce turned out day after day, year after year demanding a fair deal, and causing plant closure for two months.

Kohler’s management soon sought out non-unionised workers and resumed production, but they were still not able to defeat the workers, who for over six years stood firm and maintained their demands, preventing the normal operation of the plant.

As a result of this epic struggle, Kohler was ordered to reinstate 1,700 workers who had been laid off, and was later forced to pay $3m in compensation to those who had not been reemployed and another $1.5m in pension fund contributions, proving once again that defiance against mismanagement through militant class struggle is the only way for workers truly to achieve their goals.

The New American – The Kohler Strike of 1954
Big Story – Hundreds of union members picket in strike at Kohler Company
Fight Back – Kohler workers on strike
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