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UK steel crisis: Government must step up, union boss tells Wednesfield workers

Dudley | News | Published:

The Government needs to take more action to support the crisis-hit steel industry, a union leader has said during a visit to Wednesfield's Steelpark.

The Tata Steel site is the biggest in the Black Country, with nearly 600 workers, but around 150 more work at sites in Brierley Hill, Walsall and Wednesbury.

Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of the largest steelworkers' union Community, updated union officials from all four sites at a meeting in the Steelpark's boardroom.

Some spoke of being 'forgotten' in the crisis sparked by Indian-owned Tata's decision to sell or close its UK operations.

Attention has focused on the steelmaking plant in Port Talbot, South Wales, which employs 4,000 of Tata Steel's 11,000-strong UK workforce.

But Mr Rickhuss, born in Wednesfield and a former Coppice schoolboy, said: "This is not about Port Talbot, this is about the rest of the industry in the UK. But Port Talbot is important; we need to produce cost-effective steel there if places like this are going to be able to add value to it, otherwise the business is not competitive."

And he praised the Wednesfield workforce for the way it had adapted to major reorganisation and change over the last few years. Dave Morby, union representative in the site's automotive centre, said: "You have a highly skilled, highly flexible workforce here. They have jumped through hoops over the last few years. The blokes here have all gone the extra mile."

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Now they are worried for their jobs, and for the pensions they have fought so hard for. Just last year Tata settled a dispute that nearly resulted in the first steel industry strike in 35 years, agreeing to drop proposals to end the company's final salary pension scheme.

But the workers now face a threat not just to their pensions, but to their livelihoods. Mr Rickhuss said a number of potential bidders for the steel business had come forward, and their offers will be considered by the Tata board in Mumbai next month.

But he said more practical action was needed from the Government to help the struggling steel industry, particularly in the face of the cheap imports being dumped in the European market by China.

"The Government has made a start, but it is small steps. It took nine months to impose just a nine per cent tariff on imports of rebar (reinforced bar steel used in construction). In the US tariffs were increased 260 per cent almost overnight."

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There was unanimous agreement at the Steelpark meeting that the Government should do more to ensure British steel is used in major projects, such as HS2. Mr Rickhuss said business rates were another issue; three to four times higher than those in France or Germany, the rates bill at Port Talbot had been hiked by £300,000 after investment in a new blast furnace.

"That's a disincentive for an industry that relies on investment," he said.

He said steel-making in the UK was vital, supporting up to 45,000 jobs in the economy. Its loss would result in the loss of the rest of the steel industry, "through a death by a thousand cuts".

Now aged 56, Roy Rickhuss was born in Wednesfield, the family moving to the new Ashmore Park estate when he was young. Roy went to Coppice School before starting work as an apprentice at the TI Weldless tube-making factory on Waddens Brook Lane – where the Wednesfield Steelpark stands today.

"My dad worked here for 35 years," he recalled. "They closed the steel tubes plant in the mid 1990s and then built this distribution hub here. There are more people working here now than there were at the old factory at its end."

By that stage Roy was working as a full time union officer at steelworks in Wales. He had joined the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) – now part of the Community union – in 1979 and later moved to work at Monmore Tubes in Dixon Street, Ettingshall, serving as branch president and branch secretary before leaving in 1993.

Now a grandfather, he has been general secretary of Community since 2013.

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