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The fight for a greener and cleaner steel

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Community reps lead the campaign for just transition in the steel manufacturing industry

“Steel is something that we touch every single day with our computers and laptops, without steel surgeons wouldn't be able to perform their operations…So I think we've got to have transitions for every aspect of work.”

Tata Steel is the biggest steel manufacturing company in the UK, employing 8,000 workers in the UK, half of which are based in Port Talbot.

Jacqueline Thomas is a green rep and a union learning rep for Community Union at Tata Steel in Llanwern South Wales where she has worked for 15 years. Having grown up in a coal and steel mining town in the 1980s Thomas witnessed the impact of mine closures on local communities, which led to the loss of well-paid jobs and entire towns struggling. Now, as one of the few women reps in the industry, Thomas is campaigning across Tata Steel sites with GMB and Unite Green and Health and Safety reps for a just transition in the UK steel industry.

In recent years, the UK steel industry has faced challenges which is threatening industry jobs. As one of the biggest industrial carbon emitters in the UK, the industry also faces a government target to reach net-zero by 2035. Industry-wide discussions to move steel production overseas for cheaper costs and to reduce UK carbon emissions has left union members worried for their livelihoods.

In February 2017, members from Unite, Community and GMB voted to reduce their pension benefits to guarantee no compulsory job losses. However, in September 2019 Tata Steel announced 380 jobs would be cut with the closure of the steel-making plant in Newport, South Wales.

Thomas explained how labelling steel manufacturing as a “dirty industry”, closing plants and moving manufacturing overseas will not solve the problem. “By importing steel, we're just moving the problem to another country but not having a feasible solution.”

According to Thomas, a feasible solution, for Community members is a just transition for jobs which could include “up-skilling some of the workforce" especially younger workers just starting out at Tata Steel. Thomas emphasised that steel is essential for a future green economy in the UK and how saving the steel industry is essential for a just transition for other sectors, including the automotive industry.

In Port Talbot green reps double up as health safety reps and have been involved in Community’s recent report into the decarbonisation of the steel industry. “We’ve got to find something…It’s no good people criticising us saying we’re not looking for things.” Thomas explained how Community is working together with Swansea University around new technologies to decarbonise steel manufacturing.

The best technological option for making zero-carbon steel in the UK, and maximising job creation, would be to invest in Direct Reduced Iron technology with hydrogen, according to research for Community and the Materials Processing Institute by engineering consultancy Syndex. The technology is costly – so Community is campaigning for the investment required.

Even before green reps existed, Thomas has long been an environmental campaigner in her workplace. In the last month alone, Thomas has brought proposals to management around solar panels in the roof spaces and wind turbines on Tata Steel buildings to generate electricity. In addition to campaigning to management, Thomas – in her role as union learning rep – is promoting union training to raise awareness around decarbonisation and green workplaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased steelworkers’ ability to adapt at work: “We’re pretty good at adapting in the steel industry, especially in Llanwern and Port Talbot, we are pretty quick to adapt nowadays and try new ways of working.” Thomas explained how recent adaptations at work have helped steelworkers imagine a different future for their industry.

Thomas with fellow union reps continues to fight for just transition for steelworkers: “Yes it is a dirty industry but it can get greener.”

This blog is part of our Just Transition series featuring union reps who are leading the climate transformation in their workplaces.

Researched and written for the TUC by the Global Labour Institute. To begin the conversation about future-proofing your own workplace, take the TUC’s 15-minute online primer! Click here to begin.

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