From Socialist Worker, 2 February 1980.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, Bookmarks, London 1993, pp.186-7.
Transcribed & marked up by marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Paul Foot reports from the strike committee in Rotherham
‘BEFORE THE strike, when you came in here, you felt you were coming to see God. Now the place belongs to all of us.’
Bob Bartholomew, crane driver at the Templeborough steel plant, Rotherham, was talking at the Rotherham headquarters of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, the steelworkers’ union.
You could hardly hear him above the hubbub of voices. Voices organising; voices arguing; voices telling the story of yesterday’s picket.
The prim building with its thick carpets was built for tidy and genteel officials with tidy and genteel routines. It has suddenly become the central powerhouse of the steel strike. As with the miners’ strike exactly eight years ago, the motivating power behind the action has shifted to South Yorkshire.
John Ratcliffe, a branch secretary and strike committee member, spelt out the details. There are 50 ‘cells’ each of 50 steelworkers, each of them based on a steel plant or a stockholder in the Rotherham area.
These cells mount pickets 24 hours a day. They also provide volunteers for the flying pickets. John says that the strike organisers have the names of 7,000 workers, all of whom can be mobilised at very short notice indeed.
The very energy of the strike activity from the Rotherham centre has brought workers into the action.
‘We forgot about the women workers,’ says John. ‘We hadn’t allocated them for any action. But yesterday they were in here demanding to know why they weren’t in the cells, and flooding out onto the pickets with the others.’
As the plants and stockholders shut down in Rotherham and the surrounding towns, so the pickets began to move further afield. News came in of possible steel movements into the ports.
Pickets visited Hull where the dockers, without even asking their union leaders, have stopped moving anything which could even remotely be used by the steel industry. The same has happened at Grimsby, Immingham and Boston.
Last week the steelworkers started to move off for long stays in places they had hardly ever heard of: the smaller ports of East Anglia and Kent.
John said that by last weekend there were South Yorkshire steel pickets guarding every port in Kent.
The money and accommodation for that huge operation had been supplied without a moment’s hesitation by the Kent miners. The miners have contacted dockers and other transport workers. The information is accurate and it moves fast.
And the steel, or most of it anyway, is stopped.
Before their very eyes the workers feel themselves changing. ‘What do we talk about in the plant?’ asks Tom Bartholomew. ‘Every day it’s the same: sex, booze and sport. On the picket line, and in the cars and vans, it’s all different. People start talking about the government, about the Labour Party, about the union; about how we’re going to change the world.
‘You see blokes on the picket line you’d never have dreamed would be there. And often they’re the ones who have the best ideas about what to do next.
‘I suppose most of the blokes still feel that this is just part of ordinary life. But I must admit for me it’s like living history. I feel that one day I’ll be telling those children’s children what it was like being in the Great Steel Strike of 1980.’
By activating almost the whole rank and file in the area, by holding regular weekly mass branch meetings to report on and supplement all the picketing activity, the organisers have taken away from the Tories their one hope for outright victory over the steelworkers: an apathetic and uninformed rank and file.
If only it were so all through the industry! The South Yorkshire men know that it is not. They can see how in other areas, even in Scunthorpe which is only a few miles away, the strike is still held firmly by the old leadership, with picketing limited and the rank and file told to stay at home and watch the telly until they are told to go back to work.
A great tussle is already joined between the powerhouses at places like Rotherham and Stocksbridge and the slow-witted pessimism in many other steel areas.
Last updated on 20.12.2004