Tata Steel UK begins legal action against Unite strike, fears Port Talbot plant closure by July

Port Talbot plant of Tata Steel UK
The Port Talbot plant of Tata Steel UK. Screenshot courtesy: YouTube/Tata Steel UK

Tata Steel UK today said that it was being forced to commence legal action to challenge the validity of a steelworkers’ union strike ballot. The company warned that its blast furnaces at Port Talbot may have to pause operations amid the industrial action.

The steel major, whose parent company is headquartered in India, had originally planned to shut down one of the blast furnaces by the end of June 2024 and the second one by September 2024. However, Unite the Union’s proposed strike from July 8 could result in the closure being forced earlier.

On March 1 this year, Unite had begun “formal industrial action proceedings over Tata’s plans to close its Port Talbot blast furnaces and shed 2,800 jobs”.

“Following the announcement by the Unite Union to unilaterally call strike action from July 8, Tata Steel is unfortunately forced to commence legal action to challenge the validity of Unite’s ballot,” said a Tata Steel spokesperson.

“In the coming days, if we cannot be certain that we are able to continue to safely and stably operate our assets through the period of strike action, we will not have any choice but to pause or stop heavy end operations (including both blast furnaces) on the Port Talbot site,” said the company statement.

“That is not a decision we would take lightly, and we recognise that it would prove extremely costly and disruptive throughout the supply chain, but the safety of people on or around our sites will always take priority over everything else,” the spokesperson said.

Tata Steel UK again called for Unite to withdraw its industrial action and join the other unions — Community and GMB — in giving consideration to the company’s proposed Memorandum of Understanding, which it said put forward a wide-ranging proposal, including “generous employee support packages, training, and skills development”.

“We understand the impact [that] our restructuring will have on many employees and contractors, but we remain committed to a just transition and — pending a government-backed grant funding agreement — to the 1.25 billion pounds investment in low-CO2 steelmaking, which will ensure Tata Steel has a long and sustainable future in the UK,” added the company spokesperson.

On September 15, 2023, Tata Steel and the UK Government came to an agreement on “a sustainable future for steelmaking in Port Talbot”.

A government statement said: “The UK Government and Tata Steel have today (15 September) agreed on a proposed joint investment package which will secure a sustainable future for steelmaking in Port Talbot, modernise production of greener steel and protect skilled jobs, subject to consultation and regulatory approvals.

“Tata Steel is expected to invest £1.25 billion, including a UK Government grant worth up to £500 million — one of the largest government support packages in history — in a new Electric Arc Furnace for greener steel production at Port Talbot, which is currently the UK’s largest single carbon emitter.”

According to this statement: “This [modernisation] would replace the existing coal-powered blast furnaces — which are nearing the end of their effective life — and reduce the UK’s entire carbon emissions by around 1.5 per cent as a result.”

It said: “Tata Steel UK employs over 8,000 people, including at Port Talbot, which would otherwise be under serious threat without substantial investment to guarantee its future. Tata Steel also supports around 12,500 further jobs in the upstream supply chain.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham claimed that the union was “fighting for the future of the steel industry” and wanted things deferred until after the United Kingdom general election on July 4.

Unite claimed to have secured “serious investment” from the Opposition Labour Party, which is leading the pre-election surveys.

“Tata putting out a statement to shut or pause its blast furnaces three months earlier than they intended to is the latest in a long line of threats that won’t deter us. The Unite campaign is not about selling jobs, it’s about securing the long-term future of steelmaking in this country for thousands of workers in Port Talbot and South Wales,” said Graham.

—With inputs from CtoI News Desk