One of the problems I regularly encounter teaching undergraduate students sociology is their use of the term ‘post-industrial’ in their essays, by which they often mean that countries like the UK no longer have industry or the jobs that went with it. I have to point out that the UK still has around five million industrial jobs out of an active labour market of over thirty million workers. OK, it’s not the seventeen million workers that once populated the mines, factories, shipyards, and other plants when Britain was the workshop of the world, but it does represent a substantial number of predominately working-class jobs.
Ironically, the general public, politicians and journalists have recently been reminded of Britain’s industrial present by the announcement of a string of closures in what remains of the UK steel industry. I think many had assumed that steel was already part of industrial history, given that it attracted virtually no attention — until now. Politicians and journalists group expressed collective surprise that there were still 30,000 steel workers employed in the sector, albeit down from over 200,000 in the late 1970s and early 1980s. London journalists have been dispatched to the less well travelled parts of the kingdom to file stories lamenting closures in the North East of England, Scotland, and Wales where some 4,000 highly skilled workers will lose their jobs. And that is, I think, one of the important dangers of the neglect of working-class employment. While much attention is paid to retail work, distribution hubs, and call centre employment, we have forgotten the restructured parts of heavy traditional industry, which has tended to specialise in high-tech value added manufacture. For example, the steel industry has concentrated on advanced high quality production, and the aero-engine sector is a world leader. Again, this has led to a skewed representation of the working class as exclusively low paid, low skilled workers, or worse, people who rely on benefits. In such representations working-class life is denuded of its agency or simply constructed as a problem.
The most high profile of the steel industry casualties has been the Redcar plant on Teesside in the North East of England, situated at the heart of an already depressed economy. This is despite significant recent investment to the tune of half a billion pounds pumped in by its latest Thai owners, SSI. The local community, with regional and national support, has waged a high profile campaign to save the works. It seems highly unlikely that any of the 2,000 plus steel jobs directly supported by the plant will be saved. The 1,000 contractors who also labour at the site will also lose their positions. The works injects an estimated £70 million into the local economy directly in wages, with the multiplier effect of jobs and services increasing it economic impact considerably. Process workers at the plant were earning between £30-40,000 per year, considerably above the national average and light years away from local wages for semi and unskilled positions. These were good skilled working-class jobs, and the area will miss them badly.
The coverage of the closures reminds people that there is still an important industry in the UK that is both high-tech and vital for the continued existence of other industries. The ability to make a commodity as fundamental as steel has massive implications for other sources of employment in advanced industries. The closure of one plant has a wider impact, as well, in the knowledge infrastructure of an industrial district or region – the teaching and training supporting apprenticeships, the design workers involved in creating new products, and the component manufacturers and maintenance workers required to service the plant and machinery. Snuffing out one set of jobs fatally undermines the others.
The Conservative government has effectively washed its hands of responsibility for the future of the industry. To be fair, ministers point to the lack of demand for steel coupled with overcapacity in world markets and the dumping of vast quantities of Chinese steel. But they have also cynically blamed the high energy costs UK manufactures face and pinned these on environmental levees. The targeting of ‘green taxes’ and other progressive environmental programs has been one of the defining features of the new fully Conservative administration since its election in May, one which also has profound implications for good working-class jobs. The administration has encouraged the fracking industry to explore the English countryside in search of shale gas and signed agreements with the Chinese government to build new nuclear capacity with huge public subsidies. Both actions effectively undermine the future of green energy. Around the same time the steel announcements were made the government closed a consultation on a proposed 87% cut in subsidies for the nascent solar industry just as it is about to achieve a sustainable critical mass. The solar and wind energy industries are UK success stories with something like 2 million homes powered by solar alone, 8GW installed in the last five years from a zero base. At times last winter close to 20% of the UK’s energy needs were supplied by wind power. The industry’s leaders have labelled the decision to cut subsidies ‘obscene’ and ‘ideological’, and the Solar Trade Association warns that the move could cost as many as 27,000 existing jobs.
While some of the existing environmental jobs are highly skilled graduate level positions, not working-class jobs, many are just the kind of high paying skilled working-class jobs that would off-set some of those lost in places like Teesside. Indeed, while “green collar” jobs are often labour intensive and skilled, they also rely on high tech manufacturing. The wind industry requires huge amounts of sophisticatedly made steel, for example, a connection that policy makers don’t seem to understand. Political ignorance of industrial sectors and their long term requirements often leads them to decisions that undermine good working-class jobs, both those with long histories or potentially bright futures.