How steelworker communities cope with restructuring

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Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Chris McLachlan is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC). Chris’s research explores the consequences of deindustrialisation and organisational restructuring for affected workers and communities, along with the associated industrial relations processes.

Worker holding a hard hat

As British Steel in Scunthorpe fell into insolvency on 23 May 2019, the media cycle was dominated by the potential impact of plant closure on steelworkers and their local communities. The prospect of 5,000 job losses, with an additional 20,000 affected down the supply chain, is devastating news. The steel crisis in 2015-16 also represents a more recent memory for steelworkers and steel communities, where approximately 5,500 redundancies were announced including the closure of the Sahaviriya Steel Industriesplant in Teesside.

The news from Scunthorpe is, however, just another chapter in a long history of decline in the UK steel industry. Historic and contemporary experiences of decline, and wider processes of deindustrialisation, have become a normal feature of the steelworker identity. Our research highlights the ways in which steelworkers have internalised the impact of restructuring. We view internalisation as the process by which an external activity or event is experienced by an individual and subsequently becomes an internal, normal aspect of their behaviour. Through a case study of restructuring at a UK steel plant, we identify how collective memories of industrial restructuring are passed through the steelworker occupational community and become an internalised feature of steelworker identity. This then acts as a coping strategy for steelworkers responding to workplace change. Our findings are important in understanding how workers draw upon different support mechanisms in order to cope with the often negative effects of industrial restructuring.

Steelworker occupational communities typically act as a mechanism for shared values, norms, practices and attitudes among workers. These are often defined by shared experiences of:

  • Manual or arduous labour
  • Solidarity between colleagues
  • Traditions of trade unionism and knowledge of a technical skill or profession.

Another important factor in understanding steelworker occupational communities is the interplay between industry and geography. Steelworks are typically the dominant employer in a local region, bolstering the sense of community as experiences of working life permeate both work and non-work spheres. Steelworkers, and by extension those in the local community, have a strong material and emotional attachment to the steelworks. Although a distinction is typically drawn between the experiences of ‘blue collar’ (a person who performs manual labour) and ‘white collar’ (a person who holds a clerical role) workers, our research revealed a common bond between different types of workers during times of restructuring. That is, different types of workers had access to the steelworker occupational community and the collective memories that formed it. Such a bond between workers depicted a ‘community of fate’ where a sense of collectivism emerged through the recognition of a common ‘danger’, such as with the onset of restructuring.

Our analysis highlighted three key experiences that show how the internalisation of restructuring within the steelworker identity occurred:

1. The UK steel industry has witnessed an historical employment decline

Restructuring has been a constant feature of the UK steel industry since the 1980s. Restructuring has typically been justified by managers as the natural response to precarious economic climates caused by deindustrialisation and globalisation. The historical precedence of restructuring in the UK steel industry has led to mass reduction in employment in this industry. Workers recognised and accepted the influence of deindustrialisation and globalisation in causing repeated restructuring. Workers’ immediate experiences of redundancy were not isolated incidents, but part of a set of historical restructuring processes experienced by the wider occupational community. Because restructuring and industrial decline was so prevalent in the UK steel industry, workers could draw upon such previous experiences to help make sense of their own redundancy.

The UK steel industry: Government response to the crisis

2. The role of the trade unions within the occupational community

Trade unions had historically cooperated with management when bargaining over restructuring, aiming to avoid compulsory redundancies through internal redeployment and generous voluntary redundancy packages. Due to the solidarity and positive relationship between union officials and steelworkers, there was a shared empathy around the experience of restructuring. Unions are also perceived as the safeguards of workers’ interests against managerial prerogative. Workers observed the way unions appeared to accept the inevitability of restructuring and did not resist redundancies by cooperating with management through historical bargaining processes. The way unions responded to restructuring further normalised the experience within the occupational community.

3. A mixture of personal and shared experiences amongst the workforce

For many, the frequent episodes of restructuring meant workers often had direct, prior experience of its impact. Those who had been through restructuring previously, and were redeployed internally, had developed a familiarity with its effects and used those experiences to help them cope with their immediate redundancy situation. Because of this, workers developed a sense of resilience in coping with restructuring. Despite restructuring being a personal experience, individual accounts were also reinforced by experiences of other workers in the wider occupational community. Workers often recounted stories from friends, family and colleagues, pointing to the importance of shared experiences of restructuring. Shared experiences of restructuring were passed throughout the occupational community, allowing workers to draw upon them as a collective resource to cope with their own redundancy situation. The close-knit community was evident in both work and non-work spheres too, as the industrial and geographical dynamics of the steelworks meant experiences of restructuring permeated the local region. For instance, interactions at social events outside the workplace provided an opportunity for experiences of restructuring to be discussed and understood, reflecting the solidarity of the occupational community.

A range of workplace memories contributed to the internalising of restructuring amongst steelworkers. The occupational community acts as a mechanism through which experiences of restructuring are transmitted throughout the workforce. The recollection of past experiences granted workers with a collective memory of workplace change, which was able to be mobilised in the present. An important finding from our research was also the ‘community of fate’ that emerged around restructuring involving different types of workers, as common bond was evident between both blue and white collar workers when faced with restructuring. This suggests that occupational communities may also emerge around the historical resources and experiences of industrial change, such as with industrial restructuring. These findings are important in understanding how workers draw upon different support mechanisms in order to cope with the often negative effects of industrial restructuring.

In addition, our research points to the need for further work on the effects of deindustrialisation not only for the UK steel industry but also in traditional manufacturing communities affected by such processes. In particular, our ongoing research into the UK steel industry aims to illuminate how experiences of restructuring, and the memory of industrial change, should not be consigned to history but endure in the present day.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.