OPINION Rachel Trezise

NWR Issue r18

The Last Bastion

Sam Coombes, cast member and steelworker; image by John Pountney/Elfen

Tata Steel announced in January last year that over a thousand steelworkers’ jobs were to go, 750 of them in Port Talbot. Then in March the same year the company put its entire loss-making UK business up for sale. Residents warned repeatedly on the evening news that Port Talbot would become a ghost town. Newspapers reported the closure could trigger twenty years of unemployment for the local economy. The closure would affect around 15,000 jobs in total.The news was devastating for me in the Rhondda valley too. The blow felt personal. Maybe because I knew what lay in wait for Port Talbot: Mardy colliery, the last coal mine in the Rhondda, closed in 1990 and nothing has replaced the jobs lost that day in the twenty-seven years that have passed.

Or maybe it was because my father who grew up on the Sandfields Estate in Port Talbot had worked at the steelworks, albeit for a brief time in the early 1980s, along with my grandfather and two uncles. But my father had worked in lots of places. He’s listed on my birth certificate as a coalminer and when he left when I was four he was a supervisor in a Christmas decorations factory. Maybe it was that variety of jobs that I was mourning; a time when workers could leave one job and start another the next day. Or maybe everyone in Wales felt the same sort of emotional attachment to Port Talbot steelworks as I do. It is the last bastion in a rich history of heavy industry in this part of the world and is renowned the world over. I clearly remember reading about the deaths of three steelworkers in the New York Times in November 2001. I was in the city, the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities unfolding around me, and the newspaper article treated the Port Talbot men with the same reverence as New York’s own firefighters: as something akin to heroes.

When my father worked at the plant, his employer, the British Steel Corporation, employed 14,000 people in Port Talbot. It was the largest workplace in Wales despite having recently lost 6000 workers to the implementation of the slimline formula designed to make labour savings. The stories he told about it at home were of a searing, hazard-and-smoke-filled superstructure overflowing with strapping, sweat-drenched men. I suppose that’s what I expected to see when I first visited the plant in August last year during a week of research in Port Talbot at the outset of the project. But of course that isn’t what I saw. The site is still vast; over a mile long, and clearly visible for miles around, but there are only 6300 workers employed in Wales by Tata today. Much of the work once done by hand has been automated or digitised. Although there are areas of danger still, a visitor is more likely to see a steelworker sitting at a computer console than near a naked flame. The only workers I saw that day was the security man on the gate, the union representative who showed me around those eerily deserted-looking stockyards, and, in the distance, a man operating one of the grabbers on the dock, preparing to unload an incoming shipment from China.

There were more surprises to come. When I began working with National Theatre Wales and Common Wealth Theatre the previous year our focus was on finding the working-class leaders of today to populate our story. The Save Our Steel campaign, driven by union representatives, had responded quickly to the threat of the plant’s closure, drawing media attention to the plight of the town and, if some claims are to be believed, eventually brought the government to the table to negotiate a stake in a rescue plan.

Perhaps naively, I expected everyone we spoke to in the works to be an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign and by extension a supporter of trade unions. Rather, there were people of all kinds of political persuasions. Many of the workers in fact were much more interested in retiring on time and with their British Steel pensions intact, or getting out of Europe than defending solidarity or workers rights.

It was clear when the time came to approach the script that the traditional concept of south Walian heavy industry, heavily unionised and brimming with big-hearted, community-spirited, Labour-voting skilled manual workers was gone. The Port Talbot steelworks of my father’s time was gone. This workforce was truly the final vestige of that bygone world now facing the final curtain. The workers felt threatened. The politics were complex and the issues were ongoing. Somehow the script would need to reflect all of this to tell the story of the Port Talbot that the current workforce recognises.

We kept talking to the steelworkers and union representatives throughout the most turbulent year in the plant’s history. Following the result of the EU referendum, production increased and Tata put the sale of the site on hold. Port Talbot seemed to exist in a state of limbo throughout the autumn, eagerly awaiting news from the Tata boardroom, the void steadily filling with anxiety-fuelled hearsay. Eventually in early December Tata unveiled a deal; a five-year commitment to the blast furnaces and a ten year £1bn investment plan. The stumbling block; the crux perhaps, was that workers would need to agree to cuts to their British Steel pensions. The fact that the workers voted to accept reforms to the pension scheme earlier this year was yet another surprise, flying in the face of much of what the workers had previously told us about the importance of their pension pots. It was at the least an epic compromise on their part, but also a fitting end to the script and our year long span of research in the town. Despite everything, the blast furnaces are still standing. The Port Talbot steelworks and its employees are still there. Only time will tell if Tata Steel keeps its promises to them.

Rachel Trezise’s We’re Still Here, produced by National Theatre Wales & Common Wealth, will be performed between 15 and 30 September at the Byass Works, Port Talbot. Tickets and Information


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