Means Of Production

Entry by: Mackemwriter

8th April 2016
Means of Production – Personal Musings

Looking out from my daughters’ bedroom window I can see the imposing Stadium of Light, home to Sunderland Football Club. An ornamental miners lamp stands guard giving a nod towards the industry that once thrived on this former colliery site. Flanked by an Aquatic Centre and a Hilton Hotel, the dirt and grime of days gone by are now replaced by a shiny new beacon of hope. Hope that Sunderland can rise from the ashes and new investments in the football club and its surroundings can carve a bright economical future back in to this once thriving, industrial city.

The truth is the heart of the city was ripped out decades ago when our mines and our shipyards were closed. The means of production that this city built its reputation upon were strangled, the life squeezed out of them until production was stopped. Once famed for its ships exported around the world, the banks of the River Wear are now lined with university buildings and accommodation. The riverside is pretty, with the odd arty sculpture thrown in here and there but where is the work? Those families, and there were many, steeped in a rich history of industrial employment, lost everything. The city lost it’s soul.

A few weeks after the birth of our first daughter Honor, now 4, my husband Paul received confirmation that he had successfully completed his application to become a steel-worker at SSI, Redcar. Brilliant! A job for life! A good, honest steady income, nearly double what he was used to. Over the next four years Paul settled in to his new career and honestly loved his job. His pride was clear to see. Every time we ventured South from Sunderland along the A19 Paul would point out towards the blast furnace and smoke plumes, “that’s where daddy works.”

D-Shift. Paul, Tony, Billy, Eddie, Zach, John, Scott among others. They called themselves brothers, looked out for one another in an often all too dangerous environment. We enjoyed time together as couples and I’d never seen Paul happier than when he was in their company. What a great set of lads. The last time we all got together was at Zach’s wedding. 12th September 2015. All was good, everyone happy, the food and drink flowing. Eddie chatted about his holiday home in Spain. Tony was eagerly awaiting the birth of two grandchildren. Billy was enjoying newly married life himself. Scott couldn't make it that day as his wife was due to give birth at any given time. Men with bright futures, happy, proud and positive. It really was a great day.

Two weeks later we celebrated Honor’s 4th birthday, inviting the family round for tea. There had been rumblings in the news about the possibility of a production pause at SSI. However, Paul maintained that this would be a temporary measure until the price of steel picked up again and production could restart. Looking back Paul didn’t want to fear the worst. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than losing his job and did not want to let that thought enter his head. It didn’t matter. Each day more news broke about the state of the finances at SSI and it soon became apparent that there were going to be job losses. Maybe we could have coped with job losses. Coping with the loss of a 170 year old industry was a different story.

Paul went to work as normal the following Thursday as directed by management. He returned the following day and when I spoke to him during our lunch breaks he, unbelievably, continued to remain upbeat and refused to acknowledge that his job was at risk. I, on the other hand, expected the worst and my fears were well founded when Paul called me at 5pm. Choking back tears I heard Paul say the words, “game over.”

That was it. Lockers had to be cleared and the site vacated. There was to be no notice period. The men were sent home, unlikely to ever work together again. Utter shock and disbelief at the speed with which Paul lost his job caused us great confusion. Who would help us? Where do we turn? Honestly, it was traumatic and chaotic. There was no formal, written explanation until the following week and that's when it began to sink in that Paul would not be returning to Teeside as a steel-worker.

We looked to the government to help. There was no way that Teeside could lose this industry forever, Paul was certain the government would step in and give time for a buyer to be sought. How wrong could he be? The government did not want to know. The Redcar MP, Anna Turley, did her best but when only a handful of MP’s turn up to a steel debate in Parliament it shows how important the industry is to them. Perhaps we should have realised that this government would not care about the damage it would do to the north east given its predecessors disregard when industrial closures have occurred here before. The least the government could have done was to provide some time. No way! The government wanted the industry destroying as quickly as possible. Once the decision to shut off the coke ovens was made, the death knell for steel-making on Teeside was sounded. Once cooled the coke ovens would collapse in on themselves, rendering it impossible to produce steel.

The site of Redcar Steelworks is now desolate, quiet, devoid of all production. The odd stray cat may lurk and birds sit on the roofs where once they would have been scared away by the noise of machinery and men working. Redcar, just as Sunderland, has now lost it’s soul, it’s heartbeat. The area will be devastated by the closure of the plant. The knock-on effect for surrounding businesses and suppliers cannot be underestimated. 1200 men cut adrift and expected to just go and “find a job.” Men who have never known anything other than making steel, just like there fathers and grandfathers before them, expected to go out and just “find a job.”

Some men have lost more than just their jobs. Their pride and self-confidence has been shattered.. Some move on quickly and find the best way forward is not thinking about what has happened – nothing will change that. Others hanker after the good old days where the banter was good, the job hot and dirty and the money a bonus. Paul would go back and work there in a heartbeat. He loved the place.

My husband had to sign on for the first time in his life. Walking in to the job centre he felt ashamed. He was there through no fault of his own. The government promised financial help, training to get the ex-steelworker's back into employment as soon as possible. Paul explored various avenues for training but nothing came to fruition. It was akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack. There was no system, no figurehead to contact. It was a mess. After a few weeks of attempting to access courses Paul gave up. Nobody knew where this so called £80m was or what it could be used for. Through a friends husband Paul obtained employment after eight weeks of unemployment. He now works in Sunderland for half the money he was earning in Redcar. However it's a job and God knows he needed a job. He’s one of the lucky ones. From D-shift there are only three or four who are actually working again. The statistics that show up in the press are meaningless nonsense from, where I am sitting anyway.

The sense of loss that Paul feels is still enormous. He's still raw with emotion that he has lost the best job he ever had. Yes the financial impact has been difficult to absorb but the emotional impact can not be measured. The workers had no time to come to terms with what was happening, no time for goodbyes or one last supper in the cabin. Their security was pulled from under them in days. Who is to blame for this?

The company, SSI, ran itself in to the ground financially and kept it quiet. It even withheld their employees pension payments to try and recoup some of its financial losses! The government knew about its failings but did not step in when it should have. Once the business was liquidated the employees lost all rights to their company redundancies and notice pay. The government did provide statutory redundancies to all employees – this amounted to less than one month's pay. Some men had worked there thirty years and should have been entitled to a handsome sum – they will never receive that now. As soon as the liquidators came in Mr Win, SSI owner fled to his home country of Thailand. He has never answered any questions about the failings of his company but, according to press reports, has a rather high standard of living in Asia.

In simple terms the government could have helped. It didn't. It spouted some rubbish about EU constraints that prevented it from doing so. Funny how governments in other EU countries have stepped in and supported their steel industries in times of need. To wine and dine the Chinese president during the weeks after the closure was, how can I say it, a kick in the teeth. The Chinese have contributed massively to the downturn in fortunes of the steel industry. They produce so much cheap, rubbish steel the market is awash with it and we cannot compete with its prices. However, Mr Cameron is happy doing business with a president whose country has ran our steel industry into the ground. The priorities of our government do not lie with it’s own people, it's own traditions. Money is all that matters. Money for the rich. Not money for honest, hardworking men – they are dispensable.

I'm a proud northerner. I live in the shadows of a city that was built on hard-work, pride and passion. That's all gone and what happened here has now happened to my husband and to another region in the North East. Families have now been unemployed for generations due to industries been left to die. It might sound controversial or even stupid, but Northern men were bred for hard-work. They were bred to do the dirty, grimy jobs. To work long hours and spend their hard earned money having a few pints in the colliery taverns on a Friday night. They had generations before them to look up to and respect. They earned an honest living and contributed to society, to the city, to the country. Their exports traveled across the world. The pride of our city is all but gone.

How do we guide young people, who decades ago would have followed in the family footsteps, in to new gainful employment? Call centres? Leisure industry? Yes, Sunderland has regenerated in certain areas but are these the types of jobs our young men want and need? Where is the hands on work, the production and manufacturing? The means of production has gone and with it the means to a future for so many. For some alcohol and drugs fill vacant days, vacant lives that once upon a time would have had a purpose.

Redcar will suffer the same as Sunderland and all the other places in the North East that have lost their industries. Their young people will suffer – they will have no direction, no hope. What is going to replace the steelworks? The enormous, now derelict site. Is it earmarked for fracking? Was this the government’s plan all along? Only time will tell. The day the coke ovens extinguished was the day Teeside’s rich industrial vein fatally bled. Steel making is no more. It is extinct.

We are Northern. We are proud. We are forgotten.